The first event of the new European Tour season comes from the scenic Leopard Creek and the Alfred Dunhill Championship will give this year’s rookies a taster of the big time. Rory McIlroy won the 2015 Race To Dubai on the Earth Course on Sunday and it all begins again right now. QSchool and Challenge Tour grads are out in force this week in South Africa.
Until recently, events in South Africa tended to be dominated by the home players but the Europeans have been getting in on the action the last couple of seasons. In saying that, the big South African trio of Charl Schwartzel - 7.50, Louis Oosthuizen - 10.00 - and Branden Grace - 5.50 - all tee it up this week so it will take a huge effort for anyone else to crack them. Charl himself is a multiple winner of the Alfred Dunhill Championship and blitzed the field by 12 shots here back in December 2012.
Ominously for the field, Charl is back in form after posting a T4 in Dubai. Grace was solo third ahead of him. Branden will defend the title he won last year here. Another home man simmering of late is Thomas Aiken - 51.00 - who openly loves the Leopard Creek track. He owns the course record (61). Branden Stone - 81.00, will also get the attention of the home support after winning the Cape Town Open last week.
The course - Leopard Creek
"You need to drive the ball well around here" is a line often associated with Leopard Creek - a track playing 7,287 yards to a par of 72. Comprising relatively tight to average width fairways and the often penal Kikuyu rough, the course winds its way through the forest and bush land beside Kruger National park. Water hazards are a feature throughout and green complexes are some of the best the players will see all year round, generally running around 12'.
Solid ball striking from tee to green is the premium this week and experience will be an advantage. The stats from recent leaderboards show a solid all round game will be need this week with an emphasis on the big stick. We will see one of the better finishing holes in golf so prepare for some drama on 18.
Three from the pack
Garth Mulroy - 51.00 or 11.00 - owned the second lowest stroke average at Leopard Creek after the turn of the decade that led him to a win and third place through 2011-2012. He was the winner in 2011 on what he described as his "favourite course". Indeed Garth is one of the players I was referring to re talking about the necessity for the big stick to be fully operational at the Alfred Dunhill Championship. It is a strength of Garth's and he returns here in indifferent form. Mulroy has been playing sparingly but his form line shows a sneaky top 10 in Portugal while he was T8 at the Cape Town Open last week, closing with a 67.
Another South African high up in the recent stroke average stat at Leopard Creek is JB Kruger - 71.00 or 15.00 - who owns a course form line of 10-9-52-16 since 2010. JB really excels on home soil and is a must back here at the price, given his near miss at the Manila Masters last week on a track which, by all accounts, required precision from tight tee shots to small green. Indeed, Kruger hit 51/72 greens in reg and showed a putts per round average of 27.5. JB missed out on the win by a solitary shot but has been progressing nicely with 41-23-21-2 finishes.
You may remember Erik Van Rooyen 251.0 or 51.00 - from the South African stretch on the Tour earlier in the year. The stats show T13 - T10 finishes at the Africa Open and Tshwane Open respectively but if I remember correctly he was out in one of the last two groups and put a shot out of bounds on the first and struggled from there on in. Van Rooyen opened with a 64 and the first round lead at the Cape Town Open last week. He carded his second top 5 in a row on the Sunshine Tour.
I'm looking at a Qschool angle here and specifically with guys that finished strongly over the last two days on the Stadium Course at PGA Catalunya. This is a track requiring top driving from elevated tees so strong finishers there are on form with the big stick. Two guys stand out for me and the first is another home boy in Justin Walters - 126.0 or 26.00. Walters is showing progressive current form and closed 67-67 for a top 10 at Qschool.
Ryan Evans - 201.0 or 41.00 - closed 69-68 on the Stadium course for a top 20 and a European Tour card. He earned a glowing reference on Twitter from playing partner John Hahn who mentioned the words "rising star", "wow", and told the European Tour to look out. Evans fits the criteria I'm looking for here and he had a solid season on the Challenge Tour last year. Real certainly aren’t designed for winning in the way they used to be.