Pearl Valley, a new and highly regarded Nicklaus designed course, makes its tournament debut with this year?s South African Airways Open. At 7,438 yards, including two par-5s over 600 yards and water in play on virtually every hole, a serious golfing test is expected. As has often been the case in this tournament, I?m expecting to see the course get the better of the majority of a weak field, with a handful of the top players separating themselves by Sunday.
Last year?s renewal was dominated by TREVOR IMMELMAN and ERNIE ELS, and the market suggests a similar story at 7/1 and 5/1 respectively. This despite Ernie?s horror story at Leopard Creek. Naturally it was frustrating to have 43 betting points snatched from our grasp in quite bizarre fashion, especially as even the world?s worst pessimist could not have forseen Els taking eight on the par-5 18th when six would have sufficed.
As this wasn?t the first time Ernie has transgressed by any means, it feels like a crime to recommend backing him at 5/1. However, it is very hard to see him out of the frame on this course and had he played that 18th as impressively as the previous 71 holes we?d probably be looking at no more than 7/2. So even though it hurts to take such a price, a saver must be in order.
I’m more confident about TREVOR IMMELMAN, who hails from nearby and knows this course better than anyone else. Anything approaching a repeat of his superb performance at Sun City would make him very hard to beat. Remember, he finished six shots of Ernie there, not to mention the three-quarters of a world-class field that was even further behind. Having overcome a series of illness and injury problems that plagued his 2007 campaign, Immelman looks right back to his best and the man to beat this week.
All things considered, its hard to see beyond the top-20 in the betting, and many of those are unfancied. The top-class opposition comes from Tim Clark, Angel Cabrera and Retief Goosen, though none are fancied for a variety of reasons. Clark is always feared in his home country, but I?m not sure the course will play to this short-hitter?s strengths. And I couldn?t back Retief Goosen at any price after his miserable year, compounded by a catastrophic performance at the Nedbank on one of his favourite courses.
US Open champion Cabrera was playing some of the best golf of his life through the autumn, but since returning from a month?s break he hasn?t dominated as expected in two South American tournaments. I?m always sceptical about backing players switching between continents anyway, so he is also opposed.
With an ever-increasing array of emerging young talent on the European Tour, its becoming an interesting weekly conundrum trying to figure out which of the young guns will fare best. Last week it was the turn of Challenge Tour recruits ROSS MCGOWAN and Joost Luiten to steal some of the limelight away from Rory Mcllroy and ROSS FISHER.
Luiten, a 21 year-old Dutchman, had already created a big impression as runner-up in his national Open, and proved that was no fluke by repeating the trick at Leopard Creek. His early progress has been outstanding, almost as eye-catching as that of fellow teenager Mcllroy. Without doubt their days will come soon, but the slightly older and more experienced pair may win this week?s honours.
Fisher was overlooked last week on price grounds, but takes the eye now at 33/1. His tremendous distance off the tee will be a big asset this week, as it was when runner-up to Mickelson in Shanghai previously. Fisher lost all chance of winning in the first round at Leopard Creek, before playing some good golf over the weekend.
Twenty-five year-old McGowan has created an instant impression upon graduating from the Challenge Tour, fighting back well for 15th place in the Australian Masters and then 5th at Leopard Creek. Besides his fine form on the Challenge Tour, McGowan has some experience of South African conditions, registering a pair of top-11 finishes last winter from two Sunshine Tour appearances.
Best value amongst the Sunshine Tour regulars could lie with LOUIS OOSTHUIZEN and TITCH MOORE. This pair are extremely consistent at this level, and prior to last week?s co-sanctioned event had shared the previous five Sunshine Tour fixtures between them. Oosthuizen even finished runner-up in the two he didn?t win. Last week?s missed cut must be forgiven as all the damage was done on the opening holes and by the law of averages he was due a bad week.
Moore?s recent record is scarcely inferior, with three further top 10s prior to those two wins. He played reasonably after a slow start at Leopard Creek, and should prefer this week?s long-game test. In a field lacking strength in depth, the place odds of players like Oosthuizen and Moore are particularly good value.