Rich rewards for returning hero
David John previews the Joburg Open and is prepared to chance defending champion Richard Sterne at the price.
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The last four renewals of the Joburg Open have all be won the home contingent and the likelihood is more of the same with a ragtag collection of players from the northern hemisphere making the trip to South Africa following the three big tournaments in the Middle East.
This year's event has the added bonus of three places in the Open Championship at Hoylake up for grabs for those who finish in the top 10 and are not already exempt so that is another little aspect for punters to keep in mind as they try and sift out the deadwood from a larger-than-normal field.
My first pick is not exactly out of leftfield but I did believe defending champion Richard Sterne would have been a shorter price than 20/1.
Sterne and 4/1 market leader Charl Schwatzel are both looking for a third success in the event as well and it was the former who was in majestic touch here 12 months ago as he lapped his rivals by seven shots on the way to a 27-under-par total.
He spoke to the European Tour website recently and as you would expect, gave them the usual flannel about how much he loves it on the two courses employed at Royal Johannesburg & Kensington.
But the bigger picture is what I am more interested in with Sterne. He talked in Dubai about how he needed good weeks both there and here in his bid to get back into the world's top 50 and earn a coveted place at the Masters in April.
There are also valuable Investec Cup points up for grab on the Sunshine Tour - their equivalent of the FedEx Cup - with Sterne keen to make up some ground and get involved in the final which takes place in mid-March.
My one issue with Sterne is the hip surgery that he may or may not have had over the Christmas period. He was expected to be off for three months after the Nedbank Challenge but was back on the course for the Volvo Champions just four weeks later so either shelved plans to fix a torn labrum or has recovered in double-quick time.
Whatever, he has not really found his form consistently in 2014 and the strategy is to back him win only at the odds - my feeling is he will either be a major factor or sink without trace.
Schwartzel has been a slightly uneasy favourite in the early part of the week as golf bettors perhaps think twice about taking skinny odds on a market leader (Rory McIlroy) for a second time in quick succession.
The alternative looks to have been in-form George Coetzee, who has that attractive profile of two excellent recent performances under his belt in Abu Dhabi and Qatar and three top 15s here since 2011. The early 14/1 has long gone and 11s is the best you can expect for a player whose turn in the limelight is surely not far away - it could well be now.
I rather thought the South Africans were delivering a nice audition for this in Dubai last week over the first two or three rounds before fading on Sunday, Sterne included with his 76.
The sharks have already taken the early 60/1 on Van Zyl but 55/1 still represents reasonable business on a player who has made his last five cuts and is fancied to step up his game a fair bit back on home soil.
Van Zyl lives in Johannesburg to boot and his tournament record makes pleasing enough reading with four top 12s and a best of T3 two years ago behind Branden Grace.
I am prepared to forgive his closing 74 last weekend and the same statement applies to Walters, who was even less stellar with 75-74 on the weekend after opening up 69-68.
Walters has struggled with consistency in 2014 since his emotional second place in Portugal last October to secure his card for the season but I would not be shocked to see him put his best foot forward back in his home city where he is also a member of Country Club Johannesburg.
A T10 in the high-class Turkish Airlines Open in November is form more than good enough to make a splash here while his first two rounds in Dubai hinted at better to come with last year's top 20 here a solid foundation to build on.
Finally on the home front for South Africa, I am going to have a modest investment on Oliver Bekker to hit the top 20 at 15/2.
He has managed to paste one or two decent rounds together in the past here without every threatening but I was quite impressed with his performance overall despite a slight wobble late on in the Nelson Mandela Championship (fifth) in Durban prior to Christmas.
He had his best finish of his career on the Sunshine Tour Order of Merit in 2013 (ninth) and in a field this week that contains a lot of players that are not up to this from the home tour, the 6ft 3in Bekker - who is 30 this year - has the scope for a positive week at the very least.
I am going to head back to Europe for one final pick and likeable Welshman Stuart Manley, who seems to have found his feet at last and does not look out of his depth in this company.
Certainly not judged on his exploits with a top 10 at the World Cup at Melbourne or his gallant play-off defeat to standing dish Miguel Angel Jimenez in Hong Kong in December.
"After 10 years I feel I belong out there," he said in a recent interview about the European Tour. "Hong Kong will give me a lot of confidence and everything feels very positive."
That may also come from a book he has been reading since last season's Qualifying School that has boosted his mental approach whilst the work he has been doing with Welsh National coach Neil Matthews since 2011 seems to finally be paying dividends.
Manley's last visit to the Joburg Open three years ago saw him card three rounds in the 60s (opened 65-68) and he looks well worth a shot at fancy odds as he really seems to have turned a corner.