Golf,

Veer the steer in South Africa

THE JOBURG OPEN


Best bets
2pts each-way Johannes Veerman @ 20/1
1pt each-way Matt Jordan @ 28/1
0.5pts each-way Marcus Hellingkilde @ 33/1
0.5pts each-way Matti Schmid @ 33/1
0.5pts each-way Romain Langasque @ 22/1
0.5pts each-way Daniel Gavins @ 66/1
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We’re paying SEVEN places at the Joburg Open!


The Joburg Open, the first of three in a burst of pre-Christmas South African activity, is not the strongest field of the year or even the month but it is a history-maker as it tees off the DP World Tour, the new name for the European Tour.

So every week the media has to mention the Dubai logistics company DP World, which has just sponsored the mega-rich European Tour Championship, won from behind by the relentless young American Collin Morikawa and spectacularly lost by Rory McIlroy in a late meltdown. There’s no way round it.

Make no mistake, Joburg isn’t the beginning of a new World Tour. No, the Middle East cash is down, prize money is up past $200m, and a Dubai conglomerate has hijacked the European Tour just as the Saudis seek to launch its version of a world circuit but almost certainly won’t succeed. Not much else changes – that’s how it looks to me.

Speaking of the media, when will they stop seeing McIlroy through rose-coloured spectacles? Yes, he had terribly bad luck four holes from home on Sunday when trying to nurse a narrow lead but that’s golf. It’s not like, say, chess where there’s no luck involved. And the previous day Rory had some outrageous good fortune when a poor shot that should have gone into the water didn’t.

Over the year luck tends to level out. It is how they deal with the bad breaks that separates the winners from the losers. And in this case McIlroy failed to deal with it.

Sure, he won two decent tournaments in the States but just look at his performance on the occasions that really mattered:

Majors: MC-49-7-46. WGCs: 6-28-13. Tour Championship (Europe): 6.

Ryder Cup: W1, L3. It might satisfy some but for a player still rated by many as the most talented golfer since Tiger Woods, it simply won’t do.

While punters reel from another McIlroy miscue we turn to more mundane matters on the 7506-yard par 71 Firethorn course at Randpark where JB Hansen made his Tour breakthrough last year and showed that the usually impregnable South Africans can be beaten on home turf.

With the best locals absent in Johannesburg, there’s a fair chance of another away winner, perhaps, in Hansen’s absence, even another Dane in the shape of Challenge Tour star Marcus Helligkilde, twice first and once runner-up on his last four satellite circuit starts and now moving up a level on a wave of positivity.

Fitzdares take no chances with this surging 25-year-old or with the favourite, Dean Burmester, the best South African on current form after sharing sixth spot with McIlroy and Ian Poulter in Dubai and, before that, winner of the SA PGA on his home tour.

But his Randpark record isn’t good and last week may have taken a lot out of him. At single-figure odds  he’s worth taking on even though the course is supposed to favour bombers like him and lâst year’s runner-up Wilco Nienaber whose best drive last year was measured at 439 yards. And that’s not a typo.

Yet winner Hansen wasn’t a huge hitter, so is length really so crucial with the ball flying miles in the rarefied air almost 6000ft up? Surely picking the right club matters more?

Nienaber and Shaun Norris, second and third last year, come into the reckoning on last year’s form but while young Wilco has since won the Dimension Data on his home circuit, his European progress has been slow. Outside a sixth at the Spanish Open, it does not amount to much.

Nor do I trust Dylan Frittelli, fifth in the Open but that was the only plus in a year of missed cuts in the States. The confidence that brought him a first victory there in 2019 seems to have vanished.

Even though, like Burmester, Dubai may have taken a toll, the solid European credentials of the American with the South African name, Johannes Veerman, make greater appeal. He is younger and fitter than the favourite so may shake off the effects of last week’s pressure cooker. It won’t be hot this week and may even be wet.

The Californian, 29, has posted a bundle of good efforts, breaking through in Prague after a series of near-misses – third in the Irish Open the pick when only his nerves beat him – and is a far more rounded golfer now than when 13th at Randpark in the SA Open at the start of last year.

That 21st at Jumeirah in top company on Sunday looked like being a fair bit better until a final 73 that will have disappointed him on a day when first-out Bernd Wiesberger shot a 63. But at least it was better than leaders McIlroy and Sam Horsfield managed.

Young Europeans ready to step up are Matt Jordan, Matti Schmid and Helligkilde.

Jordan, a 2017 Walker Cupper and 2019 Challenge Tour winner, was fourth at Crans, fifth at Vilamoura and posted four sub-par rounds on the Fire Course in Dubai.

Schmid, having only his 13th start, is already making an impression on his Dutch second, Dunhill Links ninth and Majorcan 11th.

Helligkilde, Challenge Tour Grand Final winner on his last start in that grade, won’t find this modest heat that much harder, certainly there’s nobody to be frightened of.

It would be an exaggeration to say Frenchman Romain Langasque has had a good year but the 2020 Wales Open winner is high up the driving stats and needs only to step up his putting to be a serious factor on a course where he did so well on only his second start after graduating from the Challenge Tour in 2019.

A star amateur, he looked a serious prospect when runner-up to Louis Oosthuizen at Randpark in that South African but has often flattered to deceive since. He won’t need to be a superstar to contend again on a course that clearly suits.

I also give an each-way shout to Dan Gavins, surprise winner of the grandly-named World Invitational (previously the Northern Ireland Open). In truth, it wasn’t a great field but he’s shown that first victory to be no fluke by finishing 11th at Valderrama and sixth at the Dunhill Links. The Yorkshireman looks fair value at 66/1 in this company.

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