The European Tour golf season is entering its final throes for 2017. The Finals Series, or the ‘Race to Dubai’ as it is figuratively known, is one event down and now there are just two tournaments left for the players to bank the bonus for finishing inside the top-ten of the standings.
Of course, the numero uno trousers a bigger slice of the pie than anyone else, and this year’s Race to Dubai winner will collect the not unsubstantial figure of $1,250,000. That should help to focus the mind in South Africa this week!
By all accounts, Tommy Fleetwood was coasting towards the top prize after a consistently outstanding year, but matters have taken a rather sharp twist of late with Justin Rose winning the last two tournaments: the WGC HSBC Champions event and the Turkish Airlines Open last week.
Rose had already committed to other tournaments and so will not play this week’s contest, the Nedbank Golf Challenge, which means that Fleetwood has the perfect opportunity to reinstate himself at the top of the listings. And given that this Gary Player Country Club course requires exceptional ball-striking to win, the Englishman might just fancy the job.
Another factor in Fleetwood’s favour is the course length: a whopping stretch of some 7,831 yards awaits the players, and so his extra power off the tee will certainly come in handy.
But this Gary Player course requires more than just brute strength. The Kikuyu grass native to South Africa is thicker and grainier than grasses found in the UK or much of Europe, and so keeping the ball in the fairway is essential.
It’s a proper test then, and when you look at the most recent winners here – the prolific Alex Noren, the outstanding Marc Leishman, the evergreen Thomas Bjorn and major champions Martin Kaymer and Danny Willett – we can see that the cream typically rises to the top.
So who are the players to watch this week?
The Market Leaders
An amazing stat: there hasn’t been a South African winner of the Nedbank Challenge in a decade, and so a trio towards the head of the market – Charl Schwartzel, Branden Grace and Louis Oosthuizen – can be swerved.
Tyrrell Hatton is the favourite, and given his excellent form of late you can see why. But he’s had a packed schedule – flying from China to Turkey to South Africa – and that will eventually take its toll. At odds of 12/1, we’re happy enough to take a chance that Hatton’s fine run may come to an end.
Somebody that hasn’t been playing all that well of late is the defending champion, Alex Noren, while Ross Fisher doesn’t win particularly often and Matt Fitzpatrick may just lack a bit of length to really contest at Gary Player CC.
For our money, the two to watch are Fleetwood (20/1) and Francesco Molinari (20/1). Both hit long and straight off the tee, and both have a bit of magic about their approach play. As ever, putting could be an issue – especially in Fleetwood’s case – but in terms of raw ability and course suitability this is the pair to watch.
The foundation of a good run at the Gary Player is a bit of length off the tee, while a decent run of current form always helps when conditions are tricky.
With that in mind, it might be worth taking a chance on Julian Suri (50/1) and Dylan Frittelli (55/1) this week. They both finished inside the top-ten at the Turkish Open, with Suri compiling back-to-back eighth place finishes now and Frittelli having to settle for second place after a fine weekend in Turkey.
There will be interest in Jeunghun Wang (90/1), a three-time European Tour winner who led this event at the 54-hole stage last year, but our final few quid will be going on Kiradech Aphibarnrat (33/1), a powerful ball-striker who has either led or co-led at some stage in four of the last five tournaments! He was fifth on debut here as well, and his excellent form should hold on a course where he can open up his shoulders and let fly.