2pts each-way Charl Schwartzel @ 16/1
1pt each-way Christiaan Bezuidenhout @ 8/1
1pt each-way Antoine Rozner @ 25/1
1pt each-way Joost Luiten @ 40/1
0.5pts each-way Adrian Otaegui @ 28/1
0.5pts each-way Casey Jarvis @ 125/1
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We’re in South Africa for the third week in a row for the Alfred Dunhill Championship at Leopard Creek, that country’s most colourful course with the Kruger National Park’s fascinating wildlife as its spectacular backdrop.
Covid knocked last year’s tournament on the head so 2020 winner Christiaan Bezuidenhout is defending champion in a field top-heavy with local stars. The first six in Fitzdares’ betting are the creme de la creme of South African golf and further down the list is the man who could once beat them all, the great Ernie Els, one of only six to have won the Open and US Open twice.
Bezuidenhout rewarded each-way supporters last time out when joint third at the Joburg Open but didn’t play in last week’s national Open which provided a home winner in Thriston Lawrence but not before that 16/1 chance, who was advised here, had done his damndest to give backers a heart attack.
Lawrence went five ahead of Frenchman Clement Sordet with five to play but three holes later they were all square after ugly golf by the leader. Fortunately for the South African’s ashen-faced supporters, Sordet got over-excited with the winning post in sight for the first time and made crucial errors on the last two holes.
With three victories in 12 months, Lawrence lays claim to being South Africa’s best golfer as Bezuidenhout and chief market rival Louis Oosthuizen have been finding winning hard. It is two years since the favourite’s last victory but he has been mixing it with the best on the PGA Tour while it is even further back to Oosthuizen’s last solo triumph.
It would be true to say the DP World Tour, which co-sanctions these SA tournaments, won’t be thrilled if LIV deserters Oosthuizen, Charl Schwartzel or Branden Grace win and they are three of the top six in the market.
Since defecting to LIV Oosthuizen has been a disappointment as form figures of 10-5-20-10-6-45-31 attest (remember these are decidedly-mixed fields of only 48) and has never won at Leopard Creek, a 7249-yard par 72 that’s been around since the turn of the century. His best there was runner-up to Grace, albeit a remote one, in 2014 when a better golfer than he is today.
The course specialist is Schwartzel – and what a specialist! Champion in 2004-12-13-15, third in 2019 and fourth in 2016, it’s a record that insists: Back me this week! The one negative for me is that he, like his pal Oosthuizen, is not quite the star he was.
But unlike Bezuidenhout and Oosthuizen, the 2011 Masters champion does have a W on his CV this year. He picked up a neat $4m as the first winner of a LIV tournament at the Centurion club, St Albans. And last week’s SA Open top-ten was a nice warm-up for his favourite home tournament.
Obviously Charl has been chief contributor to the nine South African victories at the Mpumalanga course and, who knows, he might be the tenth as well. Mpumalanga translates as ‘the land where the sun rises’ and you have to be there to believe it.
It’s a course than can play tough – just ask the 2019 competitors when Pablo Larrazabal’s eight under got the job done – but can be conquered, as Brandon Stone did when streaking home by seven with 22 under in 2016 and Grace two years earlier when cruising home by the same margin at 20 under.
Reluctantly, I leave out last week’s hero Lawrence who looked shellshocked to have got away it on Sunday and will have celebrated his reprieve with a big glass or three. He may suffer a reaction but while he doesn’t look as if he spends much off-course time I: the gym, he is not to be underrated.
Grace and Dean Burmester started co-favourites at Blair Atholl but disappointed. Burmester at least just about repaid each-way support with a four-way share of fifth place but at twice the odds this time, ninth-placed fellow Springbok Hennie Du Plessis rates better value.
Outside the South African contingent, Frenchman Antoine Rozner, Spaniard Adrian Otaegui and Dutch veteran Joost Luiten stand out.
If Otaegui plays anything like the guy who almost lapped the field at Valderrama, he will be a serious threat. After his seventh in Portugal, Luiten was off for five weeks until taking 23rd on Sunday and can be expected to improve for that outing. Rozner has reeled off a series of taking performances that advertise his claims. That near miss by his less-gifted compatriot Sordet can act as a spur.
Brits Eddie Pepperell, rookie Joburg winner Dan Bradbury and grey-topped Ross Fisher also come into the conversation. The last-named, 14th, 18th, 19th and 23rd on his latest four starts, often does well in South Africa.
For a three-figure punt, try promising Casey Jarvis at 125/1. He’s only 19 but made a big impression when ninth in Joburg after looking set for a much higher finish. That disappointing late tumble down the leaderboard could have been part of the reason for last week’s missed cut but he should have got over it by now.
2.5pts each-way Stricker/Young @ 12/1
1pt each-way English/Kuchar @ 13/2
0.5pts each-way Korda/McCarthy @ 28/1
Two Christmas crackers boasting star names from Tiger Woods to five members of America’s winning Presidents Cup and two of the LPGA elite Nelly Korda and Lexi Thompson are what’s in store this weekend as the game winds down for the year.
First up is on Friday and live on Sky is the 54-hole QBE Shootout pairs event worth $3.8m at its regular home at Tiburon, Florida.
Then on Saturday it’s Tiger and Rory McIlroy taking on Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth in a 12-hole, made-for-TV match. That under-the-lights showdown is also in the Sunshine State, at the Pelican club in Belleair, teeing off at midnight our time but live only on American channel TNT.
The starry quartet are playing for the victims of Hurricane Ian and Fitzdares probably have the right favourite in Woods/McIlroy. With Tiger playing for the first time since the Open and with the massively popular world No. 1 as partner, there is little doubt who the public and sponsors want to win and, in the spirit of Christmas, I’m pretty sure that is what’s going to happen.
There was obviously a scare last week when Woods had to withdraw from his own tournament, the Hero, because of a foot problem but that was 72 holes, this is 12. Backers can be certain he has saved himself for this and next week’s PNC Championship where he partners 13-year-old son Charlie against other legends.
The value bet of the week comes at the Shootout where the intriguing partnership of 55-year-old wise old head Steve Stricker and giant-hitting Rookie of the Year Cameron Young, 30 years his junior, looks perfect for the format and are 12/1 in a 12-team line-up.
Stricker, four times a Champions Tour winner this year and for decades one of the great short-game exponents, was vice-captain on this year’s Presidents Cup and had debutant Young under his wing.
He will have been pleased to see his exceptionally talented partner finish a bold third behind Viktor Hovland and Scottie Scheffler on his Hero bow and has the course know-how to shepherd him to victory on his 13th Shootout appearance.
Two of Young’s runner-up finishes came in Majors and if he doesn’t chalk up his first PGA Tour victory next year, I shall eat my already well-chewed hat.
On day one they play a Scramble (both drive, take the better one, then two attempts at every other shot on the hole), it’s Greensomes on Saturday (both drive then hit alternately, what the Americans clumsily call Modified Alternate Shot) and on Sunday a Better Ball (where they play their own ball and the lower score counts).
Much interest will centre on women’s world No. 2 Nelly Korda making her debut with ace putter Denny McCarthy as partner while the equally long-hitting Lexi Thompson, a Shootout veteran makes her sixth start, this time with Maverick McNealy.
Both women hit it a country mile and the younger Korda is so exceptional – she was No. 1 for much of the year – that her overpriced team rates a small each-way interest.
Billy Horschel and Jason Day head the betting but they are one of ten new teams and I can’t think why they should be so short. The Harris English/Matt Kuchar combo make greater appeal even though Kooch has regressed this year.
With three Shootout wins and six top fives, he’s a Tiburon specialist while his partner, a member of the last US Ryder Cup squad, has come back strong after the hip surgery that kept him for four months in the first half of the year.
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