Wind and seaside golf welcome a good field for the SDC Championship in South Africa, and Ben Coley suggests searching for clues in Scotland.
1.5pts e.w. Romain Langasque at 45/1 (bet365 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
1.5pts e.w. Rafa Cabrera Bello at 45/1 (bet365 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
1pt e.w. Calum Hill at 60/1 (bet365 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
1pt e.w. Ewen Ferguson at 60/1 (bet365 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
1pt e.w. Hennie O'Kennedy at 250/1 (Paddy Power, Betfair 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7)
As Jorge Campillo ably demonstrated last week, quite often the best guide to what might happen in a golf tournament comes from what happened in the last one. Campillo had been placed in India and, faced with a similarly suitable test in Kenya, he produced arguably the standout performance of his career so far to make it a hat-trick of titles on the DP World Tour.
I'm not sure the same rules will apply at the SDC Championship, played at the Jack Nicklaus-designed St Francis Links and sure to be framed by strong winds throughout the early stages of the tournament.
We know by now that the word links doesn't guarantee a links golf course and tends to be used whenever the sea is in view. Yas Links, for example, shares little else in common with any Open Championship venue. St Francis at least looks a bit more rugged and, well, British, but I doubt we'll see the ball trundle along the ground all that much.
Some of its more modern features, such as a wealth of tee-boxes, should help officials produce a manageable set-up. If it does blow as hard as 40mph, which is currently forecast for Thursday, that could be vital in keeping the wheels of the tournament turning, but whatever they do it looks like it'll be a fearsome test. Sunshine Tour events suggest that St Francis does have one thing in common with somewhere like St Andrews: if it's calm, you can score. If it isn't, you'll need to grind.
Grind is also what us DP World Tour fans must continue to do. This is the first of two events in South Africa and both will be hard to follow, as Sky Sports are showing highlights only and, for the fifth week in eight, there will be no IMG data. This means that the season-long statistical tables at europeantour.com are wilfully misleading; Anthony Quayle is not by some way the finest iron player in the sport, nor is he by some way its worst putter.
All of this is a real shame, because while St Francis won't live up to its own billing which includes Nicklaus absurdly labelling it perhaps the best course he's ever seen, it does look a lot of fun. Perhaps less so if you're teeing off on Thursday and faced with those severe winds which at least look consistent throughout the first two days of the tournament.
Onto the players and Jayden Schaper has closed in on Jordan Smith and Antoine Rozner at the head of the market, which demands attention after I suggested last week that this star South African would do serious damage over this three-week run. Tony Johnstone went further during coverage of the Kenya Open, declaring that he'll be 'surprised' if Schaper doesn't win, before downgrading that to set the bar at top-three finishes both here and at Steyn City next week.
I'm not about to backtrack on what I wrote, particularly after he played well enough to have at least given Campillo something to think about had the putts dropped over the weekend, but all value has now gone. Schaper was 50/1 to Rozner's 16/1 and we didn't really learn a great deal about either of them; the former had been playing well before Kenya anyway. He now finds himself jostling with potential Ryder Cup rookies for favouritism and while he has course form in his favour, it feels a little over the top.
Instead, I'll return to Yas Links for what could be the best form guide we've had this season, which helps make the case for RAFA CABRERA BELLO at a generous 50/1 with most firms, or a hair shorter with a couple more places.
Cabrera Bello confirmed his liking for that modern, seaside venue when 10th behind Victor Perez, having finished runner-up to Thomas Pieters a year earlier.
Born in the Canary Islands, he's always enjoyed playing under exposed conditions and his record shows it. Cabrera Bello's finest hour came when capturing the Scottish Open, he's been fourth in the Dunhill Links, and three top-threes confirm the exposed, links-favouring Doha is one of his favourite courses around.
His form this year is solid, with four top-20s in six starts including last week, and it struck me during one of the earlier events that he'd told Sky Sports how good he felt about his game. That's something he reiterated when leading at halfway in Thailand and there's a strong argument that this is the best his game has looked in a number of years.
We saw with his win on home soil at the end of 2021 that he's still a class act at this level and it's also notable, given conditions, that his short-game has become a real strength lately. Golf being golf, that's coincided with a general downturn in what was once a rock-solid long-game, but he's started to drive the ball better and a good week with his approaches would set him up nicely.
That department hasn't always been where he'd like it but these conditions demand something different and might just bring out the best in him. Rest assured, he's not given up home of muscling in on the Ryder Cup picture and, in this kind of company, he demands huge respect.
It's no surprise that George Coetzee is considered among the pick of the home challenge. Not only did he win here last year, Coetzee's overall record on Nicklaus designs is outstanding. He's got correlating form at Ebotse, another modern, exposed course in South Africa and one where every St Francis winner has performed well at some stage. And he was the 54-hole leader before settling for third place on the Sunshine Tour last week.
For all of those reasons he's respected but, while I can't recommend the best of 66/1 with bet365 (80s with three places), the best value surely lies with Thriston Lawrence. How many of these would've managed a level-par 72 in elite company at Bay Hill when they last played, hitting the ball to a high standard? How many have won three times in their last 40 starts, two of them in similar co-sanctioned events?
A former winner of the Lytham Trophy and adept in the wind, Lawrence is 40/1 with most firms, but I wouldn't want to take anything shorter than that. As such, in what's a weak market I'll have to leave him out (to be absolutely clear, take 66-80/1 if you can) in favour of ROMAIN LANGASQUE.
Another with a strong links pedigree having won the Amateur Championship at Carnoustie, his sole DP World Tour win came in difficult Welsh weather. He loves playing in South Africa, too, with 11 top-30s from 16 starts, while his record nearby in Mauritius is similarly strong with three top-30s including a top-five.
Twice a contender in Qatar, third at The Renaissance in the Scottish Open and 12th at Yas Links, the Frenchman stands out as potentially well-suited to this week's test and I do like the fact that these typically wide Nicklaus fairways should allow him to reach for driver, his favourite club, time and again.
Top-30 finishes in each of his last two starts suggest his game is in good order, as does a bogey-free 66 to finish off in Kenya where he'd have been better suited to Karen rather than Muthaiga, and his strokes-gained data is probably a decent guide given how well it stacks up with what we saw from him either side of Christmas.
There are a couple of big-hitters who outperformed expectations at fiddly Muthaiga and came onto the radar for this, but patience might pay off next week instead, at a course where power is almost everything. Here, we have to favour those who are proven in the wind, which is why Sami Valimaki made plenty of appeal having made such a fine start to the season.
However, backing a 33/1 shot who relies a little on his putting is unappealing with the forecast as it is, so I'll split stakes across Scottish pair CALUM HILL and EWEN FERGUSON instead.
Hill's comeback from injury is beginning to gather pace after a good effort in Kenya, where he shot 64 in round two and 66 in round four. Between the two he can be forgiven a quiet Saturday as he was suffering a little with a stomach problem throughout the day.
A second-round 65 in Singapore, 13th place in Dubai and a solid start at Yas Links all suggest he's back close to the form that saw him win at the Nicklaus-designed London Club and climb inside the top 100 in the world, a barrier few in this field have crossed.
Hill's record on rare trips to South Africa reads 13-13-14, he's got three top-20s in Kenya and has been 54-hole leader in Mauritius, while in the Dunhill Links he was second at halfway as a non-member in 2019 before returning to bag a share of 17th in 2021.
All of this suggests he could relish the weather forecast and with his best golf all coming courtesy of quality approach play, I think he'll love the course, too.
Ferguson defied strong winds to capture the Qatar Masters title at Doha before doubling up at the difficult Galgorm Castle, and he was a little unfortunate not to make it a hat-trick at the exposed HimmerLand course in Denmark.
He's been a little quiet since the Hero Cup but ended last year in excellent form, including when ninth in South Africa, while both missed cuts in February came by narrow margins at less suitable courses than this one promises to be.
Crucially, there were really encouraging signs from his long-game in Kenya. Even if we rightly take strokes-gained numbers with a pinch of salt, the old-fashioned stats such as ball-striking (third) and greens in regulation (sixth) suggest that his short-game was the only thing keeping him from getting in the mix.
The last time Ferguson ranked so highly in greens he was ninth at Sun City, he led that category when second in Denmark, and ranked eighth and 14th for his wins. It seems a good indicator as to where he is and while up and down in general, that's factored into prices offered about a player with two wins in 12 months.
Returning to the locals, they do have a theoretical advantage given that the course is new to the DP World Tour. Then again, that was true at Houghton when Dan Bradbury beat Sami Valimaki, and at Blair Atholl where Jens Fahrbring and Clement Sordet served it up to Lawrence. Ultimately, there's far greater depth to the overseas challenge.
That's why I can overlook Ebotse winner Pieter Moolman and the potential of Casey Jarvis, runner-up here to Coetzee, at skinny enough prices. Jarvis was 80/1 on the Challenge Tour a few weeks ago and was caught out by one bad round, which I could see being the case once more despite his extremely high potential.
I do however like the look of quietly promising HENNIE O'KENNEDY at 250/1, a price which means we don't have to worry too much about whether he's up to winning at this level.
O'Kennedy finished well for 11th place last week, a fortnight after he'd been third through 54 holes in an event co-sanctioned with the Challenge Tour. Rewind two more starts and he was excellent at Fancourt, finishing third, and that's probably a decent enough guide to St Francis Links.
He is proven here already though, playing well on all three starts, and fourth place last October catches the eye given that it came amid a run of missed cuts. His game has improved since then and he's hitting stacks of greens, climbing to 22nd for the season having given his Sunshine Tour colleagues a sizeable start.
Over the last six weeks few can match him in that department and I really like where his game is right now, with his 20 rounds this season all 72 or lower and a scoring average of 69. Typically these Sunshine Tour players are found out, but we have to acknowledge that the DP World Tour is weaker than if often has been in the past, and Ockie Strydom's exploits show what can be achieved.
In time, Yurav Premlall ought to be up to competing in this kind of company and two top-10s in five starts since turning pro suggest that he might even be there already. One of them came at Fancourt and had the weather been set fair, perhaps he'd have been worth including at prices up to 400/1.
We've seen Jarvis, Schaper and Christiaan Maas show up well in co-sanctioned events and Premlall, the top-ranked amateur in South Africa before making the switch, has long been touted as similarly promising. It just feels like a week where we ought to place a high value on experience, if not of the course then certainly of the conditions which will play such a key role in determining who contends for this title.
Posted at 1055 GMT on 14/03/23
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