Ben Coley is backing Tommy Fleetwood to defend his Nedbank Challenge title as the event finally returns to the DP World Tour schedule.
4pts win Tommy Fleetwood at 11/1 (General)
2pts e.w. Lucas Herbert at 28/1 (General 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6)
1.5pts e.w. Adrian Meronk at 45/1 (Coral, Labrokes 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6)
1pt e.w. Thriston Lawrence at 50/1 (Sky Bet 1/5 1,2,3,4,5)
1pt e.w. Ross Fisher at 80/1 (General 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6)
Three years ago, the Nedbank Golf Challenge gave away a winner's cheque for $2.5m, the biggest prize in the history of the European Tour. That prize went to Tommy Fleetwood, whose flying final round ended in a play-off victory over Marcus Kinhult, his first in 22 months. No wonder Fleetwood, who had finished second in the Open that summer, was overcome with emotion on the 18th green at Sun City.
"The money's not that important," he told Tim Barter, before reconsidering. "I guess, being a golfer these days, you have the chance at a young age to set your family up for life... I'm just very proud of that really, and everyone who goes on the journey with you constantly. It's just really, really cool when you win a tournament."
At the time, it felt like the Nedbank proved that money isn't the be all and end all for most golfers. Rory McIlroy, Jon Rahm and even rookie Race to Dubai contender Victor Perez chose not to play, and just nine of the world's top 50 were in the field. It might've been impossible to begrudge Fleetwood's overdue second Rolex Series title and fifth overall, but was it a tournament worthy of its history-making purse?
Of course, a lot has changed since, and this is the overdue return of the Nedbank Challenge. The prize fund has dropped significantly, not just because the big names did not come, and the field strength is weaker still. For all the talk about the top-60 Race to Dubai cut-off which would earn players a start here, 76th-ranked Wil Besseling managed to sneak into the field and Thomas Detry, in 60th, had nothing to worry about.
With Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel either uninvited or unwilling to come, the home challenge is also weakened despite the presence of Branden Grace and Christiaan Bezuidenhout, and I can't escape the belief that TOMMY FLEETWOOD is going to take a bit of beating even if he hasn't managed to capture another title since.
Gary Player Country Club is made for Fleetwood at his best. This is a course where Lee Westwood and Sergio Garcia have five titles between them, and where long, strong driving has always been the starting point. It's true that we're at altitude at this breathtaking resort, but 7,834 yards makes this the longest course on the circuit and the need to dominate the four-par-fives is clear.
When Fleetwood won, he played those par-fives in 16-under, winning with a score of -12. Westwood had captured the title with a field-leading performance across those scoring holes, too, as had Danny Willett some years before. Above all else though it's always felt like a drivers' golf course, and in the first year of strokes-gained data on the European Tour we were handed a champion who led the field off the tee.
As well as underpinning all of his success, it's driver that explains Fleetwood's struggles. Post-pandemic, if we can say that, his off-the-tee game has dipped and placed too much pressure on a short-game which has arguably never been sharper. It's why he failed to crack the top 125 on the FedEx Cup a year ago, which in turn shows us how far he's come since having finished 49th in 2022.
There's still more to come, and after fourth place at The CJ Cup last time, his third top-five finish in seven dating back to the Scottish Open, Fleetwood explained just why things are on the up.
Asked what's improved, he said: "Swing. (The) swing's better. I'm not losing my ball, started driving it better now, especially the second half of the year. Had some tournaments where I felt like my driver's been much more consistent and that was something that in my best years driving and my iron play was clearly where I made like my biggest strides to compete at the highest level.
"My long game, especially my driving, irons sort of stayed semi all right, but driving was a big struggle and there was no chance I could compete around the toughest courses with the best players the way I was hitting it. That's been a big improvement and that's got better, and then from there you just have to let the game come to you and let the results come, which they sort of started to do, started drifting that way."
Now returning to a course where his results read 14-21-14-10-1, Fleetwood looks ready to put everything together and serve up a reminder that, in actual fact, his strike-rate is pretty good. All told he's won four of his last 50-odd starts in non-majors on the DP World Tour and while another is certainly now overdue, I do feel his class edge has been underestimated by the layers.
Three years ago, arriving in similar form and only seven spots higher in the rankings, he had Oosthuizen, Matt Fitzpatrick, Bernd Wiesberger, Erik van Rooyen, Henrik Stenson and several other high-class opponents to beat. All told, nine of the world's top 50 were here plus 55th-ranked defending champion Westwood, and Fleetwood was around a 12/1 chance.
Now, he's the same sort of price, with just one other top-50 player in a field which is thinner at all levels. It's a price that demands inclusion at a course where experience has historically been of real significance, a problem for quite a few of his key rivals.
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Perhaps the biggest threat to Fleetwood is Detry, inside the top 10 on both starts here and never a better player than he is now. Still, the Belgian does arrive on the plane from Mexico and while I believe him when he says he feels like that elusive first win is around the corner, backing him in such circumstances at 16/1 holds very little appeal.
Robert MacIntyre would be next on my list of live threats, the Italian Open champion having produced a sensational weekend to climb from 50th all the way up to eighth on his first start here. The Scot has barely missed a beat, is fully engaged in his quest to make the Ryder Cup side, and should see this as an excellent opportunity to win a high-profile event in which captain Luke Donald is also playing on an invite.
Along with Antoine Rozner, these are three live each-way contenders with thriving long-games at a course which is unrelenting. You simply can't relax at Sun City, where wild drives can equal lost balls as Detry found out when his challenge collapsed three years ago. That requirement for focus and execution has thrown up a list of high-class champions, including when other events have been held here, and it should continue to do so.
As such my next selection is LUCAS HERBERT, despite some trepidation as to his propensity for the odd foul ball from the tee.
Like MacIntyre, the Australian also made his debut here in 2019 and while down the field, a pair of 69s and good scoring on the par-fives should serve as a nice introduction. Since then he's added two DP World Tour titles to his CV along with the Bermuda Championship on the PGA Tour, and we know by now his fondness for tough conditions.
To a large degree that's because Herbert boasts one of the best short-games in the field, and it's his long-game numbers which undermine confidence to a degree. That said, he's been driving the ball well for a long time now, right back to the US Open, and remains a threat when dropping down in grade from the PGA Tour. His form on this circuit in 2022 reads 18-9-MC-15-MC-5, and he's won twice in 19 since the beginning of 2020.
Statistically speaking, he's fourth in this field for par-five scoring this year and I also like that he has some potentially correlating form courtesy of 14th at Le Golf National and eighth at Crans, both on his sole starts to date. There are strong ties between this event and the Open de France while the altitude of Crans also brings that into the equation, Marcus Kinhult's performance when runner-up to Fleetwood the latest way to link them.
Herbert won't lack for motivation, either. He was pretty disgusted to be overlooked for the Presidents Cup and I don't think fifth place in the Italian Open right after that news broke was a coincidence, nor 20th in the Shriners following the event itself. Suddenly, his form has a solid look to it and a final-round 63 in Japan last time also bodes well.
Most of all, though, it's about what lies ahead, rather than behind. At 54th in the world rankings (third in this field), he's one good performance from all the rewards of ending the year inside the top 50, and at 63rd in the Race to Dubai he'll only be playing next week if he produces the goods here.
With difficult conditions all but guaranteed at Sun City, Herbert has lots in his favour and rates a smashing each-way bet.
George Coetzee won the South African PGA last week and has previous when it comes to carrying form with him into a better event, but this course hasn't always been kind to one of the undoubted class acts among a home challenge which absolutely has to be respected.
Grace's recent fitness concerns have to be a worry and I'm still to be convinced that Sun City is perfect for Bezuidenhout, even if he did win a weak SA Open here in 2020 and put up a decent defence last year, so I'll opt for the proven winning form of THRISTON LAWRENCE over the abundant promise of Zander Lombard.
At first glance, Lawrence doesn't have the best of records here, having been sixth in a low-key Sunshine Tour event but done little else. But what we've seen from this former two-time SA Amateur champion is just what a victory, however fortuitous, can do for a career, as since taking the 36-hole Joburg Open he's not looked back.
Now a two-time DP World Tour winner having won a play-off in Crans, Lawrence has won two events at high altitude and is a prime candidate to go close here. His sole appearance at the course at this level also offers encouragement beyond that sixth place, as he made a big move into the top 10 with a round to go in the SA Open before fading, days after that breakthrough in Johannesburg.
More recently, 20th in the Open de France is a correlating form line I like and from a statistical perspective, he stacks up: Lawrence is inside the top 20 in strokes-gained off the tee to mark himself down as a quality driver, and that feeds into a top-10 ranking for par-five scoring.
Also second in Kenya to provide yet another line of altitude form, he comes here off sixth place at Valderrama and has done very little wrong lately. Back home, where his recent DP World Tour form reads 1-19-9-8, he rates the pick of the South African challengers at the odds and is fancied to be in the mix.
Guido Migliozzi's victory at Le Golf National in some ways provided the final piece of the Nedbank puzzle for a player who has won in Kenya and gone well in Switzerland, especially as he made a bright start here on debut. It's not that difficult to excuse a bad finish after a bright start in the Dunhill Links, days after his Paris heroics, and a missed cut at Valderrama is never something to dwell on.
He's an interesting contender at 66/1 but while ADRIAN MERONK can't offer the same Sun City encouragement, I do think he's well worth chancing at 33/1 and bigger.
Meronk sits second only to Jordan Smith in the strokes-gained off the tee charts and having been seventh in 2021, he's now established as one of the best drivers on the DP World Tour. That means he really ought to love it here, and while a missed cut in 2020 says otherwise, it came days after he'd led into the final round of the Alfred Dunhill but struggled badly under pressure.
That event, played at Leopard Creek, is probably the best nearby comparison to this one given the daunting nature of both courses, and it's enough to encourage me that Gary Player Country Club is a good fit for Meronk, who has since become the first Polish winner on this circuit after capturing the Irish Open on a difficult course back in summer.
It's easy to think he's tailed off since then, but it's been a bitty schedule for him and prior to his last two starts, form such as 11th in Paris and 22nd in the Dunhill Links reads perfectly well in this company. Both of them showed just what he can do off the tee, whereas Valderrama and Bermuda stifled him somewhat and a return of 45-MC doesn't worry me in the slightest.
Now back at a course where he can unleash that driver of his, Meronk can remind us just why he's fourth among this field in strokes-gained total for 2022, the three ahead of him taking up the top three places in the market.
When he's on, and when he has his conditions, he's among the best young players on the circuit and given the way this event has cut up, I'm surprised to see so many firms offering prices approaching the 50/1 mark.
Given the fact that this field is half the standard size, my shortlist is in fact quite long and stretches to Sebastian Soderberg, a winner in Kenya and in the Alps. Besseling's driving and near-miss at Leopard Creek earn him a place on it, too, while Thorbjorn Olesen could end this renaissance year on a high given the way he's hit the ball of late.
All are respected but if ROSS FISHER is ever to win again, it might just be here.
The veteran Englishman must surely take heart from Westwood's victory in 2018, albeit he perhaps will feel he ought to have been giving his compatriot more to think about having played beautifully for all bar a nightmare four holes at the end of round two, when he dropped seven shots.
Still fourth in that renewal, Fisher had been second in 2014, third in 2009 and fifth in 2010, and in seven starts has sat inside the top 10 at halfway six times. Twice he's held the first-round lead, and given how demanding this course can be, his 70.71 scoring average puts him at the top of the list of those with three or more appearances.
All of which combined with the fact his last victory came in South Africa makes his return to form a timely one, Fisher having produced back-to-back top-20s to end a season which began on a career money exemption and ends with him having earned back full playing rights for 2023.
Key to his success has of course been the driver, just five players in this field ranking higher for the year, but it's week-by-week improvements with his putter that have enabled him to get back in the groove lately. That club has got better throughout each of his last five starts and if he can take another small step forward, he most certainly can contend at a course where experience is so often decisive.
His wider record in South Africa really is excellent so it's no surprise he was sixth down here back in the spring, having also played well at Al Hamra – these were events dominated by long drivers with high ball flights and still, even at 41, he has few peers in that regard.
"I love this place, I love playing (in) SA," he said in 2018. "Obviously winning the Tshwane back in '14 and playing here when it was a 12-man field, I just absolutely love the course.
"The way I play golf, I hit the ball high. Love the ball the way the ball sits up on the fairway. Finishing so close that year (2015) to Danny, finishing second, it's a tournament I'm always looking forward to."
Fisher will have been particularly disappointed to be forced to skip the SA Open last year as a host of overseas players flew home before a travel ban kicked in, and he'll be delighted to return to Sun City with his game on the up.
There are very few players in this field who can match his ball-striking over the last two events he's played and while wins have been hard to come by late in his career, Fisher has a real chance to at least contend at a course where his brilliant driving could be the key to victory.
Posted at 1725 GMT on 07/11/22
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