Rahm to be Hero but we’ll miss wounded Tiger


3pts each-way Jon Rahm @ 11/2
1pt each-way Tommy Fleetwood @ 18/1
1pt each-way Joohyung (Tom) Kim @ 18/1

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It’s the last big golfing week of 2022 but it should have been even bigger. Tiger Woods, due to be back for the first time since The Open to compete in the Hero World Challenge, has pulled out with a foot problem, but we still have a sizzler of a tournament in the Bahamas plus two national Opens in Australia and South Africa.

It’s a Sky triple-header to savour with wall-to-wall golf from sparrow’s fart in Melbourne to a balmy evening in the Bahamas where a galaxy of stars headed by Jon Rahm and Scottie Scheffler contest the annual end-of-term fund-raiser for the Tiger Woods Foundation.

There’s a big story too over in Johannesburg where for the first time a golf course of 8,000-plus yards will be unveiled on the DP World Tour, the Gary Player-designed Blair Atholl. With four of the five par fives over 600 yards, is this the shape of the future?

This worldwide action is a good opportunity to pay for the Christmas expenses and fuel bills with each-way across-the-card doubles. Rahm and Open champion Cameron Smith, both fresh from recent victories, are worthy favourites for their events and although the SA Open is a bigger head-scratcher Branden Grace could be the answer there.

Let’s start at the Albany course in the Bahamas where DP World Tour champion Rahm heads the betting in an elite field of 20 – Austrian Sepp Straka, last year’s Honda Classic winner, will stand in for Woods – on the links-style Ernie Els design, a 7414-yard par 72 with five par fives and five threes.

Woods won’t be playing because of a pain in the base of his right foot which makes walking difficult but the five-time Hero champion will still be there in his capacity as tournament host and remains confident of partnering Rory McIlroy in the much-talked-about 12-hole made-for-TV match against Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas in Florida a week on Saturday.

Let’s be clear: all 20 will be trying to win this week but the $3.5m is not official money and several of the Americans in the past have treated the Hero as more of a social event at the end of a long year which might be part of the reason why the last three winners have been European.

Norway’s Viktor Hovland won on debut last year, there was no tournament in 2020, Swedish icon Henrik Stenson just held off defending champion Rahm in 2019 and the previous year the Spaniard himself shimmied home by four.

Hovland’s triumph over Scheffler came despite a bogey-bogey finish, that pair profiting hugely from an unexpected collapse by 54-hole leader Collin Morikawa who double-bogeyed the fourth and sixth in slumping to a 76.

I’m not sure Morikawa has been the same player since. In any event, he has not added to his score this muted campaign. He tries again but it’s best at this stage of a long year to look for players with hot recent form and that wouldn’t include Morikawa or Hovland, a big disappointment last time out in Dubai.

Boring though it is to go for the favourite, I can’t get away from Rahm who is 1-4-1 for his last three starts and 1-2 and 37 under par for his two Albany visits.

Sticking to the recent-form theme, Tommy Fleetwood makes plenty of each-way appeal at 18/1. The mullet-topped Southport man has emerged from an underwhelming first half of the year to open his account belatedly at a competitive Nedbank Challenge in Sun City. And he does have course cred as he was third five years ago.

Fleetwood then went on to tie for fifth with Matt Fitzpatrick, a rival again this week, in the Tour Championship at Jumeirah. That followed a T4 behind Rory at the CJ Cup on the PGA Tour so it’s all very solid.

Scheffler should be the pick of the Americans but is playing curate’s egg golf, good in parts but marred by some sloppy irons and pushed putts. He is so naturally gifted and laid back he could easily click and stroll away with the main prize but after the sensational spring and his first Major at Augusta, he’s probably not too worried about what happens in this more leisurely affair.

Three reigning Major champions are in the line-up, Scheffler, Justin Thomas and Fitzpatrick, while Xander Schauffele and Tony Finau are also sure to prove troublesome.

It is only three weeks since Finau absolutely destroyed the Houston Open field. That admittedly wasn’t a strong one but if he putts as well as he did the first three days, they may not see the way he goes. Hard though it is to leave out the big man from Utah, a single-figure quote is just about resistible.

One who will not be treating the Hero as money for old rope is the feisty 20-year-old Tom Kim, the twice-victorious South Korean prodigy who is the most exciting of the seven Hero first-timers.

Rahm and Hovland both won on their debuts so don’t he scared to back this confident young man, a future world No. 1 if ever I saw one, or any of the other debutants, Rookie of the Year Cameron Young, new father Max Homa, Corey Conners, Straka and 2018 Open champion Shane Lowry, a strong sixth string to the European bow. It’s going to be an early Christmas cracker.


2pts each-way Branden Grace @ 14/1
1pt each-way Danie Van Tonder @ 33/1
1pt each-way Dale Whitnell @ 40/1
0.5pt each-way Thriston Lawrence @ 16/1
0.5pt each-way Sami Valimaki @ 33/1

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Not often is the golf course rather than the players the story but it is Gary Player’s monster Blair Atholl on the original farmland where he used to breed racehorses outside Johannesburg that’s the centre of attention at the South African Open.

At 8161 yards, this par 72 with four par fives over 600 yards, two of them over 640, and par fours at 560 and 566 it is the longest ever to be used for a DP World Tour event.

If you thought Sun City at 7834 yards, an other epic Player creation, was a trek at the Nedbank Challenge earlier in November, this homage to Augusta National beats that out of sight.

Remember though that the rarefied air knocks around 10% off the length, that short hitters like Jim Furyk won at Sun City and the only competitive evidence we have about what will be 87-year-old Player’s lasting gift to the game suggests it’s not too frightening. Luke Brown shot 12 under to win a Sunshine Tour event there in 2020 and Thriston Lawrence, a definite contender this week, fired a closing 64 for the low round of the week so we know he likes the layout.

The course in a rural setting at Laseria only a few miles out of the city presents wide fairways and copious elevation changes. It is inspired by Gary’s love of Augusta, where he won three Masters. The short third across a lake is Player’s take on the 12th at Augusta and the fourth, a fearsome dogleg where the drive has to carry Crocodile River, is modelled on the awesome 13th.

Little Gary more than punched his weight off the tee but was never a mighty smiter of a golf ball so we can assume that the course at Blair Atholl Golf & Equestrian Centre – Player bred racehorses too, the best-known in the UK being Broadway Flyer, runner-up to Moonax in the 1994 St Leger – will reward bunker skill and imaginative shot-making every bit as much as power.

Christiaan Bezuidenhout won the last edition of the South African Open at the end of 2020 when it was co-sanctioned by the DP World Tour while Danie Van Tonder, joint-third at the Joburg Open, captured a watered-down Sunshine Tour-only version last year when Covid travel restrictions kept the European contingent away.

There’s no Bezuidenhout this week and Fitzdares have big-hitting Dean Burmester and LIV signing Branden Grace heading the market at 14/1 with Sunday’s shock 200/1 Joburg winner Dan Bradbury at 60/1.

The burly 23-year-old from Wakefield who honed his strong all-round game at Florida State before turning pro in July led from pillar to post on only his third DP World Tour start, exhibiting a wonderful coolness under fire that will earn him plenty more victories but maybe not so soon.

He is definitely a star of the future but the man I want to be with this week is Grace who looked as likely as anybody to win the competitive Nedbank Challenge going into the final round one behind but putted like a dog on the Sunday to fade to eighth with a 75.

I am certain he was dragged down by his playing partners’ woeful golf in that final threeball with Thomas Detry shooting 77 and Rasmus Hojgaard 76. It happens.

Grace’s LIV exploits, which featured a win in Portland where he holed everything and a third at St Albans – where Charl Schwartzel, a rival again this week, took the first LIV $4m cheque – stand close inspection.

The 2019 South African Open champion was unfortunate in Bangkok where he shot a blistering opening 65 but had to withdraw during the second round with a muscle strain.

Big-hitting Van Tonder showed enough at Houghton to contend again as did quiet Englishman Dale Whitnell, who looks fair each-way value at 40/1.

This late bloomer from Colchester made a costly late error and that’s not the first time I’ve noticed him wilting under pressure but the ability is undoubtedly there. Previous good efforts include fourth in Majorca, tenth at Dunhill Links and 12th in Rome.
The generous fairways will suit Finland’s Sami Valimaki who hit it all over the shop at Houghton but got away with most of the wild drives to finish a game runner-up.

Big things were expected of this former Rookie of the Year but the last couple of years have not been kind to him and it’s good to have this colourful character back. If he’s not exhausted, he could be a factor again.

Local heroes Burmester, fourth at the Sanderson Farms on the PGA Tour, Schwartzel (not the player he was despite that revival at LIV), George Coetzee, dual DP World Tour winner Lawrence, Wilco Nienaber, Erik Van Rooyen and Hennie Du Plessis all command respect along with steady Spaniard Adrian Otaegui, a runaway winner at Valderrama in October, but it’s Gary’s course that takes the spotlight.


4pts win Cameron Smith @ 5/2
2pts each-way Min Woo Lee @ 9/1
1pt each-way Cam Davis @ 10/1
0.5pts each-way Rasmus Hojgaard @ 16/1
0.5pts each-way Harrison Endycott @ 60/1

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If you gave Open champion Cameron Smith a miss in Brisbane last week because of the skinny price, you’ll find the $140m LIV star even shorter in a similar field for the Australian Open in Melbourne where the opposition is much the same.

But, course apart, there is one significant difference: this is a mixed gender jamboree with the females alternating with the males in threeballs and playing for the same Au$1.75m prize money. Because of the heavy traffic from two full-field events, two courses are used, Victoria and Kingston Heath, much as they do for the same state’s Vic Open, won by Min Woo Lee from Ryan Fox in 2020.

This week’s national Open gives second favourite Min Woo a rare chance to share fairways with big sister Minjee Lee, the US Openchampion and world No. 4. Given their busy playing schedules, their paths rarely cross.

As he came into last week after a string of good performances, Min Woo looked the biggest form danger at the Australian PGA but a second-round 74 left him only scrapping for place money behind Smith who became the first big LIV name to win outside the confines of the new rebel tour.

LIV will make its Aussie debut in Adelaide next April as part of an extended 14-tournament 2023 circuit so the locals will have an opportunity to see their top player again then which is more than PGA Tour sponsors and fans can do as he’s barred from competing there.

It wa only last week I learned what LIV stands for … Roman numerals for 54, the number of holes over which the Saudi-backed venture runs its individual tournaments.

Smith admitted he was rusty in Brisbane not having played since Jeddah, the final LIV tournament before the Miami team finale. “I didn’t think I was up to it” he said after struggling on the front nine on Sunday to get it done.

He got caught by Jason Scrivener but there’s a reason why his fellow Aussie still awaits his first DP World Tour success and we were given a vivid example when he missed a 6ft birdie putt on 15 and made a total Horlicks of the short 16th. In the end the margin was a comfortable three but Scrivener knows he could easily have been in a playoff and that may well prey on his mind now.

It is worth noting that the joint runners-up (Scrivener was one) both sit outside the world’s top 200 so although the tournament’s title sounds grand, the quality of the field was not, particularly when Adam Scott flopped and Lucas Herbert pulled out midway through round two with a shoulder twinge.

Herbert, a winner both on the PGA and DP World Tours, hopes to be back in Melbourne but it hardly advertises his chances while Scott’s reunion with Stevie Williams, the famed caddie who shepherded him to his lone Major victory in the 2013 Masters, has clearly not yet bedded in.

With rampant Kiwi Fox also flopping and US-based star names Cam Davis and Marc Leishman never able to land a blow, it was on a plate for Smith and he didn’t need to be asked twice.

Now that he’s got his game back in shape, this week’s task might be even easier but he does have the pressure of never having won an Aussie Open whereas it was the third PGA on the bounce for Cammie and in front of his home fans in Brisbane.

Lee, who finished fourth at Royal Queensland, and Smith were the two main advices last week and remain so in what is the first Opensince 2019, Matt Jones’s win at The Australian, another top-class Melbourne course, being the last in the record book.

Either Smith or the dazzling Lee would be a most worthy successor. Always remember that the bleedin’ obvious is often the way to go and backing a 5/2 winner when it’s a class act like Smithy is infinitely more enjoyable than squandering a fiver each-way on some 50/1 chancer who will blow it as soon as the pressure is turned on.

Scott can surely not play as poorly again but has so much to make up on Smith while Davis did well enough in seventh to feel he has a big shout too. Europe’s challenge were very muted in Queensland with the Hojgaard twins failing to fire and giant Pole Adrian Meronk flattering to deceive on his Down Under debut.

Maybe Yorkshire youngster Dan Bradbury’s amazing third-time-out triumph in Joburg will inspire those three Ryder Cup contenders to show their true mettle. Rasmus Hojgaard certainly has strong recent form before last week to put him with a decent shout.

After arriving home on the back of two decent efforts on the PGA Tour, young Aussie buck Harrison Endycott is again suggested as best outsider. He merits a second chance on his Brisbane top-20.

The long-established Victoria Golf Club, host to three previous Opens but not since 2001, had all its greens replaced in 2018 while Kingston Heath, built in 1925 and home to seven Opens, added a 19th hole in 2002, a par three between the first green and second tee, to give them an option to make it a sterner, more modern test. Both are sandbelt courses, scrubby and flat with spectacular bunkering, in the suburb of Cheltenham. Fair weather for the first two days, hotting up into the 80s for the weekend.

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