Despite offering a marginally higher prize fund than the well-contested events before Christmas, the final South African leg of the Race to Dubai sees a markedly weaker field line up for the Joburg Open. It seems that, understandably, Europe’s leading lights have opted instead for an extra week’s break ahead of the lucrative ‘Middle East Swing’ that starts next week.
Gallery: The Race to Dubai favourites
Only two of this week’s field are ranked in the world’s top-50, and only eight within the top-150. On the positive side it offers a chance to see much more than we usually would of the most promising Challenge Tour recruits. Pablo Larrazabal, rookie of the year and 500/1 winner back in June, gave some notice of his potential for three rounds here in 2008, while Magnus Carlsson, one of the play-off losers, was another youngster new to the main Tour.
However, the main focus is on those two players in the top-50, in particular Richard Sterne who is bidding to become the first player to win three consecutive European Tour events in 23 years. Those two wins in his homeland have propelled Sterne up the rankings, ahead of his much more famous compatriot Retief Goosen for the first time. Sterne’s case is strengthened further by the fact he is defending champion.
I like Sterne, he’s a decent up and coming player who looks world-class in his own country and has proved he can perform further afield. Indeed this column has twice successfully recommended him, including here last year. But its always hard to defend titles, let alone win back to back. And Sterne’s task is made all the more difficult for the fact that he’s just had three weeks off, an unwelcome intervention for a player on a hot streak. Then there’s the price, just 7/1, which is hard to stomach having missed him at three times those odds before Christmas. Granted, those fields were stronger, but you won’t get rich taking short odds about middle ranking golfers on hot streaks.
Similarly, Goosen is hard to justify in single figures. Of course he’s a league apart from these on his Major winning best, but his new ranking of 45th place makes his decline from those heights painfully apparent. There was some improvement over the autumn, culminating in a low grade win in Malaysia, and he only missed a place payout for us by one shot last time at Pearl Valley. I’m not totally convinced he’ll prosper at Kensington though, a course that has placed a heavy premium on driving accuracy in the past. For Goosen hasn’t registered good stats in that department for what seems like an age.