SOUTH AFRICAN OPEN
For the second consecutive year, the South African Open is being played on a classic links course, in what represents a interesting final week of the 2006 golfing calendar. Last year, the superb Fancourt course really separated the men from the boys as Retief Goosen touched off Ernie Els in a classic. And this time, I suspect that Humewood will have a similar effect on the leader board, making it hard to look beyond the top handful of
players in a field with little strength in depth.
Theoretically, this should make gambling a lot easier, even if experience tells me one should never utter such words out aloud! And though I can see the merit in each-way betting at big prices here, I?ll be surprised if the winner comes from outside the top-6 and it is those players I am focussing most of my attention upon. Out of those six, two are not fancied much as they don?t look quite up to scratch at links golf. Angel Cabrera, a rare
winner anyway, has a very poor record in the British Open. And though I have already forgiven top prospect Charl Schwartzel for blowing last week?s event from what looked a certain winning position, I don?t believe he has the necessary experience or all-round game yet to produce his best on a links.
Equally while I?m not writing off another great prospect, Trevor Immelman, he is also left out of the staking plan until producing his best on a course of this stature and type. Its interesting to note that his only below-par tournaments on home soil in the past 5 years have come in this event including at Fancourt last year. So that leaves us with three, ERNIE ELS, RETIEF GOOSEN and LEE WESTWOOD.
Westwood rates a top value each-way bet in this company. Asides the issue of home advantage, its hard to calculate why he is three times the price of Els and twice that of Goosen. His recent form is at least on a par with them, including an excellent effort at the weekend?s Alfred Dunhill Championship. Though Lee ended up losing out over the final few holes, it shouldn?t be forgotten that he was five over par early in his opening round and bounced back superbly to take a hand in the finish. Bearing in mind he was tournament rusty starting last week, that effort will no doubt have sharpened Westwood up perfectly. As a multiple worldwide winner, including the Dunhill Links Championship where he has an outstanding record, and one of the more consistent Open players of recent years, everything points to a very strong chance here.
Els presents me with a huge dilemma. I can?t remember the last time I left the Big Easy out of my calculations on a links course as I rate him as one of the all-time greats at this type of golf. And even when clearly some way off his best, Ernie still manages somehow to finish high up on the leader board. He probably made as many mistakes in his last two events as in the whole of one of his best years, yet still managed to finish 4th and 8th. Its
hard to find a pundit who isn?t worried that Els is slipping into decline, yet only twice in 12 events since the beginning of July has he failed to make the top-10, usually in much stronger fields than this. The dilemma for me is that his price of 9/2 is ridiculously short on recent form. I?m sure I will be accused by some of blind loyalty to my favourite golfer, but I remain confident that Ernie will bounce back. He?s too good, and looks seriously determined to put right a disappointing year. And so, while ideally I would prefer to wait for a better price in-running, I can?t afford to leave him out of the staking plan.
Again, there are plenty of reasons to baulk at the price of Goosen defending the title, but he is another proven world-class performer on courses of this type and performing in a much lower grade than usual. Goose has also had a disappointing year by his own standards, largely due to a cold putter, but did show plenty of signs of a return to form at the end of the season, winning a low-grade event in China before finishing 4th at the Tour championship and blowing a golden chance in the HSBC Champions Trophy. As with Ernie, Retief certainly has the class and the temperament to overcome these blips whatever the pure betting value of his odds. He is impossible to leave out of the equation.
Though I?m convinced the winner will come from that group of favourites, I do think there is one nice each-way bet on offer. Take the 66/1 about the young Englishman ROSS FISHER after announcing a return to form with 4th place at the weekend. A glance at last year?s Fancourt leaderboard suggests an out and out two horse race between Goosen and Els, who finished seven shots ahead of the third. However, if my memory serves me correctly, Fisher was right in the thick of it until a poor final day, and at one point held a
five shot lead. I like Fisher a lot as a long-term prospect, not least because he seems to thrive on the tougher courses which is always a good sign.
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Given his truly outstanding second half of 2006, its no surprise to see Tiger Woods as short as 6/4 for the final event of the year, an invitational tournament played to raise money for Tiger?s favourite charities. Of the 16 competitors, its very hard to fancy at least 6 of them and his most obvious challengers are not Furyk, Els, Goosen, Singh and Mickelson, but Adam Scott and Padraig Harrington.
Still, one has to question the great man?s hunger in such an event. Woods came back a little rusty from a short break at the end of the season, missing the Tour Championship citing fatigue. Tiger was well below his best in both Far-East events, and a similarly disinterested performance to last year?s 14th place is not out of the question. For those who bet on the
exchanges, I strongly recommend laying Woods at this price. If nothing else, I?ll be quite shocked if he does not trade at least a couple of points higher at some stage in-running. Sherwood Country Club is normally a birdie fest for this event which can have the impact of levelling the playing field. Last year?s event was an absolute cracker for online layers, with
Michael Campbell, Darren Clarke and PADRAIG HARRINGTON all trading at very short odds before LUKE DONALD swept past them all on the final day.
Harrington has the form in the book and must be the main threat. Winner of this in 2002, Pod has also finished in the top-3 here every year since. Of equal importance must be the psychological boost of beating Tiger head-to-head in Japan, somehow managing to come from three shots behind the greatest front-runner of all-time. This week?s friendly affair doesn?t really offer any clues to next year?s Majors but Harrington is very much in my thoughts for them. Finally managing to win the Order of Merit might just be the boost he needed to make that all important step in his career. He definitely looks a player on the up.
Under other circumstances, I could be tempted by Adam Scott, Henrik Stenson and Paul Casey, but as all are making their course and tournament debuts they could be at a slight disadvantage. By process of elimination, defending champion Donald must be on the shortlist. Luke is so consistent that he?s never too far away in most events, even if his win ratio is nothing to write home about. If you can hit greens in regulation at Sherwood, you?re bound to make plenty of birdies and there are few better in that department. Another advantage is that he is well prepared, having played at the World Cup over the weekend, whereas several of this week?s field are in the middle of their winter breaks.
The one player whose chances are particularly difficult to weigh is DAVIS LOVE. Davis won this event in 2003, and was third the previous year, but has played poorly on his two subsequent visits. And equally, he looked a player in decline for the first two thirds of the 2006 season but suddenly sprung to life in the autumn winning in Greensboro in the middle of three top-5 finishes. On that form, 25/1 here in this limited field is absolutely massive, though we have to forgive a poor effort on his last start over a month ago at the Tour Championship and take form on trust.
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SOUTH AFRICAN OPEN
6pts ERNIE ELS @ 9/2 (GENERALLY AVAILABLE)
6pts RETIEF GOOSEN @ 13/2 (GENERALLY AVAILABLE)
3pts ew LEE WESTWOOD @ 14/1 (GENERALLY AVAILABLE)
1pt ew ROSS FISHER @ 66/1 (GENERALLY AVAILABLE, 80/1 WITH LADBROKES)
4pts win PADRAIG HARRINGTON @ 10/1 (LADBROKES, SKYBET)
4pts win LUKE DONALD @ 11/1 (GENERALLY AVAILABLE)
2pts win DAVIS LOVE @ 25/1 (BET DIRECT, CORALS)
LAY TIGER WOODS 10pts @ 2.5 (BETFAIR)
2006/2007 STATS: -9pts
2005/2006 STATS: +144pts
ANTE-POST ALREADY ADVISED
VOLVO ORDER OF MERIT
5pts PADRAIG HARRINGTON @ 7/1 (PRICES AVAILABLE WITH LADBROKES, BET DIRECT)
5pts HENRIK STENSON @ 10/1 (BET DIRECT, BLUESQ, LADBROKES, TOTE)
3pts TIGER WOODS TO WIN GRAND SLAM IN 2007@ 40/1 (HILLS)
10pts TIGER WOODS TO WIN 3 MAJORS IN 2007 @ 8/1 (BLUESQ)