2pts e.w. Romain Langasque at 33/1 (Betfred, Unibet 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6)
1pt e.w. Johannes Veerman at 40/1 (General (1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7)
1pt e.w. Daniel Van Tonder at 40/1 (General 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6)
1pt e.w. Wilco Nienaber at 50/1 (General 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6)
1pt e.w. Maverick Antcliff at 66/1 (General 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7)
1pt e.w. Richie Ramsay at 125/1 (General 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7)
For the third time in seven months, the European Tour will host successive tournaments at the same golf course. Back in August, the Celtic Classic preceded the Wales Open, then came a fortnight in Cyprus, and now we have the Kenya Open followed by the Savannah Classic, only this time, the gap between the end of the first and the beginning of the second is less than 48 hours.
Although there were several players who played in only one of the two tournaments at Celtic Manor, and Rasmus Hojgaard jetted in exclusively for the Showdown, expect almost identical fields this time — for those with the option, it would seem strange to travel down to Nairobi and not stick around for another week even in the event of a premature exit. And while the variable weather of Wales and some playing with formats in Cyprus meant for quite different tests, it looks like we can rely on the Kenyan capital for sunshine and a gentle breeze and two tournaments distinguishable only by name.
We can worry about how to react to the Kenya Open next week, but for now the challenge is to work out who might follow in the footsteps of Guido Migliozzi, who won here in impressive style two years ago — that's if the Italian, a luckless runner-up in Qatar on Sunday, doesn't double-up himself. That of course is entirely possible, and he's going to relish the opportunity to hit his low bullet off the tee here, but at 25/1 he looks short enough in the betting.
The same is also true of the form player, Kurt Kitayama, and the player I really like at the top of the market is the one who won the second of those Welsh tournaments, ROMAIN LANGASQUE.
It's through players like Migliozzi, Adri Arnaus and Langasque that we're best able to gauge what might be needed here, and they hint that strong driving could be more important than you might expect.
Karen is a typical Kenyan course, born out of colonialism and designed by an English banker. It's narrow in places, tree-lined and with out-of-bounds and water hazards lurking, though it's not quite as claustrophobic as Muthaiga, which has also hosted this event in the past.
You'd perhaps expect these ingredients, coupled with firm conditions, to make for a pretty serious test which best suits the more accurate types, and there's some evidence that's true. However, when the European Tour arrived here two years ago, Migliozzi and Arnaus — two of the biggest and best drivers on the circuit — made hay. Come the end of the season they ranked 11th and fourth respectively in strokes-gained off-the-tee.
Langasque, who finished sixth, was ninth in the same category, and though it was a hot putting round which saw him break through in Wales, his strength off the tee is what will continue to power his career.
It's one that was stopped in its tracks late last year, as a positive coronavirus test saw him miss the final two events in Dubai. His compatriot Antoine Rozner won the first of them and won again on Sunday, and I've little doubt that'll spur Langasque on having been usurped by him and Victor Perez as the standout young Frenchman on the circuit.
Karen is a great place for him to remind us of his talents. Not only was he sixth here two years ago, closing with a round of 65 having arrived in similar form, but back in 2016 he finished second to Sebastian Soderberg. At the time, Langasque was an amateur who hadn't yet made an impression on the Challenge Tour, and this was his final stop off in preparation for the Masters, where he really impressed.
Although down the field in between these two starts, that was at Muthaiga so he has a really solid bank of course form and it's no fluke, because everywhere you look he has suggested that playing at a course like this, at altitude, is ideal for him.
Perhaps the most obvious correlation here comes from Crans-sur-Sierre, home of the European Masters, after Soderberg added to his 2016 Kenya Open victory there a year and a half later. He did so via a play-off which also featured Lorenzo Gagli, himself a winner at Muthaiga, and Kalle Samooja, who was sixth here earlier that same season.
One shot out of that play-off was Arnaus, and through him we arrive at another possible pointer: Valderrama. Yes, it's harder than Karen, but it's similar in appearance and both Arnaus (T2) and Migliozzi (T6) have gone well there. So did Wil Besseling last year (T3), a former winner of the Karen Masters, and Justin Harding, who was second here at Karen, could've won at Valderrama had he made par at the final hole.
Langasque was mid-pack in that event despite a bad start, and he was seventh at Crans five years ago, right at the beginning of his career as a touring professional and just months after finishing runner-up in Kenya. He also has form at altitude in Johannesburg, where he's been second and 11th, has played well at Pretoria, which Louis de Jager compared to this place, and has threatened in Mauritius.
Everywhere you look there are reasons to believe he'll continue to thrive for as long as he visits this course, and this talented youngster can step up on a quietly encouraging return to action following a frustrating end to last year.
Following similar avenues leads to JOHANNES VEERMAN and he could be ready to win for the first time on the European Tour.
Veerman was 17th here in 2019, but that doesn't tell anything like the full story. Not only did he open with a round of 76, but he ended bogey-bogey, still managing to play the final 54 holes better than anyone bar Harding. It was an outstanding debut at Karen and one he can build on having got better and better in the interim.
Like Langasque, Veerman's performance here makes sense. He's since been 10th at Valderrama, has form at altitude in the SA Open, and threatened to win at Leopard Creek, just as Arnaus did late last year. Form such as fourth on a tight, old-fashioned course in Malaysia and 10th in the Australian PGA further highlights that he has the right game for this challenge.
I particularly like the fact he's among the most prolific birdie-makers around, as Karen is the sort of course where I'd expect the winner to rack up more than 20, possibly an eagle or two, and overcome the dropped shots which are inevitable. It just looks like a course to attack, which is exactly what Migliozzi did, and by the end of the season he was 15th in birdie average — right on the heels of some of the best players in Europe.
Veerman ranks third among this field in 2020 birdie average and he's actually first in strokes-gained total on last season's form, which is the simplest and best way to contextualise form. In other words in what's a fairly moderate field, there isn't anyone here who played better golf.
Veerman started this season with 14th place in Qatar, a big upturn on his debut there, and his approach play was excellent. Having contended on a couple of occasions now he should feel ready to go ahead and take advantage of what looks an excellent opportunity.
There's no doubt that South African players should be at some kind of advantage, given that they're well used to playing at altitude and under the sort of conditions we should expect. Looking at the course flyover again, you would be forgiven we're back in Joburg and Sky Bet's 9/2 on a South African winner could be worth a saver.
Garrick Higgo, Jayden Schaper, De Jager, Harding and Dean Burmester all deserve respect as a result and I would likely have chanced the latter had he not withdrawn last week.
Part of the logic for liking Burmester is his outstanding record at Pretoria, and J.C. Ritchie also comes into calculations on both that basis and two top-six finishes at high altitude in the SA Open. Ritchie, who appears to be in decent form and certainly drives it well, saw his close friend win on the Sunshine Tour last week and could be inspired by that.
At shorter odds, however, I've come to the conclusion that DANIEL VAN TONDER is in fact capable of converting his Sunshine Tour dominance into a European Tour win.
Van Tonder has been a revelation since rededicating himself during last year's lockdown, shedding weight and getting his head straight for the resumption. When it came, he won four times in seven starts.
The worry would be that these low-level events don't actually mean a great deal when the European Tour comes to town, and having finished 76th in Joburg, 39th at Leopard Creek and then missed the cut in the SA Open, it's easy to reach that conclusion.
However, he was right there throughout the week in the middle event, prior to which he'd opened 69-69 at Randpark, and the latter is a course he just doesn't appear to like, his form there reading MC-59-MC-76.
The fact he was 25/1 for that tournament, in which Arnaus and Christiaan Bezuidenhout featured along with Brandon Stone, Rozner, Shaun Norris and several other relatively big names, suggests to me that there's been an overreaction to what appears to be confirmation that he's not quite up to this level.
We'll find out more this week, because his form at Karen reads 5-12-29-5-12 and means there will be no excuses. He was second at halfway on his second visit, contended again a couple of years later, and having been beaten in a Sunshine Tour play-off last weekend he returns a better player who is bang in form.
Prior to that Van Tonder's only golf this year was in the WGC in Florida, and it was plainly asking too much to be competitive there after three months away. Now with his game in check, he knows this is a great opportunity, as good perhaps as he'll get to earn his European Tour card — as things stand he isn't in the second event here.
"We got an invitation to one of the Kenyan events and that's a European Tour event so I want to try and win that and then we have our card," was how he put it and while it won't be as simple as he makes it sound, I do think he can be a big player on a course he really does like.
Returning to the idea that a strong, big-hitting youngster won here in 2019, one who makes heaps of birdies, and I find it hard to get away from WILCO NIENABER at 50/1.
Nienaber led this field in birdie average last year, as well as par-five scoring average, ranked second in strokes-gained tee-to-green and off-the-tee, and behind only Veerman in strokes-gained total.
It was a hugely promising run from summer through to the DP World Tour Championship, where he again demonstrated both the inherent volatility of such an aggressive swinger and the ability which could see him become a world-class player in the years to come.
Getting him right along the way won't be easy, because his extraordinary swing speed can make for some wild results, but nor should we assume he needs a wide-open field to be dangerous.
In fact, having been second at altitude in Joburg on a tree-lined course and sixth on his debut at Valderrama, I have high hopes that Karen will prove to his liking as it did for young compatriots Stone and Haydn Porteous, who had a private duel for this title on the Challenge Tour some years ago.
Nienaber has made his last two cuts in the Middle East, defying a bad draw last week, and while his long-game numbers were ugly, again that's likely what we'll come to expect. I'm more interested in the idea he could take apart Karen if avoiding disaster, because it's no exaggeration to say he can drive four par-fours, and hit all par-fives with a driver and a wedge if he successfully cuts some corners.
More likely is he'll have to club down from time to time, which is no bad thing. Indeed it's exactly what the two main contenders did in the last renewal of the Kenya Open, and if this one follows suit he could be the successor to Migliozzi.
Aaron Rai will be popular and was certainly the first name I looked at, only to conclude that he might be too pragmatic, too defensive, and better suited to Muthaiga. It was there he won the Kenya Open on the Challenge Tour and Rai says it's the most special win of his career, as his Kenyan mother travelled over to watch him, and he was announced on the tee as Kenyan to roars from the enthusiastic locals.
He could do the cross-city double, but after a backwards step in Qatar and given the nature of his game, I've cooled on his chances and would rather take a flier on RICHIE RAMSAY if there is to be a fairways-and-greens winner.
Ramsay's form is a bit of a concern but he sounds pretty bullish at the moment, and unlike Rai managed to make the weekend in Doha having very much been drawn on the wrong side.
Although his promise of a low round never materialised, he was three-under through 11 on Sunday only to double the 12th, the only blemish on his scorecard. Hopefully, he left there believing he's on the cusp of something because as a winner in South Africa and Morocco, with form at all the right places, he might just love it here at Karen.
Ramsay's other European Tour victory came in Crans, arguably the best correlating course, and his near-misses at Fanling and Valderrama confirm he's at his best under firm conditions on tree-lined layouts. I also like the fact he has a top-10 finish at Pleneuf from a long time ago, as Jack Singh Brar named it as similar having beaten Arnaus there.
Others like Sebastian Heisele, Sam Walker and Josh Geary help point towards Pleneuf as a possible angle and though I would've preferred something more recent, Ramsay's record of 8-12 in just two starts there is another pointer towards his prospects.
Playing at altitude is no problem whatsoever and the Aberdonian is worth a small bet at the price in the hope he can piece things together in a field he's more than capable of beating.
Lucas Bjerregaard comes up often as you work through the various connections but doesn't appear to be far enough along the road to recovery, and the two outsiders I found hardest to leave out were Lars van Meijel and Pep Angles. The former hit the ball well last week and is a young, two-time Challenge Tour winner who seems to be improving and should like it here, while Angles played nicely in the 2019 edition, and his final two performances last year hint that he could be ready to fulfil his potential.
Ultimately though he has been off since the start of December and that's enough of a worry, so I'll finish off with MAVERICK ANTCLIFF.
This Australian could've won the Irish Open last year and his quality long-game marks him down as one to follow in 2021, especially having started off with finishes of 14-WD-16-7 back home before an excellent 19th in Qatar last week.
Antcliff was among those hurt by the draw, playing his second round in the worst of the wind, but 18 birdies at Education City is good going and represented sharp improvement from his debut at the course.
That ties in with his overall rate of progress and having been excellent off the tee for a while now, and better yet with his approach work, Antcliff could be ready to contend at a course he should like. Firm, fast conditions hold no fears for most Aussie players and his sole start in South Africa saw him finish 13th at altitude.
A three-time winner in China, he's got what it takes to get the job done and at 66/1 looks decent value.
Posted at 1030 GMT on 16/03/21
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