Ben Coley has two strong fancies for the Nedbank Golf Challenge, including last-time-out winner Sergio Garcia.
By rights, the penultimate event of the European Tour season should be an important signpost on the Race To Dubai, but for a variety of reasons there’s nobody in this week’s field who can catch the front-running Francesco Molinari at next week’s denouement and as a consequence, the Italian is just about home and hosed.
Such is Molinari’s lead that he didn’t feel the need to play in Turkey last week nor at Sun City this, and Tommy Fleetwood has all but given up pursuit of his Ryder Cup team-mate. He can still just about do it with victory in the gulf but would need help and while some will wonder why he’s not therefore in South Africa for the Nedbank Golf Challenge, how many of us would say our careers are more important than our families?
Justin Rose has danced just about every dance this year and been rewarded with two brief spells at world number one, a position which will return to Brooks Koepka by default at the conclusion of this week’s events. Rose would’ve needed a maths whizz and a crystal ball to forecast this scenario and while he was born in South Africa, truth be told it’s no surprise he’s chosen not to return, even after the realisation that he won’t be top for long had dawned.
Clearly, the European Tour need to re-think the schedule and the scoring system if they’re to create a finale as exciting as that which the PGA Tour have managed. It’s asking much – in fact it’s asking too much – for everyone to go from China to Turkey to South Africa to Dubai in four straight weeks, especially in a Ryder Cup year, and that means the battle for season-long honours is fragmented.
Last year there was great drama in Fleetwood pipping Rose to the Race To Dubai and it made for a wonderful subplot to the victory of Jon Rahm, but that was fortunate: had Rose not won twice in a fortnight, Fleetwood would’ve been able to perform a lap of honour as Molinari will this time. Does any of it really matter? Perhaps not to me or to you, but to sponsors and those on the committee it absolutely should. Change may well be afoot.
Somewhat ironically, the Nedbank Golf Challenge has this year managed to attract a couple of genuine golfing superstars in Rory McIlroy and Sergio Garcia and all analysis should start with splitting the two, a task which is not straightforward.
On the one hand, McIlroy is a better player at his best and has enough incentive to perform over the next fortnight, and 8/1 looks a meaty price given the opposition. Put McIlroy in a European Tour event just about anywhere and he’ll win about one in eight; take away many of the year’s standout players, head to a long, soft, par 72 where driving has always been key and split the field in half? He’ll win more than that.
But numbers alone rarely make for a bet in this nuanced sport and McIlroy’s abject failure to raise a leg in China last time is too big a concern to ignore. For all that he’s a player who can lose interest, typically there’s a flourish somewhere yet this time there was nothing, 54th place his worst performance in the WGC-HSBC Champions by a distance.
He’s bounced back before but having withdrawn on his sole visit to this course almost a decade ago, taking single-figure prices doesn’t appeal. Sun City is a tough place to find your game and while an opening 65 and an all-the-way success wouldn’t surprise me, there’s a greater chance that he struggles to get going and grows frustrated at this penal golf course where players are in the lap of the wind gods throughout.
As such, the eye is drawn to Garcia and while rarely would he earn the vote ahead of McIlroy at vaguely similar prices, he very much looks like the man they all have to beat.
Last time out, buoyed by a history-making Ryder Cup performance, Garcia dominated the Andalucia Masters to win by four shots over just 54 holes. The second-round 64 he produced at Valderrama was a thing of beauty and it’s fair to reason that had they managed all 72 holes, the margin of superiority would’ve been greater still.
Clearly, Garcia is at his most reliable on home soil and particularly at Valderrama, but his record here at Sun City isn’t far off. In nine visits, he’s won twice and those wins came in play-offs against two genuine South African behemoths in Ernie Els and Retief Goosen.
On his last visit five years ago, Garcia finished second after a costly 73 on Friday and that came courtesy of an outstanding performance off the tee, always important at a course where the likes of Lee Westwood and Henrik Stenson have shone in the past.
Fairways and greens are exceptionally hard to hit here, just as they are at Valderrama, and it’s those who prove up to the challenge who dominate leaderboards. Over the last five years, the worst any champion has ranked for greens hit is third and since missing the cut at the PGA Championship, Garcia’s GIR rankings read 4-7-4, all in fields twice the size of this one.
Over the course of his career, Garcia has won back-to-back titles on two occasions and in total, his top-five return on his next start after lifting a piece of silverware is around the 40 per cent mark, a return which indicates that this emotional character is more than capable of riding the highs of victory.
When he last won this title his end-of-season form read 1-4-1-5 and if you go back further to 2001, when he ended his campaign with a final-round 63 before beating Els in a play-off here, he’d gone 7-5-1-MC-2-3 following the final major of the season.
That’s all dated, of course, but nothing much has changed with Garcia. He swings it the same, his strengths are the same, and there’s no reason he can’t prove equally well suited to a golf course which is made for him.
Playing at altitude is no problem for a player who has a home in the Swiss Alps and at 10/1, more than twice the price he was to beat a bigger albeit weaker field last time, he’s a bet.
I mention the Swiss Alps because they seem relevant. Tournaments at altitude are fairly rare on the European Tour – most of them take place in South Africa, in fact – but the European Masters is the exception. It may be no coincidence that as well as Garcia, the likes of Danny Willett, Thomas Bjorn and Alex Noren have won both events.
That’s three of the last five winners who’ve lifted trophies at both Crans and Sun City and while the obvious answer is therefore two-time Crans champion Matt Fitzpatrick, it’s hard to shake the memory of his blowout in China last time and it’ll be some effort is the Englishman can bounce back from shooting 80 twice in three days.
Instead, it’s worth backing the man he pipped in a Swiss play-off back in September, Lucas Bjerregaard.
The Dane has really blossomed this year, victory in the Dunhill Links the best performance of his career and made all the more impressive by the manner in which he held firm against a couple of Europe’s finest. That means it’s two wins in his last 32 starts and it’s not unreasonable to expect him to maintain that sort of strike-rate now the door has been forced open.
Bjerregaard was in fine form prior to winning, a fact highlighted by that unfortunate defeat in Switzerland, and he’s been in fine form since. Ninth place one week after the Dunhill Links at a cold, difficult British Masters was a mighty effort and while he was extremely disappointing in China on his next start, unlike Fitzpatrick we’ve had the opportunity to see him put that right in Turkey last week.
Nobody hit more greens than Bjerregaard, who was just a little off with the putter for the first two days before a 66-67 weekend, and that performance can be upgraded further given that he’d previously struggled at the course.
Lucas Bjerregaard is fancied to go well in South Africa
Here at Sun City, he’s twice finished mid-pack and it’s possible he might’ve contended but for some horror shows on the greens. So far in two visits he’s ranked first and third for total driving, both times hitting plenty of fairways to go with that awesome power of his, and he’s been third and seventh for overall ball-striking.
On debut he gobbled up the par-fives but couldn’t make enough birdies elsewhere, while last year he made too many mistakes. Again, though, we need context: his end-of-season form, after winning in Portugal, read MC-MC-48-37-58 and his best effort came here. As for 2016, he’d managed just one top-10 finish all year and that was in May – this time he’s managed 10 already.
When Branden Grace defied an outward 42 on Friday here last year, after which he was virtually flawless, he explained that he was a grinder, that patience is key at such a long, difficult course at the end of a taxing season. Bjerregaard is no Grace, but he gave himself full marks for staying patient last week in Turkey and concluded: “This week, a lot of positives I can bring with me to South Africa and Dubai.”
At 51st in the Official World Golf Rankings, a career high, Bjerregaard is one more big performance from joining that all-important top-50 and unlocking the key to all the biggest and best events in the sport. There’s every chance he manages it here, particularly with the course playing somewhat soft and therefore into the hands of this end-of-year beast.
Fitzpatrick would’ve been in the staking plan but for his performance in China, one which just doesn’t appear to have been factored into his price. He’s building an impressive record at this course and it’s one which takes a little knowing, with debutants typically finding the learning curve a little too steep.
Grace is hitting greens but not scoring and looks short enough on balance and while Shane Lowry and Lee Westwood love this test, neither wins enough to justify the odds quoted. More tempting than both, therefore, was Martin Kaymer, who was neat and tidy in Turkey, ought to be favoured by more demanding conditions and is a past champion at the course, while Kiradech Aphibarnrat wasn’t far off doing enough last week to earn a reprieve.
But with two strong fancies already on board, I’ll conclude the outright staking plan with a real flyer on Shubhankar Sharma.
The Indian is one-from-one in South Africa having dominated the Joburg Open late last year and has since enhanced the belief that playing at altitude may suit, having contended for the high-class WGC-Mexico Championship in the spring.
Sharma was in contention again a month ago at the CIMB Classic, and it’s perhaps significant that his return to form there coincided with a return to Malaysia, where he won his second European Tour title back in February.
Coming back to South Africa might just bring about a similar surge and we’re not talking about a player in hopeless form – he was 10th four starts ago, shot a second-round 64 the following week and, while poor in China, closed with a round of 67 in Turkey on Sunday.
How well he’ll take to the challenge of Sun City is not easy to predict, but this youngster has a fantastic attitude and bundles of talent and there are many players far shorter in the market who not only lack his potential, but have achieved far less.
Finally, keep something back for a speculative play on Darren Fichardt to be the pick of the home contingent at 20/1.
Second only to Grace last year, the 43-year-old boasts an enviable record at this course and is among those who help strengthen the correlation with Crans, where he’s been inside the top 10 in each of the last two renewals of the European Masters.
Indeed his build-up to the Nedbank has been very similar to last year’s, if a little stronger this time around after 23rd place in a good field in Turkey where he finished bogey-bogey but otherwise played nicely throughout.
Crucially, there are serious doubts as to the state of Charl Schwartzel’s game, Dylan Frittelli has played here once in over a decade and didn’t pull up any trees then, while Grace has been well below his best even if there’s obviously a good chance he finds his feet now on home soil. I wouldn’t want to talk down his chances as such, but nor am I afraid to take him on.
Louis Oosthuizen’s play has been solid all year but he’s not seen the effort through often enough, Brandon Stone’s form at this course is horrible, George Coetzee is out of sorts and Dean Burmester’s game may lack the required subtlety even if rain has made this a bombers’ paradise.
Erik van Rooyen is a threat but again lacks course experience and that leaves Thomas Aiken and Trevor Immelman, neither of who are to be especially feared. The latter does have a fantastic record in the event and is genuinely tempting as the 25/1 rag, but Fichardt is the better player these days and looks overpriced.
Posted at 2000 GMT on 05/11/18.