Nedbank Challenge Preview, Picks & Analysis
THE Nedbank Challenge used to be an invitational event with a 12-man field, all of whom were pampered from the moment they arrived at Sun City until they boarded the plane for home at the end of 72 holes played at one of the best golf courses in the world, in one of the most incredible resorts known to man. Oh yes, and there was also the small matter of mind-boggling prize money.
Most of the above still applies. Except for the fact that it is now a full-field tournament, still with no cut, but still played at the stunning course at Sun City. It has also now become the penultimate event on the European Tour, with only the top 60 players in the Race to Dubai heading to the season-ending Dubai World Championship at the end of it all.
Since becoming a full-field event, the Nedbank has been won by some pretty high-profile players. The champion in 2013 was Thomas Bjorn, in 2014 it was won by Danny Willett, in 2015 by Marc Leishman, in 2016 by Alex Noren and last year by Branden Grace.
Grace produced a stunning closing round of 66 last year to win his eighth European Tour title, prevailing by a single shot to become the first home winner of the event since Trevor Immelman in 2007, ands join the illustrious ranks of Rolex Series winners. Now he has his sights set on back-to-back victories at a venue where his record is equally impressive.
Grace has enjoyed three consecutive top five finishes over the past three years at Gary Player Country Club. “Winning last year was something I will never forget,” said Grace. “It is the one event that as a South African you always want to win. It's known locally as Africa's major for a reason, and it is such a special place with so much history, as well as so many great winners. I love playing back home in South Africa, especially in Sun City in front of so many amazing fans. The atmosphere is always fantastic for us as players and for everyone who comes along during the week.
Grace is joined in the field by four-time Major winner Rory McIlroy and 2017 Masters Champion Sergio Garcia, who finally rediscovered his best form when he won the Andalucia Masters after a miserable 2018, during which he missed the cut at all four majors.
Tournament host Gary Player said: “I remember watching Branden walk up the 18th fairway last year on the way to his first victory. When we caught each other’s eyes, he knew my smile was just as big as his. All of South Africa was so proud of Branden. No doubt this was a milestone win in his career, and he certainly has the talent to be one of the top players in the world for a long time. it’s very important we have all the best South Africans here to show the world why we are one of the best golfing nations on the planet.”
The Nedbank Golf Challenge’s list of former champions features a who’s who of golfing legends including the late, great Seve Ballesteros (1983 and 1984), Ernie Els (1999, 2000 and 2002), Bernhard Langer (1985 and 1991), Colin Montgomerie (1996), and Sir Nick Faldo (1994).
It is a big week for a number of players who are just outside the top 60 in the Race to Dubai and need to make a move if they are to be in the field in Dubai. These include the likes of George Coetzee, Willett, Oliver Fisher, Stephen Gallacher, Robert Rock, Ashley Chesters, Pablo Larrazabal, Dean Burmester and Andrew ‘Beef’ Johnston. Fisher is, of course, the first man to have recorded a 59 on the European Tour and will be disappointed that he still has work to do to join the elite 60 in Dubai. He has long possessed the potential to become one of the continent’s best players and it could well be that writing his place in history could give him the confidence to finally kick on.
Coetzee and Burmester will both hope that playing in front of a passionate home gallery will inspire them. Coetzee continues to be one of the sport’s great enigmas. He possesses a wonderful golf swing, is a glorious ball striker and a wonderful iron player. He also has a fantastic putting stroke. So why is it that he fails to win bucketloads of tournaments, and why is he not among the world’s top 20 players, where he surely should be? He has well documented problems around the greens and although he has worked hard to find a solution he has been unable to do so. On his good weeks, he is capable of shooting the lights out on any course. He will hope that this is one of those weeks.
Lee Westwood, a two-time winner of the Nedbank Golf Challenge when it featured a 12-man field, will be in the field alongside local favourites Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel. Westwood won in 2010 and 2011, and he also has a runner-up finish to his name in the event, back in 2000.
Both Schwartzel and Oosthuizen will be seeking to keep the famous crystal trophy in South Africa following countryman Branden Grace’s victory last year, which ended a ten-year drought of home champions in the tournament.
Oosthuizen, the 2010 Open champion, has finished in the top 15 in each of his past five appearances at Sun City, while 2011 Master champion Schwartzel finished second in 2012 behind Martin Kaymer.
At the other end of affairs, Rory McIlroy will be looking to salvage something from what has ultimately been another hugely disappointing season. He played dreadfully at the WGC HSBC Champions in Shanghai, looking like he would rather have been anywhere else. There are times when McIlroy loses interest and makes no secret of the fact. He does himself no favours when he does this, forgetting that spectators pay huge sums of money to watch him giving his best. There are many who still believe that McIlroy’s decision to put best friend Harry Diamond on his bag was a mistake. Diamond is a decent amateur golfer but he is not a professional caddie and learning on the job when you are working for a player of the calibre of McIlroy cannot be a good thing for anybody concerned. The player says that having a close friend by his side has helped him to relax; that may well be the case, but it certainly hasn’t helped him to contend in the tournaments that should matter most to him, namely the majors. And putting those to one side, the Northern Irishman has managed a solitary victory in 2018, after a year in which he didn’t manage to win anything at all.
Many onlookers will try to tell you that his only problem is on the greens. But that certainly wasn’t the case in China or during the Ryder Cup, where just about every part of his game was substandard. If McIlroy does not address this, and quickly, a slump could quickly turn into a crisis. This would be a good week to put things right. But don’t bet your house on it.
Branden Grace. Loves playing on home soil
Rory McIlroy. Time to deliver Rory
Branden Grace. Will surely go close
Rory McIlroy. Needs a big week
Sergio Garcia. On a roll
Danny Willett. Nearly back to his best
Tom Lewis. Enjoying a great autumn
Brandon Stone. Sweet, sweet swinger
Matthew Fitzpatrick. Course should be made for him
Matt Wallace. Would love another victory
Shane Lowry. Better than recent form suggests.
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