Ben Coley previews the SA Open, where George Coetzee's putter can carry him to a big week in an event which is overdue a home champion.
With sponsors BMW having ended their association with the SA Open after Chris Paisley held off Branden Grace back in January, the tournament needed a saviour. It found one not in a sponsor, but in a bedfellow, the Joburg Open, and we're left with a slightly curious amalgamation of the two.
This is, undeniably, the SA Open. That's the name, it's the trophy they're playing for, and the prestige attached is accordingly greater. It's fair to assume that Louis Oosthuizen, whose appearances on home soil are rare, would not have played in the Joburg Open and the same may well apply to the likes of Charl Schwartzel and Ernie Els.
Yet we are in Johannesburg at the course, Randpark, which hosted last year's Joburg Open which was won by Shubhankar Sharma. And we also have the now traditional Joburg formula: two courses for the first two days and an absurd 240 players split across them. The top 70 and ties will advance to a couple of weekend rounds at Firethorn, a longer, tougher course than Bushwillow, but one which is still not really tough enough to stage a national championship.
While those behind the scenes presumably had an inkling much sooner than the news broke, it's only six weeks since it was announced that the SA Open and Joburg would combine at Randpark and while Sunshine Tour hosts would presumably like to make things tougher as a result, they'll struggle to have done so. Reports from the course suggest conditions are drier than can be the case at this time of year, but how much that alters things is open to debate. Sharma shot a 10-under 61 at Bushwillow en route to a 23-under winning total and there was a 10-under 62 at Firethorn, too, carded by Christopher Blomstrand; the courses are not difficult.
Low-scoring wouldn't necessarily help the best players in the field, including favourite Oosthuizen but particularly Grace, who became the latest big name to come up just short in the SA Open at the much more challenging Glendower to start the year. It's increasingly possible to conclude that this event is harder for them to win - Brandon Stone is the only South African champion in the last six years - though perhaps the mask of Joburg will help on that front.
Ultimately we are looking at a likely shootout and it tempers enthusiasm in the favourite, who contended in the Nedbank last time and rarely fails to play well when he does tee it up at home. Oosthuizen lacks a look at Randpark and there's just too much of a risk that he's unable to keep up, the putter often a source of great frustration.
Grace has been well below his best and is undeniably better suited to a real challenge, so this looks a good chance for the likes of Dylan Frittelli, Dean Burmester and Erik van Rooyen to take the next step in their respective careers, and it's no surprise that there has been money for all three.
Pick of the home contingent at the prices, though, is surely George Coetzee.
Like Grace, he's not been at his best this year, but he's still making birdies and that's largely because he's long off the tee and excellent on the greens. In a two-course shootout, even with conditions reportedly rather dry, that's an excellent starting point.
Indeed Coetzee's first co-sanctioned win came in the Joburg Open at Royal Johannesburg & Kensington, and in 21 such starts dating back to that week he's won three times, including earlier this year when a well-backed favourite of the Tshwane Open.
His record in the SA Open is poor, but he's not at all suited to Glendower, which played host from 2013 to 2018. It's no coincidence that Coetzee's best effort in the event came a year before the start of this run, when he finished second to a resurgent Henrik Stenson at the far more expansive Serengeti GC.
Perhaps it will pay to give more credence to his record in the Joburg Open, where he finished 30th here last year despite an atypically modest performance with the putter. That was his eighth successive top-30 finish in the event and he's barely put a foot wrong since a breakout seventh in 2011.
In other words, of the classy home golfers in this field he's probably the one best suited to Randpark and he's therefore overpriced, simply because his recent form is modest. It's true that he did sign off the 2018 season with a string of poor performances, but 28th place in Mauritius last week was much better and, as it was his first appearance in a month, it's reasonable to expect some improvement.
Crucially, Coetzee was back putting as we know he can and 21 birdies across the four days is a nice platform for a return to Joburg, where he can cut out the mistakes and remind us that on home soil, he's a reliable, classy operator.
Van Rooyen is obviously respected and may graduate beyond Coetzee's level in time, but he's close to half the price and while sticking to the home players is a solid policy despite their lack of success in the SA Open of late, there's better value to be had elsewhere.
First up, Thomas Aiken looks to be approaching peak form and rates a solid each-way play.
He's admittedly frustrating, and his total reliance on a left-to-right ball-flight isn't always fun to watch, but four top-25 finishes in five starts over the last six weeks show that his game is in excellent shape.
It was particularly encouraging to see Aiken rank sixth for greens hit in Mauritius as it's his iron play that needs to fire if he's to contend. Significantly, perhaps, it was a similar jolt of improvement which preceded his Nordea Masters play-off defeat earlier this year and it could pay to take the hint once more.
Fifth in 2017 was his fourth top-five in his last six starts in the SA Open, split across two courses, and while there would be a question mark over Randpark's suitability there's certainly not enough evidence yet to conclude one way or another. He was playing poorly when missing the cut last year and his only previous visit came at the turn of the century when, aged 16, he arrived at the course with packed sandwiches from his mum.
Almost two decades on, he's proven a reliable yardstick on home soil with four top-10 finishes in the Joburg Open, progressive form figures of MC-24-15-8 in the Tshwane, a win and a second in the now defunct Africa Open and three top-fives in the Dunhill at Leopard Creek, while also demonstrating his class outside of South Africa with wins in the Open de Espana and Avantha Masters.
Born and now residing in Johannesburg, this is very much a home game for the 35-year-old and with wins in 20- and 23-under to his name, and the putter firing once more, he looks set to enjoy the challenge ahead.
With something around 20-under looking a decent target for the week, the other two home representatives I'm sweet on are Haydn Porteous and Christiaan Bezuidenhout.
Porteous doesn't look like he's at the very top of his game, but he's 10th in birdie average over the last three months and even expanding the parameters to six months or a year leaves him towards the top of the European Tour standings.
Another local man, his breakthrough victory came in the Joburg Open almost three years ago and he'd have four top-25s from four in that event but for a poor final round on his sole professional outing at Randpark, where he sat 12th with 18 holes to go after a third-round 66 last year.
There were enough encouraging signs to suggest that he can score across both layouts, and last week's recovery from an opening 76 to shoot a Friday 66 and make the weekend, plus a decent effort on unsuitable terrain in Hong Kong, makes him look close enough to peaking.
Porteous has won twice on home soil already and is another for whom the move from Glendower presents a real opportunity, perhaps more so given that he won a decent amateur event here by a distance once upon a time.
As for Bezuidenhout, he too faltered at this course on Sunday last year, falling from seventh to 30th with the pressure of playing for an Open Championship place possibly his undoing.
He'll have to do better if working his way into contention, but is a former runner-up in the SA Open and his Joburg Open record of 22-MC-30 is perfectly encouraging.
He's done well on the European Tour in 2018 and the key to turning top-30 finishes (he's had a dozen of them) into one career-changing week may well be the return home, particularly having played nicely for 15th place in Mauritius last week.
Bezuidenhout was typically solid from tee-to-green there and if the putter warms up just a little, he'll go really well having confirmed more than once that he's extremely comfortable at altitude, as you'd expect.
Jaco Van Zyl was an eye-catcher last week, shooting 65 in round one and closing with a 66, and a return to Randpark is bound to suit given that he's been inside the top six on both recent visits to the course, having also gone close more than once in the Joburg Open.
He's respected, but has always been difficult to win with and I'm not sure a couple of good knocks in Mauritius are enough to carry him all the way here while Trevor Immelman, who I wrote about as a player to watch a couple of months ago, hasn't been missed in the market.
As such, it's worth expanding the search to Sean Crocker who has a good chance to make it back-to-back US winners on the European Tour.
He was the subject of a sizeable gamble last week, coming up just short in ninth place, and there's a good chance he improves slightly to make a genuine title challenge here.
Some may feel that arriving from Australia is a negative, but JB Hansen and Marcus Armitage both coped just fine last year and the youngster shouldn't have any excuses on that front having grown well used to long-distance travel since turning professional.
Prior to the Australian PGA, Crocker had fought back really well after a poor start under difficult conditions in Hong Kong, and with a string of big performances to his name towards the end of the Challenge Tour season he's been at the top of his game for a while now.
Seemingly capable of climbing towards the upper echelons of the world rankings, Crocker is a big-hitting talent who finds plenty of greens and his best efforts on the Challenge Tour came on long, low-scoring courses which tie in nicely with last year's Joburg contenders, van Rooyen and Tapio Pulkkanen.
It's also worth noting that he was born in Zimbabwe and made his first top-tier start there, so a return to Africa could work nicely for him and at around the 40/1 mark he should go well.
Hansen is interesting, despite his propensity for a ruinous mistake, while it was tempting to keep faith with Romain Langasque after he hit plenty of greens and briefly threatened to hit the frame in Mauritius.
However, that was a weaker field in an event where he'd produced his career-best finish, so taking a shorter price this week really doesn't appeal and there's better value in compatriots Clement Sordet and Adrien Saddier.
The latter in particular merits consideration at a big price having been the halfway leader in this event back in January, and also contended in Joburg and at the Nelson Mandela before, but there wasn't quite enough in last week's performance to suggest he's up to something similar.
Finally, it's worth keeping an eye on Scott Jamieson, who has a fine record in South Africa (a win, two seconds, a third, a fourth, a sixth and a seventh) and has been wintering in Florida - which could mean he's sharp enough for his return to action.
A class act on his day, Jamieson is pick of the UK challengers at the prices but perhaps the home hoodoo will end this week.
Posted at 1245 GMT on 04/12/18.