Previously known as the Million Dollar Challenge (who knows what that is worth today?) the Gary Player Country Club hosts the 40th running of its invitational event, flitting between an initial 12-man field to the modern day 70 or thereabouts.
Given the conditions of entry, it is no surprise to read the catalogue of top-class champions, ranging from Seve to Faldo, from Sergio to Westwood, and all those in-between. This year, the event is a chance for those on the cusp of the DP World top-50 to confirm their place in next week’s seasonal decider, the DP World Tour Championship, though it’s hard to make a solid case for players currently outside of the top-70, Wil Besseling and Nicolai Von Dellingshausen, to launch above superior rivals is a question I’ll leave to you.
A solid tee-to-green game is vital around this long, 7500-odd yard track, and whilst the yardage may prompt the view that distance is all, of the top-five in driving distance from 2017 to 2019, only Joost Luiten finished on the front page of the leaderboard. Smack it around, sure, but avoid the deep rough, and ensure either approaches are solid or the scrambling is solid enough to avoid bogies. Any less and it’s a fairly early goodnight and no hope of winning a tough tournament at around 12-under.
18+ | BeGambleAware.org
*Prices subject to fluctuation and availability
Jordan Smith to win
Previous champions arrive in form – the last five have had a win or top finish/es in their previous ten starts – so both favourites, Tommy Fleetwood and Jordan Smith, have to have appeal.
It’s tough to split them despite the 55 places between them in the official world rankings, but the slightly younger man gives the impression he’s only just begun and gets the nod.
The forecast of rain will make fairway finding even more of a necessity and, whilst the man from Southport will relish that factor, it instantly points us to the chances of Smith, who will celebrate his 30th birthday the day before the first round, and that after the most impressive win of his career to date.
It’s not as if his win in Portugal was hard to predict – he had been a conquering force on the Jamega/Algarve Tour before making his way from EuroPro, to Challenge and European level, almost dominating from tee to green, but rarely able to capitalize after a short game that just wouldn’t behave. It was always only a matter of time, and with two of his previous five victories (as a professional) occurring in the last week of October….this time next year, Rodders.
Numbers don’t lie, and in his last 14 completed starts, Smith has only once ranked outside of the top-20 for ‘off-the-tee’, finished within the top-20 for approaches on eight occasions and led the field twice for tee-to-green with six further top-10 rankings. These are stunning figures, including at Le Golf National and Valderrama, so despite poor course figures, I have no doubt he is ready to go again after a week off.
There will be reason why punters would believe Smith is too short at 14/1 but in a season that has recently thrown up statistical fits in the shape of Adrian Otaegui at Valders, Kurt Kitayama (runner-up to Rory McIlroy at Congaree) and Eddie Pepperell, flying, even without that one big finish, it’s tough to ignore the stats.
I’m no fan of lists, but:
*9th in approaches
*4th for scrambling
*9th for birdies
*5th in bogies
*2nd par-five performance
and now 17th and first for putting at Valderrama and Dom Pedro.
In a limited field where only ten or so can be seriously considered as winners, Jordan is ready to get close to the world’s top echelon and into the majors, his best of those being 9th at the 2017 US PGA, two weeks after his win in Germany.
The field is wide open
The list of winners here reads very much like a who’s-who of links specialists, and therefore the afore-mentioned Pepperell must have an obvious chance.
I just wonder if his lack of length off the tee will put too much pressure on a thus-far excellent iron game, certainly against the likes of the top few, whilst Antoine Rozner was also strongly considered but has performed nothing other than average in this part of the world, and it’s tough to see him saving those crucial pars, the Frenchman’s short stick currently being worthy of being classed X-rated and several leagues below the brilliance of the wins at Qatar and Dubai.
Perez to stake a claim
Instead, at ten points bigger, take a chance that this is a going week for Victor Perez.
Victor Perez - Each Way
Rozner’s compatriot has turned into a very hard-to-read player, but in a field of 60-odd, his very best form stands the closest scrutiny.
Perez’ win at the Dunhill Links in 2019 came via beating a notably wind-positive field – Matt Southgate, Tommy Fleetwood, Tom Lewis and Jordan Smith behind – whilst the form of his top placings also stacks up as tremendously relevant this week.
Two shots behind Lee Westwood in Abu Dhabi in 2020, he was joined in second place by 2019 Nedbank champion Fleetwood, Matt Fitzpatrick and Louis Oosthuizen, the latter with a host of top-10 finishes at the Gary Player, whilst two-time champion Garcia joined 2012 champ Martin Kaymer in 8th.
Later that season, his runner-up finish at Wentworth behind two-time Dunhill Links Tyrrell Hatton at Wentworth came courtesy of an outstanding approach game, the result linking nicely with Danny Willett, Alex Noren and Seve, all winners at Virginia Water and in Sun City.
Form since has been sporadic, and his win at the Dutch Open was overdue, but it came via another set of stunning tee-to-green figures (13-plus shots over the field), and he carried that on to the European Open at the huge Green Eagle course. I’m okay with a closing 23rd at the shortened Czech Masters and third at the Italian Open behind Bob McIntyre and Fitzpatrick, whilst he was inside the top-10 going into Sunday at Le Golf National, a venue that Nedbank winners Retief Goosen, Kaymer, Fleetwood and Noren have won at.
Ignore Portugal – Thomas Bjorn and Noren both missed the cut in their previous outings – as a birdie-fest would not have suited and concentrate on his seasonal top-10 ranking for approaches and tee-to-green. Ranking 7th for ball-striking over the last three months gives an indication of the strength of his current game and he just fits well on that list of winners and placed players.
German pair pre-tournament form checks out
With both Yannik Paul and Marcel Schneider, we are taking two of the hottest ball-strikers on the tour, both inside the top-10 for events over the past 12 weeks.
Yannik Paul Top-10
The first of the named Germans, Paul’s first ‘proper’ event at this level was a top-10 at the rain-effected Joburg Open – previously won by Branden Grace and George Coetzee – whilst his runner-up in Belgium, top-20s at Green Eagle, the Barbasol and Barracuda championships, and bookends of 68 and 66 in Italy point to a player consistent enough in his form.
In fifth place going into payday in France, he matched that eighth-place finish when closing in at the Spanish Open.
The 28-year-old was telegraphing a big one, and after a very respectable 21st at Valderrama, finally came good in Mallorca in what was admittedly a fairly weak contest.
Players can do no more than win, though, and with positive figures throughout the season for all driving aspects, he can again match his figures of top-10 for approach, 13th for tee-to-green and greens-in-reg. He will need to, as the short game needs a touch of work, but having won on the Spanish island off a minus putting figure, he knows what needs working on and that something shouldn’t be needed in huge amounts this week.
Marcel Schneider Top-10
Almost four years his elder, Schneider is hitting the ball equally well as anyone on tour.
Flitting between the main tour and the Challenge Tour, the german should not need to step down a level if he carries on what seems a long-term wave of excellent ball-striking.
Long yet accurate off the tee seems a good start for the test this week, whilst 19th for tee-to-green will give him plenty of chances on the greens, especially on the crucial par-fours, for which he ranks third over the last 12 weeks.
We always see these quality iron players as strugglers on the greens, but with the emphasis on keeping dropped shots off the card, his decent scrambling stats will help steady any missed birdie chances.
Form-wise he looks very similar to Smith, and even his compatriot, before their respective victories, and his figures since the Catalunya Championship in May are very impressive.
In 19 outings including Girona, the 32-year-old has posted six top-10s, five top-20 finishes and a pair of top-30s.
In second place going into the last day of the three-round Czech Masters (an event won twice by Thomas Pieters, who surely would have disputed favouritism this week) the immediate seventh place in Crans shows an ability to play the altitude courses, whilst his back record shows top-10 finishes at courses as diverse as Green Eagle and the low-scoring Trophee Hassan at Golf du Palais Royal.
Averaging around plus-six for tee-to-green in his last five starts, and off an excellent closing top-10 in Portugal, a result despite, not because of, his flat stick, Scheider can cement his place inside the top-50 and an invitation to Dubai.