Jaco Ahlers – 1 point win @ 22-1 (Skybet/Stan James)
Mikael Lundberg – 0.75 points each-way @ 45-1 (Stan James)
J B Hansen – @ – 0.50 points each-way 66-1 (BetVictor)
Chris Lloyd – @ – 0.50 points each-way 80-1 (Bet365) *advised on Twitter
Jordi Garcia-Pinto @ – 0.25 points each-way 125-1 (General)
Welcome to the first of twenty-seven events on the 2017 Challenge Tour.
As has become custom, the Kenya Open is one of the first events on the calendar and whilst it flits from Karen GC to this track, the event’s 25th anniversary takes place at Muthaiga for the first time since 2012.
Both tracks are tricky but Karen is shorter and with fewer water hazards, whilst this week’s tournament takes place on the 7228-yard par-71 Muthaiga course, scene of wins by the likes of Trevor Immelman and Edoardo Molinari. As befits the winners roll-call, there is a premium on accuracy and placement rather than power and whilst there are plenty of events to play catch-up, a good showing here is worth plenty.
The victor will have a passport to the mid-season Rolex, a shortened pro-am event restricted to 42 players and at which last place prize-money pays as much as 15th in most weeks. In turn, a half-decent showing there will almost certainly buy a ticket into the Grand Finale where 45 players compete for the fifteen life-changing European Tour cards.
In terms of finding the winner, the one thing that sticks out is the connection to the South African mini-swing held just around the New Year, or simply being from that part of the world.
In 2010 (Robert Dinwiddie’s year) two Springboks finished in the top-10 including Jake Roos (5th), both having made at least one cut in the trio of big home events. Roos went on to win the 2014 running of this event, although at Karen after a top-20 in the Tshwane. A year later and the country saw a one-two in the shape of Bothma (made cut Joburg Open) and Ferreira, with a certain Branden Grace back in 3rd whilst Ferreira again made the frame a year later alongside an improving Justin Walters.
Moving to Karen GC in 2011 saw only Dylan Frittelli make the top-10 but they have dominated the last few with the aforementioned victory of Roos preceding a hugely talented duo of Porteous and Stone, who seemed to rehearse their Investec Cup play-off and who finally justified the hype. Finally, last year’s winner Sebastian Soderberg has since finished 11th in the shortened Joburg Open from Romain Langasque (two top-20 finishes in two South African events) and Christian Bezuidenhout and Dylan Frittelli, both huge prospects for their home country.
The final named player commented that Kenya reminded him of home, whether that be the grain on the greens or simply the conditions, whilst further research finds more than a link with similar tracks.
Many of the winners can boast good finishes at Madeira, St Omer Switzerland and Morocco, all courses that require far more than ‘hit it, find it, hit it again’. With Branden Grace appearing in more than one formline, connections through Brandon Stone, Gary Boyd and Seve Benson give further evidence to the type we are looking for.
The initial shows from the bookmakers were tight to say the least but they seem as though they are becoming more realistic as I write.
I cannot slate anyone wishing to back the improving Aaron Rai who stuck around after a ‘shock’ 65 in the first round at Joburg to finish 7th. Readers of the Race To Oman ante-post article will be on the young Englishman for the title after a promising spell on the Algarve and whilst he carries a host of top-10 finishes from last season, I would rather sit and watch him in the opener given we are on at bigger prices.
That said, the top of the market is strong with South African players Jaco Ahlers and Jacques Kruyswijk having huge claims. Ahlers lacks the improvement of his 25-year-old compatriot but it is hard to argue against a player with five South African wins in the last three seasons plus a host of placed efforts in neighboring countries. Top-30 in all three recent home events, I baulked at the early 14-1 but that 22-1 does make appeal in this grade even as a ‘saver’ and he wins the prize for the bet at the top of the market.
I wanted a bit bigger about his compatriot, who has winning form at home and caught the eye with a 4th at Joburg but who seems less consistent at this stage of his career as his recent missed-cut shows.
Given Soderberg’s victory last season, a South African victory is not guaranteed and I’m taking fellow Swede Mikael Lundberg to put up a good showing and back up his 10th here in 2000, 4th in 2005, 3rd to Molinari in 2007 and 6th in 2011, all across both courses. The 44-year-old pops up at very relevant courses with two wins in Russia and placed efforts at the Czech, Moroccan and Danish events on the main tour as well as places at St.Omer and a win in Italy at this level. He hasn’t played South Africa this year but warmed up on the Nordic League with a victory at Lumine Lakes just a couple of weeks ago and that should tee him up nicely for an effort at a course with favourable conditions.
Just behind Lundberg at Lumine in 3rd was the hitherto frustrating J B Hansen but such are his claims here it is hard to look past his chance especially given his recent warm-up events which see him improving through 31/22/T6/3.
I backed the Dane to win a few quid at the Finale in 2012 but one bizarre pitch shot cost him the win and it seems that is the way he is, with bizarre shot choices at crucial times hindering his progress. However, we know he can play the game in these conditions with his efforts at the Scottish Open (perhaps should have at least been in the play-off) alongside placed finishes at the Czech and Russian. His Challenge Tour career is littered with top-5 and top-10 finishes including at windy parkland tracks and it is just hoped that recent outings gives him the confidence to build off that 21st here five years ago.
I think we have to be on at least one of the past winners given their credentials and I found it tough choosing between Soderberg, Roos and Garcia-Pinto. In the end the price mattered and the Spaniard gets the vote at a big-looking 125-1 alongside the defending champion.
Winner of his maiden round Karen GC, the man from Girona possesses a great short game when right and given his second win came at the Nejati and with form round around Madeira, at the Rolex and in Dubai, I am forgiving the poor course form in favour of overall credentials. His warm-up efforts include a 13th in an ‘okay’ field on the Nordic tour but at the price, felt he was worth a dabble given he strikes at very similar courses.
Englishman Chris Lloyd has been plagued by injury over the last couple of years having shown promise at this level from 2011-2014. However, completing a season on the EuroPro tour found him playing superbly at the Dimension Data pro-am, sandwiched between the Joburg and Tshwane events in South Africa. Holding every chance throughout a tricky weekend, his efforts in the wind back up his form at a myriad of comparable venues. Furthermore, he recently took part in the Q-school for the Sunshine Tour, shooting back-to-back 68’s for the first two rounds before finishing an excellent 3rd over a gruelling five rounds, stating that ‘I love it here’. Staying in this part of the world will be no hindrance and he could well be the surprise packet for outright honours this year should he stay injury free.
Players left out include Soderberg though his claims are clear enough following that 11th at Joburg; Victor Rui, who has plenty of form in the right areas and at both Kenyan tracks but without recent outings and who did nothing in a lowly Mauritius event, and Morten Orum Madsen who is a huge price if he could find the form that won the South African Open in 2013 or placed highly in significant events just a couple of years ago.