And off we go again.
After Jon Rahm took victory at the DP World Tour Championship last week - the 47th and final event of the 2018/19 campaign – to be crowned European No. 1, the 2019/20 season kicks in straight away in South Africa this week.
The venue, Leopard Creek, is a familiar one having been used since 2004 although there was a one-year break in 2017 when the tournament wasn’t included on the schedule.
Home South African players have dominated their local event although American David Lipsky final ended the Springbok dominance which had lasted since 2011 by scoring a two-shot victory last year.
Although many of the elite names have packed their clubs away now, there’s still a pretty decent field in place with some of the big-name South Africans along with one or two notable overseas raiders taking part.
In terms of the overall picture this side of Christmas, the Alfred Dunhill is one of three events taking place before the calendar year changes.
It would have been four but for the cancellation of the Hong Kong Open due to social unrest in the area. However, there is still European Tour action next week in the form of the Mauritius Open while that’s followed a fortnight later by the Australian PGA Championship.
The official European Tour fantasy game will return with the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship on January 19 although we should see some DraftKings this week and, of course, the bookmakers never skip an event.
If you’re a wildlife fan, this may just be one of your favorite weeks of the year. Leopard Creek – the clue is in the name – is set on the edge of Kruger National Park and players share the TV coverage with leopards, crocodiles, deer and even the odd hippopotamus. Opened in 1996, the Gary Player design is a 7,249-yard par 72 that winds through trees, bushes and grassland. During the 2017 hiatus, the kikuya fairways were replaced with warm-season bermuda while the greens were planted with Champion bent grass from Houston. Scores can be made late as three of the four par 5s are at 13, 15 and 18.
Past six winners, scores and stats
2016 -14 David Lipsky (DD: 33, DA: 64, GIR: 53, Src: 16, PA: 4)
2017 No event
2016 -22 Brandon Stone (DD: 6, DA: 13, GIR: 11, Src: 6, PA: 19)
2015 -15 Charl Schwartzel (DD: 22, DA: 46, GIR: 2, Src: 29, PA: 11)
2014 -20 Branden Grace (DD: 7, DA: 33, GIR: 9, Src: 19, PA: 9)
2013 -17 Charl Schwartzel (DD: 7, DA: 30, GIR: 4, Src: 2, PA: 4)
2012 -24 Charl Schwartzel (DD: 18, DA: 40, GIR: 1, Src: 3, PA: 3)
Notes: It’s a rather mixed set of stats although DA seems the least important. Lipsky rode a hot putter (1st for Putts Per Round) to win in tougher scoring conditions last year. The previous five winners had been in the top 11 for GIR. This tournament is co-sanctioned with the local Sunshine Tour so it’s also worth checking that website for stats.
We have rain in the build up (Monday to Wednesday) and then the mercury really rises and temperatures could climb well over 100 degrees on Saturday! The wind is fairly modest but could gust on Sunday.
The Leading Contenders
Another of the rising stars of South African golf, Bezuidenhout finished 18th on the Race to Dubai and scored a breakthrough win at one of Europe’s most iconic courses, Valderrama. Also third at Wentworth, he wrapped up the campaign with T12 in Dubai last week. This is his fourth go at Leopard Creek and he shot a Saturday 66 last year on the way to tied 18th, his best so far.
This event perhaps should have been renamed the Charl Schwartzel Shootout after the 2011 Masters champ’s amazing run of results at Leopard Creek. He has four wins (2004, 2012, 2013 and 2015), four second places (2005, 2006, 2009 and 2010) and a fourth (2016). However, he’s been absent with a wrist injury since April so it’s asking a lot to be competitive straight away. Reports suggest he’s been playing practice rounds since early October.
The Englishman has been a regular visitor to Leopard Creek, although with mixed results. He’s missed the cut twice in four appearances but showed he can score on the par 72 when taking T8 in 2015 thanks mainly to a second-round 65. He’s had a quiet end to the season although did pop up with T6 in Portugal two starts ago before withdrawing at the midpoint in Turkey.
Always a threat on local turf and he returned home in early November to take victory in the Vodacom Origins – Final after starting out with a 61. In his last six starts at Leopard Creek, Coetzee has a third (2011), a 10th (2012) and a T26 (2018). Played some nice golf on the European Tour in October, most notably when finishing third in the Open de France at Le Golf National.
The winner here in 2014 when opening with 62, the second part of a four-year run of top 20s (12-1-8-20). Of course, 2019 has seen Grace take a big fall down the world rankings; he ended 2018 in 49th but is now 130th. We’ve seen virtually nothing since he finished runner-up in Phoenix way back in February although he did show a few better signs on the weekend when T39 in the Nedbank Golf Challenge last time.
Fisher has played Leopard Creek just once since 2007 but that was a third place in 2013. One of his other three starts there was fourth in 2006 so he’s clearly a fan of the Gary Player layout. Other positives are his T10 at the Turkish Airlines Open on his latest start and top four at the 2018 Nedbank Golf Challenge on his last competitive appearance in South Africa.
Along with Louis Oosthuizen (not playing here), Van Rooyen and Bezuidenhout, he was the fourth South African to make the top 30 on last season’s Race to Dubai. That 26th place finish was thanks to some big moments, including a victory in Qatar and T12 on his Augusta National debut. Harding cracked the top 50 in the world at one point but has since dropped back to 70th. He’s a different player now although a 3-for-7 slate at Leopard Creek is a negative. It contains just one top 50 although at least that was T11 (2014).
Two of Stone’s three European Tour wins have come in his native South Africa. The first, the BMW SA Open in January 2016, and then this event (with -21) at the end of 2016. He’s added T18 and T15 either side of that Leopard Creek win so is very much a course horse. Stone suffered a summer slump in Europe but then flashed some form on his latest two starts when T26 at the Open de France followed by second spot in Portugal so the ingredients are there for a big challenge.
Another of the locals to have some notable history at Leopard Creek. Sterne won the 2008 edition of the Alfred Dunhill Championship and finished runner-up in 2016. He also owns a fourth and a seventh. As for current play, he made it through to the season closer in Dubai and, helped by some good iron play, posted T20.