For the final event of 2008, the strongest field ever assembled for the South African Open head to Pearl Valley Estate in the Western Cape. What has often been seen by some, unfairly, as a second-division affair now takes on extra prominence as part of the Race to Dubai.
That added incentive is enough to entice every leading South African player and a strong team of Europeans. For the first time in at least a decade, Ernie Els doesn’t start favourite for an event he’s won four times already. That honour goes to Henrik Stenson, purely on the basis of an incredible -21 winning total in the recent Nedbank Challenge.
Having repeatedly backed Stenson over the past 12 months, including at Sun City, I could hardly be accused of being sceptical about his talents. However, its hard to think of a worse price about a favourite than the 7/1 on offer about the in-form Swede, who also won the World Cup alongside Robert Karlsson on his penultimate start.
These events are incomparable. The World Cup was a target golf affair, and in any case Karlsson’s role was more pivotal. And while Sun City always attracts a high-class field, there were only 12 competitors and at least half were either out of form or rusty during their winter break. Stenson always prospers around that track, usually obliterating the par-5s.
Pearl Valley is a completely different test. The Nicklaus-designed par-72 was voted ‘Best New Course’ in 2005, and provided a very tough test when hosting its first South African Open last year. The winning score was just -4, with only six players finishing under-par. Though its a long course at over 7,400 yards, accuracy is of far greater importance on a track littered with bunkers and water hazards. An ability to play well in windy conditions is also essential.