Jbe good to go for glory
Ben Coley previews the Africa Open and fancies Jbe Kruger and Allan Versfeld to lead the home challenge.
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East London Golf Club is the venue for this week's Africa Open, an event which provides some lesser lights of both the European and Sunshine Tours with a fine opportunity to take a step up in their careers.
Since this event became co-sanctioned by both tours in 2010, Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel haven't allowed anyone new to emerge on top.
Each time their closest pursuers were seeking their first European Tour success and with both choosing to fly to the States ahead of bigger prizes, it would come as little surprise were we to crown a brand new champion on Sunday.
The course itself is rare in that it plays to a par of 73, and with scores of 27-, 16- and 20-under having been required to win it's clear that players will need to hit plenty of greens and convert plenty of birdie opportunities if they're to contend.
In the absence not only of Schwartzel and Oosthuizen but of Branden Grace, George Coetzee and last week's facile winner Richard Sterne too, the man most likely to carry the torch for the home brigade is worthy favourite Thomas Aiken.
He was sixth last week in an event which saw just three non-South African players make the top 10, and with 31 of the 51 co-sanctioned events having been won by a native it should pay to focus on those who will have the backing of the local crowds.
However, at 10/1 I can't pull the trigger. I've no doubt that he's a better player than just about anyone else in the field, including those closest to him in the market, but Aiken for me perhaps doesn't take the game as seriously as some and isn't one to back as favourite.
Instead, the one I like most at the prices is a man who most definitely does take the game seriously, Jbe Kruger.
With his popped collar, homemade swing and fiery personality, Jbe isn't for everyone, but I really admire his tenacity, which has helped him produce some excellent results from an idiosyncratic action.
Best of those was at around this time last year, when he battled to victory in the low-key Avantha Masters against a field of similar quality. Perhaps unsurprisingly, that took a lot out of Jbe who spent most of the rest of 2012 searching for his swing.
However, having missed 12 cuts in 26 starts after that success in India he started to find some consistency towards the end of the season, and hasn't missed another cut since November.
It's therefore no surprise that he's relishing a return to East London, where he was 21st when still in the early stages of his career back in 2008, third two years later and eighth in 2011.
"Winning in Europe definitely gave me a confidence boost, and I'll bring that confidence to East London," said Kruger in a recent interview with SuperSport.
"I've gained a lot of experience in Europe, learned some patience and matured a bit and I believe that will help me immensely this year.
"I've played well at East London in the past, but I've never converted it into a victory. Hopefully, things will turn out differently this time."
Key to his success at the course has been ball-striking - in 2010, he ranked first for greens in regulation while a year later only one man in the field hit more - and if Kruger can find that sort of tee-to-green consistency again I fancy he's set to contend having finished the Joburg Open with his best round of the week.
Certainly, I rate him better value that those ahead of him in the betting and am more than happy to take 25/1.
If I had to take one ahead of Kruger it'd be Garth Mulroy, who insists that some relatively modest results at East London don't reflect the course's suitability. He's playing well at the moment, with his results on an upwards trajectory, and has won a similar event to this in the Alfred Dunhill Championship.
Mulroy makes more appeal than Jaco Van Zyl, who has a fine record at East London but just doesn't quite do enough in contention for my liking. Prolific on the Sunshine Tour, he has to show he has what it takes in this type of event before I can take 14/1.
Instead, second on my list is Allan Versfeld, who might prove to be every bit as talented as those at the head of the market, yet can be backed at five times the price.
The 23-year-old was named the Sunshine Tour's Rookie of the Year in 2011 and built on that by landing his first professional title last July.
Only Branden Grace stopped him adding to that title at Fancourt and finishes of 17th and 21st in late-season, co-sanctioned events suggested that he might be ready to continue his upward curve in 2013.
Last week, Versfeld made his first start of the calendar year and finished 34th. It could and should have been better, as he was only a shot worse than third-placed Ricardo Santos on the East Course but failed to take advantage of the easier West Course on Friday.
Even so, it was a solid start to the season and should set him up nicely for a return to East London, where he finished 41st on his first try as a professional last year.
Dig a little deeper and you'll see that East London is very much a course which holds positive memories for Versfeld, as he lost out in the final of the SA Amateur Championship to Laurie Canter here in 2010 having won each of his previous five matches without needing to go down the 18th.
That bit of form combined with a solid effort a year ago, his improvement since and an eye-catching return to competitive action in Joburg make him stand out at 80/1 with sportingbet, who pay six places this week.
I have to confess that outside of these two I found it tricky. Keith Horne looks good to play well without winning while Tommy Fleetwood could easily feature after a promising effort here last year, it's just he's now 25/1 and that's about right.
However, after deliberation I'm going to side with Trevor Fisher Jnr at 33/1 with sportingbet.
Fisher Jnr is a supremely talented player who, at 33 years of age, should be on the European Tour by now. That he isn't underlines the fact that he's found the step up in grade from the Sunshine Tour too much.
However, there's no denying how able this eight-time winner is and having played superbly for three rounds last week it's just a question of how well he responds to stalling on Sunday.
It seems he's responded well mentally.
"I've been knocking for a long while now, but I finally believe that I can win a European Tour title," he told reporters on Tuesday.
"I wasn't hitting it that well on Sunday, but I kept myself in contention. It's a big thing to realise that even when your game isn't at its best, you still have the goods to compete at the top level.
"The experience has really given me a sense of purpose; I'm hungry to win. Victory here on Sunday, or victory at the Tshwane Open at the end of February; that is my top priority now.
"Three years ago, I shot rounds of 66, 66, 71, 72 and tied for fourth. I finished three shots off the pace from Charl Schwartzel and played some of my best golf here that season.
"I'm back with more experience, more consistency, more patience and the confidence to know I can get the job done. I've been out practising this week, ironing out any niggles and just getting a feeling for the week ahead.
"I was reminded again what a great track this is. It suits my eye and my game and I just feel good out there, so hopefully another good week is waiting."
Those words bode really well and I've absolutely no doubt that Fisher Jnr has as much talent as anyone in this field, so given that he was fourth here in 2010 and arrives in top shape I think he's worth backing.
Finally I'm going to have a small bet on Jonathan Moore, a name who I'm happy to admit wasn't all that familiar to me six months ago.
This 27-year-old American looked a star of the future when holing the winning putt in the 2007 Walker Cup, it's just taken him a while to adapt to the professional ranks compared to compatriots like Webb Simpson and Rickie Fowler.
However, he played some excellent golf in 2012, closing out with a second-placed finish behind Sergio Garcia in the Johor Open having previously finished alongside Lee Westwood when 11th in the Thailand Golf Championship.
The Africa Open represents a big step down in grade from both of those efforts and if he can continue producing that sort of golf he can definitely contend here.
The course will be new to Moore but shooting low numbers isn't and for a player who would just about win this if playing as he did when last in action, 55/1 is a big price.