After an overdue 18/1 winner last week, get Ben Coley's preview and selections ahead of the Nedbank Golf Challenge.
Given that it is played at one of the longest golf courses used on the European Tour, with thick, gnarly rough and relatively small, heavily contoured greens, it stands to reason that the most efficient route to success in the Nedbank Golf Challenge is to drive the ball long and straight.
It's a quality which never hurts, obviously, but there are courses where it's a weapon and there are courses where it's near essential. Sun City falls into the latter category, and if you aren't convinced by me, then last year's leaderboard ought to do it.
In first place was Lee Westwood, and in second was Sergio Garcia. It's hard to think of two better examples of players who have driven the ball so consistently well for so long. In third was Louis Oosthuizen who, while less consistent, is just as effective at his best. And in fourth was Ross Fisher, who prides himself on driving it high, far and straight, a quality which made him world-class for a time.
Not always do things work out so straightforwardly, and 2017 was a clear exception. Branden Grace is solid off the tee, but he doesn't hit it high and he isn't as effective as any of those listed. A year earlier, it was interesting to see the likes of Jeunghun Wang, Ricardo Gouveia and Alejandro Canizares inside the top five, players who are accurate but lose ground through a lack of punch.
And yet a broader view of this event, through its various guises, only strengthens belief that what you do off the tee is of particular importance. Westwood has in fact won this title three times, as has Ernie Els, and Garcia has won it twice; Robert Allenby was a flusher at his peak and beat Henrik Stenson in this a decade ago, the Swede having been three-times a runner-up as well winning by nine in 2008, a victory which came at Kenny Perry's expense.
Typically, a good driver makes a good iron player, and there's absolutely no doubt that the punishment for missing greens here is severe. Flags are so often tucked behind bunkers, in the corner of a clover-leaf, and aggression comes with major risks. That's why three of the last six champions led the field in greens hit, with only Grace able to grit his teeth and survive a series of misses.
All in all this is a fabulous event to watch, with close to blanket coverage available in the UK, the weather almost always behaving, and a pretty stunning backdrop. Come the end of it, we should expect to see one of the best ball-strikers in the field atop the leaderboard, and my strongest fancy to do so is tournament favourite OOSTHUIZEN.
There's neither subtly nor nuance to this: the former Open champion appears to be by some distance the most likely winner of the event, to an extent I'm not sure is reflected by quotes of 10/1, and the only question to answer was whether to go win-only or not.
Ultimately, the doubts surrounding Stenson, who told reporters in Houston recently that his game felt miles off, and Tommy Fleetwood, who has been low-key of late, strengthen confidence in the man at the head of the betting and he goes in as the headline selection.
Oosthuizen's form at Sun City is very good. Only on debut, when 12th of 12 under the fanfare of a recently-crowned major champion, has he underperformed. Since then he's been inside the top 15 for seven years running, a period in which the field has grown, and for much of last year's renewal looked the likeliest winner until Westwood came careering past.
Twelve months on and Oosthuizen's preparation has been perfect. He was third last time out in China, building on a return to action in Japan, and with the majority of this field jetting in from Turkey before they head to Dubai it's to his advantage that the South African is playing just his third event since August.
That's because his campaign is geared around peaking for the Presidents Cup, in which we now know he'll be Ernie Els' sole South African representative, and Oosthuizen will be eager to build on what was an excellent, contending display in the HSBC-Champions, a much stronger event than this.
The fact he struck the ball nicely despite feeling rusty off the tee at first bodes really well, and ranking third for greens hit means he's doing what champions in the Nedbank absolutely have to do. The last six leaders in greens here - a period from the start of the field expansion - have all finished in the top three come Sunday night and whoever does top those GIR charts is an almost surefire contender.
Oosthuizen is among a handful of realistic candidates to do so, having ranked second last year, and given that so many of his victories have been preceded by a contending top-10, everything points to a massive run at the title.
I'd imagine some would be concerned that he doesn't win often, but while that's true in every other country, on home soil he's prolific. Since becoming Open champion in July 2010, Oosthuizen has played 20 tournaments on home soil and he boasts a 25 per cent strike-rate - not bad considering he's given a 10 per cent chance by the layers this week.
Granted, a couple of those were small-field events, a couple more not especially strong, but there's really not that much depth here and the biggest challengers all have significant questions to answer.
Of them, Fleetwood ought to go well if he's back at it following a stuttering couple of weeks, but I wonder whether he's done for the year now. Not missing a cut since last summer rates an impressive achievement, but it also means he's past 100 tournament rounds in 2019 and there's evidence to suggest he's lacking spark.
At least an absence of silverware should help to keep him motivated, a comment which also applies to Matt Fitzpatrick, and they're the two biggest threats to Oosthuizen. I'm just not sure, on South African soil, they should be so close to him in the market.
Once upon a time, experience was considered the be all and end all here, and you can see why. Players who haven't played Sun City before have to adjust to altitude, the sheer difficulty of the course, greens which are unique in their shape and a swirling wind, all having stepped off the plane without having felt kikuyu grass beneath their feet for some time.
Wins for Alex Noren, Marc Leishman and Danny Willett on debut rather undermined the theory, but Westwood's weekend romp served as a reminder that Sun City has long thrown up its share of specialists and it might just be the difference for MARTIN KAYMER.
Now down at 118th in the world and having narrowly missed out on an Open place in July, it's fairly obvious that the German is some way from the player who took this title in 2012, not long after he'd been Europe's hero at the Ryder Cup.
Problems with his putting and an increasingly fragile short-game are behind the malaise, but from tee-to-green the two-time major champion remains world-class under the right conditions, and that's what he has this week.
Finishes of 21st in Portugal and 38th in Turkey were both ho-hum, but rather than represent a steady decline since he took fifth in France, I suspect they reflect Kaymer's need for a rock-solid tee-to-green test to be seen at his best.
That's what he gets here, where in finishing fifth two years ago he ranked second for greens hit, and his driving stats at Sun City help encourage confidence that he can again avoid the trouble spots which will help create some big numbers.
More good ball-striking went unrewarded last week, but again it's the nature of the course which counts for so much and Kaymer said so himself en route to that Paris top-five.
"A golf course like this, if you shoot one- or two-under par, it's a good round and I like that way of thinking, when you need to hit good golf shots, bad golf shots, you will get big penalties for that.
"You need to play quality golf, and then you get rewarded, not walk away with three or four. I think it's a very fair golf course where you need to hit brave golf shots and hit many fairways."
Those words could be cut and pasted onto this week's press conference pages and a year after a former Nedbank champion rolled back the years to land an emotional and overdue success, this underachieving 34-year-old could follow suit.
It'll be interesting to see how Erik van Rooyen goes after his volatile finish to the Turkish Airlines Open, my suspicion being that he'll bring the positives home with him without quite being up to winning what's known as Africa's major.
Thomas Pieters will be a major threat if putting well, and the same applies to Jordan Smith who would in fact be in my staking plan were he at least showing something on the greens. Alas, he'll need a huge uplift, even if this is a test of ball-striking, to get competitive.
Instead, and despite a slight concern that neither have played here before, I'll chance ROMAIN LANGASQUE and ADRI ARNAUS at generous each-way prices.
Starting with Langasque, here we have a supremely talented youngster who boasts an excellent record in South Africa, six top-25 finishes in nine visits and second place in the SA Open enough to give him the benefit of the doubt.
If we were to reduce this preview to stats, Langasque would actually sit top of the pile as he ranks 10th in greens hit, seventh in strokes-gained off-the-tee and 36th in par-five scoring, the three categories which traditionally help unlock the Nedbank.
After storming through the pack for ninth place on Sunday, he continues to drop hint after hint that a breakthrough is coming and while it would be somewhat extraordinary were it to come here, the ambitious Frenchman is good enough to make that kind of statement.
Having been sixth for greens hit in Turkey, at a course where he was also conceding an experience advantage, the cocksure 24-year-old can be a factor here if getting off to a solid start.
Arnaus takes a little more justifying, as he looks to have gone off the boil since finishing fourth in the Open de Espana at the beginning of October.
Certainly, form figures of 48-40-65 would render victory here something of a surprise, but this young rookie is entitled to be hit-and-miss. In fact, he was second in Spain after a missed cut in Germany, and second in the Czech Republic after a missed cut in Northern Ireland, so we should perhaps even expect it.
Tellingly, Arnaus has coped really well with playing at altitude having been second in Kenya and sixth in Switzerland (albeit both are much higher up than Sun City), and at fifth in greens and fourth off-the-tee he has a similarly compelling statistical profile to that of Langasque.
It took Arnaus until November to secure his Challenge Tour breakthrough, and after a six-man play-off in which 32-year-old Benjamin Hebert was the veteran, it's pretty clear by now that we ought not to be considering youth or inexperience too much of a barrier wherever the event is being played.
To my eye, Arnaus just looks too big a price at a course which he should take to, and if he and Langasque drive the ball as they have been for most of the year, they can be involved on Sunday.
Ryan Fox is playing well again, consistently so, and therefore could leave behind a modest course record. So far he's never arrived at Sun City with any real confidence, whereas a sequence of 18-18-31-21 since he 'found something' in Italy should have helped cultivate some.
He's respected along with Scottish duo Richie Ramsay and Scott Jamieson, the latter a South Africa specialist, but my final vote goes to AARON RAI.
The Wolverhampton man has not managed a single top-10 finish all year, despite arguably hitting the ball as well as he ever has. Always towards the top of the accuracy and greens-hit charts, Rai just hasn't been scoring - largely due to a questionable short-game - and we saw those woes catch up with him last weekend.
However, the first two rounds he produced in Turkey very much caught the eye, and he's bound to be better suited by a harder test and one which he coped with admirably to finish eighth on debut last year.
Rai was second for greens hit and seventh in driving accuracy as he kept tabs on some of the best players in the field, and with those aspects of his game in even better shape now he should be hopeful of a similar performance.
A Challenge Tour win in Kenya plus a couple of excellent efforts in Johannesburg confirm that Rai is adaptable when it comes to playing at altitude, and on a course which will push players to their ball-striking limits, he has to go in the staking plan.
Posted at 1900 GMT on 11/11/19
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