Golf expert Ben Coley previews the Joburg Open, where South Africa's Brandon Stone can secure a popular victory.
Austria, Portugal and Cyprus have all hosted back-to-back European Tour events this year, part of a patchwork schedule driven by necessity towards an uncertain climax. Now, in November, at last it feels safe to say the end of this part of the journey does have a destination, and it remains Dubai.
The final stop before we get there is familiar, too, although someone has put the puzzle pieces back in the wrong boxes. As a result we begin three weeks in South Africa with the return of the Joburg Open, at the same course which hosted the SA Open as recently as January. We end it not with the Nedbank Challenge, yet nevertheless at Sun City for, erm, another SA Open, with a second trip to Leopard Creek splitting the two.
For most of the locals and all of the Sunshine Tour players who help complete these fields, there's no need to worry about Dubai, but for many of the internationals and one or two of the South Africans that end-of-season goal remains. To get there you'll need to be 60th or better on the Race to Dubai, in theory at least. Who knows whether that line will move if and when Patrick Reed (first), Collin Morikawa (third), Tony Finau (35th) and even Rory McIlroy (16th) decline the opportunity to head to the Middle East.
For now though let's worry less about that and more about the Joburg Open, which is back for the first time since the 2018 edition which, ahem, took place in 2017. Oh and it was spread over both courses here at Randpark, which has always been a feature of the event, ever since it began nearby at Royal Johannesburg. This year, however, all 72 holes will be played at Firethorn, the harder layout and the one which hosted three of the four rounds back in January. You know, in the SA Open I mentioned. I'm not trying to discombobulate you, honest.
As you'd expect and have no doubt grown used to, the field isn't all that strong - in fact it's towards the weaker ones we've had since things began in earnest at the British Masters. That means no Belgians (and therefore no more Detry talk, thank you very much), no Andy Sullivan and indeed not much of an English contingent at all. Sam Horsfield might have been here but for an injury in Cyprus but he isn't, and Richard Bland is the third or fourth-shortest UK player in the betting.
You would think, therefore, that this is a fine chance for the home team to take back a title which was won by Shubhankar Sharma in 2017. Typically, South Africans - advantaged by their comfort in dealing with conditions ranging from kikuyu grass to heat and altitude - have dominated these co-sanctioned events, winning eight out of 12 Joburg Opens, all six Africa Opens, five from six in the Tshwane and six of the last eight at Leopard Creek.
There had been an exception, the SA Open itself, which Sullivan won during a spell of prolonged pain for the home crowds. I always felt that was best explained by the history, prestige and attached pressure in that tournament, underlined by Charl Schwartzel's meltdowns and Louis Oosthuizen's tears. Here, in what is so clearly a Joburg Open, there should be no excuses.
We should acknowledge though that the Sunshine Tour regulars have historically come up short - they have the pressure of playing for European Tour membership - so it's best to focus on those who are already enjoying life on the European Tour. With that in mind, BRANDON STONE rates the best bet.
It generally pays not to get too hung up on prices from last week, let alone months ago, but it does strike me as odd that Stone is the same price now as he was back in January. Not only is the field a third smaller, but it looks considerably weaker, particularly among the South Africans. The SA Open was won by Branden Grace, Oosthuizen finished second, George Coetzee was sixth (alongside Sullivan), and both Erik van Rooyen and Schwartzel were towards the top of the betting. None of them are here, and neither are players like Detry, Connor Syme, Rasmus Hojgaard and Eddie Pepperell.
It's not as though Stone's form is much different, either. His world ranking after his latest start was exactly the same in fact, only to have dropped a little further as he's been preparing for this. Back in January he was making his seasonal return having shown some good signs the previous November, but that's also true currently with three top-20 finishes in his last four. The exception was at Wentworth, where he simply extended a miserable run at a course he cannot get to grips with.
Ultimately then the explanation is that he missed the cut here in January and there's no denying he was a shade disappointing, but we know he can play here having been seventh on his previous visit in 2018. All things considered, this is an eminently more winnable event than a multi-course SA Open where he was nowhere near the most decorated South African in the field. This time, he really is, and he must have every chance.
Stone has been back in South Africa for a couple of weeks having got out of London prior to lockdown in the UK, and he should be raring to go. It could even be seen as a positive that this is a Joburg Open as it's the last one on his list in terms of the prestigious, co-sanctioned events back home (he's won the SA Open and the Alfred Dunhill Championship) and his form coming in looks rock solid.
Three wins at European Tour level, including a Rolex Series event in Scotland, underline his class and he had his pocket picked when set to win a fourth back in March. So few here come close to matching his credentials and granted a bit of luck with what's a troubling weather forecast, the 27-year-old can stick out his chest and take on the role performed by Oosthuizen and Grace in the last two events played at this course.
Regular readers will have expected to see Sharma in the staking plan, and he very nearly was. The talented Indian won this back in 2017 on what was his first trip to South Africa, and while powered by a 61 at neighbouring Bushwillow, he shot 69-65-69 at the more demanding Firethorn.
Back here for the first time since, he's lived up to expectations lately by improving for warmer weather and the time of the year he seems to relish, and must have a good chance. Indeed he was a little unlucky not to place for us in Cyprus three weeks ago and went well in the following week's gimmicky (but thoroughly enjoyable) event to add further depth to his form.
I also gather, courtesy of in-the-know journalist Joy Chakravarty, that he's feeling good about his game. The trouble is, he's 33/1 from 100/1 and I think the market has him to be quite honest, with a wet and at times cool forecast also enough to force me elsewhere.
At a similar price I have to prefer GARRICK HIGGO, a very promising youngster who won in Portugal earlier this summer and went on to finish third - ahead of Sharma - in the Cyprus Open. Higgo started that event as a 40/1 shot just to underline the reaction there has been to Sharma's obvious course form; I can't have the move to South Africa as more of a positive for him than it is the actual South African, who probably has an even brighter future.
Of course this isn't about just these two but Higgo has won three of his 14 starts on home soil, a remarkably impressive start to his career. Always considered a top talent in the making, this left-hander has a win, a third and a sixth for his efforts on the European Tour since June and while capable of the odd shocker as most youngsters are, that is no bad thing with a missed cut in the Cyprus Showdown probably adding a little juice to his price.
Although missing the cut here in January, Higgo did win a major amateur title at the track back in 2016 and it came at Firethorn, where he got the better of quality opponents like Kyle McClatchie and Herman Loubser. That was among the highlights of a fine career in the unpaid ranks and he made the match play when defending a year later. This isn't form of measurable worth but it's evidence he's got fond memories of the course and he's capable of leaving January's effort behind.
Higgo's efforts this summer have been all the more impressive given some very difficult personal circumstances and already, he looks good enough and tough enough to beat this standard of opposition - for all that it's stronger than that which he faced in Portugal. I really like the fact he's built his success on a quality long-game (led the field off the tee at Wentworth) and if it's back on-song he should go really well.
It's hard to weigh up Daniel van Tonder's form in the context of this event, but having won four of his last six starts on the Sunshine Tour he's clearly entitled to respect. At 29, he's in the form of his life so while his swing isn't one of the prettiest you'll see, there will be nobody here who arrives more confident.
Favourite Christiaan Bezuidenhout has had a fairly quiet time of things and has to cope with a flight from Georgia having just competed in the Masters, where he did well. That's enough to look elsewhere and while Adri Arnaus and Adrian Meronk both have experience from invites to play here in 2017, I'm not sure this is a course you can overpower in the way they would both like to.
Instead, I'll switch from the South Africans and to a Dutchman who feels at home here in JOOST LUITEN.
Undoubtedly one of the class acts in the field, Luiten is in a similar position to Higgo with both on the outside looking in when it comes to the Race to Dubai finale. Higgo has enough to focus on with three big events at home and has his whole career ahead of him, but for 34-year-old Luiten reaching Dubai will act as serious motivation - he's made each of the last 10 editions of the DP World Tour Championship and that run is under threat.
Fortunately, these additions to the schedule present him with an excellent opportunity, not least because they're in South Africa. Luiten has made the cut in every single start here (17 in total, though not all of these had a 36-hole cut) and has regularly contended, including when 10th on his last visit behind Tommy Fleetwood in a Rolex Series event which is of a different league altogether to this one.
His sole start in the Joburg Open came back in 2010 when he finished sixth, at a time when he was ranked 818th in the world, and it wasn't a surprise when he wrote that he 'loves South Africa' and rates it one of his favourite countries in the world in a European Tour player blog.
In fact if you dig a little deeper, Luiten's record in South Africa dates back to 2006, when he teamed up with Wil Besseling and Tim Sluiter to win the Eisenhower Trophy in Stellenbosch, where they beat many better-fancied teams including a Northern Ireland side led by Rory McIlroy, and Chris Kirk's USA.
Now, I can hear people asking why that's relevant but look at some of those who also featured. Of the 30 or so players who went on to establish themselves on major golf tours, just a few have played in South Africa, and among them Tano Goya, Richie Ramsay, Scott Jamieson, Ross McGowan and Pablo Martin have won here. Returning to countries where you made lifelong memories (and, of course, got a taste for playing conditions) can definitely inspire players and draw out their best.
That's been the case on a number of occasions where Luiten is concerned, and having ranked inside the top five in strokes-gained approach across two starts in Cyprus, his game is moving in the right direction. That aggressive iron play is his trademark and has underpinned so much of his success, all of which has come in events of this type of grade where he can be called a big fish in a pretty small pond.
If there isn't to be a South African winner, a Dutch one might be the next best thing and a highly-motivated Luiten, hitting fairways and firing at pins again, looks a threat to all this week.
Back to that English challenge and Marcus Armitage is at the top of his game. Both of his European Tour top-fives have come at this course, including when he memorably sealed an Open spot with a closing birdie at the start of the year, and there's plenty to like about his chance for all the price is short.
Indeed the two I liked beyond my selections were Gavin Green (top-20 finishes in both course visits) and Sean Crocker, the latter having let us down in Cyprus in a performance I could easily forgive. I just don't quite understand why he wouldn't have played in the Showdown and worry his big drop in ball-striking numbers could be down to some kind of injury, a risk I'm not willing to take.
Alex Levy's form appears to be returning and he's respected along with Thriston Lawrence and the talented Jayden Trey Schaper, but my final two selections are to small stakes at enormous prices.
First, OLIVER WILSON comes with obvious risks but there are more than enough positives to chance him at 300/1.
First and foremost, Wilson was third here in 2018, his sole start at the course, and that's despite an opening 73. He played comfortably the best golf in the field over the final 54 holes, and significantly they all came at Firethorn. His first round was at Bushwillow and he gave Oosthuizen an 11-shot start which he'd reduced to eight by the end of the tournament.
Anyone with a scoring average of 67.00 at Firethorn deserves some kind of respect and I remember watching Wilson choke down on his driver, often playing it off the deck, and scoring from there. Whether he can do it again is open to doubt as he ranks 144th of 145th players off the tee this year, but that leads to the second positive: his driving stats have been a little better lately. Not great by any means, but better.
Two starts ago in the Cyprus Open, he in fact registered a positive off-the-tee figure only for his approach play to let him down. Typically, that's Wilson's strength and it's remained so throughout a miserable year, as he ranks 30th on the European Tour. To underline what resulted in a missed cut on the number, Wilson dropped six shots across three par-threes as he ran into bother at a quirky and penal course but it had nothing to do with the club he has feared.
If we widen the lens slightly, he's now broken 70 in four of his last seven rounds and five of his last 12, versus three of his previous 25. Even adjusting for scoring conditions it's abundantly clear that he's started to play much better, first making the cut for the first time all year in Scotland, and then shooting 67-73 and 69-73 in Cyprus.
Whether or not turning 40 in September has played a part in this I don't know, but certainly the timing of a return to South Africa is a positive. Wilson not only finished third here in 2018, but he was fourth through three rounds of the Nedbank won by Fleetwood late last year, and second once upon a time in the SA Open.
"It’s always good vibes coming down to SA & still time to turn it into a great year with my final 3 events @joburgopen Dunhill Champs & SA Open," he wrote on Instagram and with things slowly coming around, he's worth chancing. Remember, this is a player who won twice on the Challenge Tour in 2018 and whose 2014 European Tour win, at the maximum odds on Betfair, followed some very small but very significant steps in the right direction.
It's unlikely that lightning strikes twice but given how well he played Firethorn in 2018, I'll give him a run at the odds.
Finally, JOEL SJOHOLM is worth sticking with having played pretty well when put up at a similar price in the Cyprus Open.
The popular Swede finished second at Leopard Creek last December having been handed a last-minute invite and a return to South Africa could spur him on after a frustrating run of events. He's produced some excellent ball-striking this summer and when he keeps in the conversation off the tee, he's certainly dangerous in this sort of company.
Despite just missing out on the final-round shootout at Aphrodite Hills, Sjoholm played three rounds there and extended a sequence of good play which stretches back three events now. Ultimately, I think he's playing a little too well, and is generally a little too good a player, to be anything like a 350/1 shot in this company.
Posted at 2035 GMT on 16/11/20