After the best part of three decades on the Challenge Tour the Kenyan Open has this year graduated to the main circuit and whilst this year’s champion will be the first to lift the trophy as a European Tour winner, his name will join a long list of European golf’s greatest names.
Prior to its inclusion on the second tier this event was part of the famed Safari Tour, a short winter venture that helped progress the careers of Europe’s Famous Five (Ballesteros, Langer, Lyle, Faldo, Woosnam).
The first and last of those greats won this tournament, as did fellow Ryder Cup stars Ken Brown, Brian Barnes, Eamonn Darcy Jose Maria Canizares and Christy O’Connor Jr.
Rai was expected to play this week and would have been a form favorite with the locals (owing to his mother’s Kenyan background) and bookmakers too. Alas his rise up the golfing ladder has caused him to re-schedule and unfortunately he is far from alone – the field has rather let the tournament down and its full name (The Magical Kenyan Open) is something of a misnomer.
(At Muthaiga GC)
2018 -11 Lorenzo Gagli
2017 -17 Aaron Rai
(At Karen CC)
2016 -18 Sebastian Soderberg
2015 -17 Haydn Porteous
2014 -10 Jake Roos
2013 -12 Jordi Garcia Pinto
A par-71 playing to 6,922 yards, Karen CC has bent grass greens (prior to 2015 they were Bermuda), Kikuyu fairways and a mix of Kikuyu and Buffalo in the rough. It is one reason that South Africans have thrived here, it being a combination they are familiar with back home. Add in the high altitude (see the quotes below), plus the tree-lined, traditional design and you have an even more enticing prospect for the South Africans.
It is forecast to be cloudy with frequent sunny intervals, but there is very little chance of rain. However expect quite a bit of breeziness, with the wind gusting through the trees from around 10 to 20mph through the week.
Sebastian Soderberg (2016) – “The crowds were incredible. I’ve never known a Challenge Tour event like it, it was amazing.”
Dylan Frittelli (2016) – “I’m comfortable in these conditions. We’re about 5,500-6,000ft above sea-level which is the same as Johannesburg and the ball flies miles – that’s something the European boys will have to get used to. It’s a fun track, you’ve got to hit a few different shots and keep it in play, which is nice to see these days. Most courses we play are long and tough and you’ve got to bomb the driver but this is a fun one.”
Brandon Stone (2015) – “If you look at the history of this event, South Africans have always done well, and I think that is because we are used to the conditions, the heat, and we have plenty of similar courses back home.”
Greg Snow (2015) – “In general if you can get it in play this week you will go low. It also helps to already be used to the altitude. All the par fives are reachable and should all be birdie chances.”
The Leading Contenders
Last week’s win had the feel of one of the more obvious snowball effects in recent times, but in the aftermath we learned more of where it all came from. It was not just a switch to a long putter, but a heart to heart with George Coetzee which led to him cutting out social drinking. Claimed four wins in six starts last summer and in that run was T18 at this course (T8 at halfway). Will he back off or ride the wave?
A resident of Johannesburg so absolutely no stranger to the distinct examination described above and his T2 last week shows he is in form. The doubt would be his putting under the cosh. He says his upturn in form over the last two to three years is due to improved putting, yet it remains a little fallible when there is pressure. T19 on the course in 2016.
Collected yet another top ten in Doha last week and it was something of kink from his recent form, in fact his first anywhere in the world since last April’s Open de Espana. Can we ascribe that simply to his fondness for that track or is it a sign that he has shrugged off the form funk? He’s played the event once, in 2009 at Muthaiga, and missed the cut, but he is another Johanesburg specialist (and a winner in the region this time last year).
The Frenchman presents a strong case this week. His record on the track? He was T2 when he played it on the Challenge Tour as an amateur in 2016 (ahead of playing the Masters and then turning professional). His form at altitude, on grainy greens, with a traditional design? T2 in the South African Open at Randpark in Joburg before Christmas. His seasonal log book? He is 6-for-7 with four top 25s.
The Spaniard played this tournament at Muthaiga last year, but didn’t reach the weekend. However the start of his rookie campaign on the main tour has caught the attention of many and he’s well-favored by the bookmakers. He is 6-for-8 with four top 30s and the second best of those efforts came last week when he was T14 in the Qatar Masters.
The Dane has solid experience at the course, with T48 in 2014 and a better T13 in 2015. Add in some consistent form and his short price becomes understandable. He was T7 in the South African Open, then in more recent weeks he threatened to win another Sunshine Tour event (not co-sanctioned by the ET) and added T12-T14 in the Oman Open and Qatar Masters.
A strong case can be made for last week’s EuropeanTour.com blog writer. He posted 72-71-66-68 to tie his ET career-best finish last week in the Qatar Masters and he was T4 on the course in 2016 after rounds of 70-71-68-68. And where did his previous second place finish come? At Glendower in Johannesburg.
His missed cut last week was perhaps not too surprising because his T2 the week before in the Oman Open will have left him somewhat bewildered and frustrated. He had played a superb final round, responded to an unlucky bogey at 16 with a bounce back birdie at 17 and then inexplicably three-putted 18 for a bogey. If he can recall the strong form (he was also T8 in the Vic Open) and get over his missed cut here in 2016, he can contend again.
The Indian has taken quiet advantage of winning a full European Tour card at the Fiji International last year and is 6-for-6 with every finish T40 or better, even if he is yet to best T27 (which he has recorded in both the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship and Oman Open). A first experience of Kenya, but Delhi GC is not unsimilar. He was T2 there in 2012, but has also missed six cuts in 16 starts.
Two of the three finest performances of his career read very well for this week. He was winner of the Joburg Open in late 2017 and a couple of months later he led the WGC Mexico Championship after 54 holes. Both those efforts came on traditional designs, tree-lined and at altitude. Against that his form is not at the same level, but he was second on the Indian Tour last month and T6 in the Hong Kong Open.
Course / Neat Fit
If you can overlook some very poor recent form he might be worth a close ponder. The obvious reason is that he won on this course in 2015 (and also posted a strong R1 in 2014). But he was also T7 in that relatively recent South African Open. Not been inside the top 40 in six starts since however.
Opened the 2019 season with six missed cuts, but has turned that round in the last two weeks, claiming T21 at the Oman Open and T20 in the Qatar Masters. Throw in victory on this track in 2016 (T6 in the tournament last year) and he’s worth a second look.
The Northern Irishman opened his year with victory on a minor tour in Portugal and it very nearly paid off when he traveled down under. His T17-T47 return threatened to be much better both times and now he plays a course he was T3 at in 2004.
Apparently doomed to spend his career bobbing between the main tour and the second tier, this event is therefore exactly his level. He’s also played this course three times and never ended the week outside the top ten. 0-for-2 for 2019 however.
The Dane hasn’t been seen on the tour since he was T22 at Valderrama in the Andalucia Masters, a result that didn’t save his card. He was T15 on the Nordic League last month and has a T10 and T2 on the course (2007 and 2014).
The American is inexperienced on the European Tour but there is little to frighten him this week and the experiences of Kurt Kitayama ought to embolden him. Improved on a Pebble Beach MC with T58 in Oman and then T6 in the Asian Tour’s Thailand Masters last week.
The Australian came one swing from recording a career-best finish on the European Tour last week, but his form now reads MC-T31-T14 and having been in-contention last week he’ll have learned a lot from his fourth round experience.
The Frenchman is making slow but steady progress with his form (MC-T55-T31-T27) and when added to his event form makes an interesting prospect. He was T2 at Muthaiga in 2017 and T4 after 36-holes at Karen in 2016.
The Japanese golfer is ticking along quite nicely this season. T5 in the Mauritius Open and T18 in the Dunhill Championship, in the last few weeks he has gone MC (Perth), T56 (Oman), T20 (Qatar).
Form heading in the right direction with a MC in the World Super 6 Perth followed by T56 in the Oman Open and T2 last week in Qatar. As if that were not all, he was T3 after 36 holes at the course in 2014 (T17) and T8 after 54 holes in the event in 2017 (T45).
The Italian has struggled on the course (T40-T53) but he is the defending champion having claimed the win at Muthaiga last year. 2-for-7 this season though.
The German owns three top tens on the course including a best of T3 in 2016 and his strongest effort this season was T24 at the South African Open (in Johannesburg).
The Norwegian is having something of a rollercoaster return to the main tour, full of big numbers and the odd low one too (a second round 65 in Perth). T4 on the course in 2016.
The Dutchman has played the course twice and finished top ten both times (T5 in 2015, T8 in 2016). Third at Challenge Tour Grand Final but only one start this season (T40 Australian PGA Championship).
Deemed something of a local legend yet in truth he has only made two cuts in 11 tournament starts, but he was T10 at Karen in 2014 and he will have huge support.
A little-known Scot who might ride the wave of that country’s recent mini-resurgence. Has made three top tens in four starts on the fourth tier MENA Tour.
Not been seen in action since last year’s Challenge Tour Grand Final and yet to prove himself beyond that level, but he was T5 after 54 holes last time the event was here.
Had a terrible start to the season going 2-for-8 without one top 40, but he was T5 at the course in 2014 and T8 after a first round 68 in 2015 (finished T28).
T4 in the World Super 6 Perth reads well in this company and although he makes a course debut the Zimbabwean will have experience of similar designs at home.
Has failed to make the weekend in his last four starts, but ended the 2018 season nicely and has good course experience: T12 in 2015.
3. Adri Arnaus
7. Jeff Winther
10. Clement Sordet
11. Renato Paratore
13. Oliver Wilson
15. Sean Crocker
16. Ricardo Gouveia
17. Scott Vincent
18. Josh Geary
19. Lorenzo Gagli
20. Nick Cullen
Look out for Tuesday’s Expert Picks column with advice from myself and Dave Tindall on selections for DraftKings and the European Tour Fantasy Game.