The 2011 Race to Dubai gets off to an early start, with this long-standing co-sanctioned Sunshine Tour event. Compared to previous years, which usually included the likes of Ernie Els and Retief Goosen, the field lacks both big names and strength in depth. There are only two of the world’s top 100 in attendance, and most of the Europeans are more usually associated with the Challenge Tour.

Indeed, if ever one needed an illustration of that weakness, then Damian McGrane and Robert Rock’s positions amongst the leading half-dozen in the betting provides it. An argument of sorts could be created for either on the basis of course or recent form, but with one win from well over 400 starts between them, 25/1 does not represent much of a betting proposition. Nor for that matter does 33/1 about Challenge Tour winner Alvaro Velasco. Granted, recent graduates include Martin Kaymer and Edoardo Molinari, but they were exceptions to the general rule.

Leopard Creek plays host for the seventh consecutive year, which should be good news for stats students. Three of the six champions were very obvious, and while Alvaro Quiros was an outsider, he’s more than proved his worth since. Just like defending champion Pablo Martin, Quiros also fulfilled the key statistical criteria of being a big-hitter. The other key stat to follow here is par-five performance, as four long holes are the key to scoring at Leopard Creek.

Everything looks set up for CHARL SCHWARTZEL, a point reflected by odds of just 11/2. The only opponent of comparable quality is Open champ Louis Oosthuizen, and he is hard to make a case for after finishing last at the Nedbank. Schwartzel won on this course at the age of 20, and has been runner-up three times since. He’s already won two similar co-sanctioned events in 2010. This has been easily his best year to date, which has seen him break through in the States with a couple of top threes in elite events and top 30s in all four Majors. If he wasn’t moving to the States next year, he’d probably have been a long-range pick for the Race to Dubai. So despite odds that are admittedly painfully short, Schwartzel must be backed because I think he’ll win.

Two further South African candidates belong on any shortlist. Richard Sterne won this two years ago and has form at a much higher level, but is returning from a long-term injury layoff. Alternatively, THOMAS AIKEN looks bound to be there or thereabouts. He’s got enough power off the tee to score well around Leopard Creek, and has plenty of pedigree in similar standard events, finishing fourth here in 2008 and runner-up in this year’s Africa Open. Aiken’s recent European Tour returns are pretty consistent, missing only one cut since August and making the top-15 in the elite Dubai World Championship last time.

Not many others really make much appeal. John Parry would have a great chance if recapturing the form shown throughout September and October. Defending champ Martin has some fair recent efforts to his name without doing anything special, but could be under-priced on the basis of that shock win. If memory serves, he used up a lot of luck here last year. Daniel Gaunt warrants a mention after carrying his Challenge Tour form over to Australia for a top five in the JBWere Masters, but is priced accordingly at just 33/1.

Even some of the usual South African suspects are hard to fancy. James Kingston has never made a top 20 at Leopard Creek. Garth Mulroy has better records elsewhere, and hasn’t been doing much on the Nationwide Tour. Jean Hugo and Adilson Da Silva have enjoyed cracking seasons on the Sunshine Tour, but both have awful course records.

My two final picks are RAFAEL CABRERA-BELLO and MARCEL SIEM. The former hasn’t quite lived up to my early expectations, although he did reward very loyal backers by winning the 2009 Austrian Open at a silly price. Nevertheless, he’s made top 20s on two of his last three starts, and has shown a liking for Leopard Creek, registering three top 25s from four including fourth in 2008.

Siem won this event when it was played at Houghton, in early 2004, and finished sixth when defending the title later that year at this course. He’s one of the biggest hitters in this line-up and can boast snippets of Euro Tour form, including a top 20 on his penultimate start.

Advised golf betting:

8pts win CHARL SCHWARTZEL @ 11/2 (GENERAL)
2.5pts ew THOMAS AIKEN @ 18/1 (GENERAL, 20/1 BET365)
1pt ew RAFAEL CABRERA-BELLO @ 50/1 (GENERAL)
1pt ew MARCEL SIEM @ 66/1 (GENERAL)

2010 STATS: +72pts