- Sebastian Soderberg 1.0 points each-way 40-1 (Skybet 1/5 123456)
- Jaco Ahlers 0.75 point each-way 40-1 (Skybet 1/5 123456)
- Victor Perez 0.75 point each-way 50-1 (365 1/4 12345)
**already advised via Twitter – R2O ante-post Oliver Lindell 50-1 (33-1 fine)**
Welcome back to another season on the Challenge Tour and having left 2017 with the winner of the Grand Final and 4th in the Road To Oman, there are at least some positive thoughts as we enter the potential 30+ events of the new year.
As is the tradition the season opens in Kenya and then rests for three weeks until a new event in China. I have no idea why they have such a break after the initial outing but once hitting Turkey in April, it is full steam ahead to grab one of the fifteen European Tour cards in November.
With the shortened field of the Rolex now a good 25 tournaments down the line, a quick start is not the advantage it once was and it may be that concentrating on those that are ‘match ready’ is the key from here on, although the winner of any of the opening half-dozen events will surely book his ticket to that lucrative event.
Whilst the tour returned to Muthaiga for the first time in five years last season organisers have kept faith with the longer track, and at 7228-yards and with water hazards this is a real test to start the year with. The 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 and 2017 champion Aaron Rai was noted throughout the event particularly for his excellent short game and par-saving skills.
Indeed looking back through recent winners here in particular (although Karen GC is certainly not an easy test) the likes of Dodo, Seve Benson, Robert Dinwiddie and Gary Boyd are all known for their ability on the trickier and often windy tracks, the likes of Morocco, Italy, Turkey, St Omer et al.
In terms of finding this year’s 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 at the time. 2016 winner Sebastian Soderberg then 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, all supported by last year’s one-two-three (Rai, Saddier and LaPorta) all with decent finishes on the swing. Indeed, look back one more place to find Matt Wallace, now two-time winner on the main tour, the most recent at the ultra-difficult Indian Open from Andrew Johnston who happens to be the 2014 rankings winner and 3rd at the Alfred Dunhill, just behind Grace and Louis O!
After all that it would be churlish to miss off any of the Springboks from the plan but many of those at the top simply do not win enough so it must fall to old warrior Jaco Ahlers to carry the ‘home’ flag.
At 35 years of age, Ahlers lacks the improvement of a few of his compatriots but it is hard to argue against a player with a total of seven lifetime South African wins plus a host of placed efforts in neighbouring countries. Indeed, unlike the form of market rivals Walters and Fisher Jnr he has gained a recent victory at the Dimension Data and has taken a week off after a midfield finish in a minor ‘fun’ event at home. I am not quite sure why he ranks behind the afore-mentioned players in the market, and with a couple of top-20s at Joburg and the Eye Of Africa, and last season’s 9th here – led after round one with an opening 64 – he looks certain to continue his decent tee-to-green play and can contend at least when it counts.
Former winner of this event, Sebastian Soderberg, looks to have very big claims this week and I would have been happy with around 33-1, so the current 40-1 (may get bigger) is very appealing.
The 27-year-old has been someone to watch from his initial professional season when winning twice from four starts on the Nordic Golf League. From there, his inaugural season at this level saw him rank 31st after a couple of 3rd place finishes and a brace of top-10s (including the windy and testing Madeira) to be then followed by his maiden victory round Karen in early 2016 and a top-3 in Turkey finishing the season ranked just one place lower.
Last season was a washout for the Swede (reasons below) with his best results possibly the most significant in terms of this week’s event, with 11th in Joburg just beaten by a top-10 in Portugal and backed up with a decent enough top-25 at Valderrama. However while these results are fair evidence for a challenge this week, I felt his preparation so far is a hint to what may follow.
Before Seb’s victory in 2016 he warmed up with a couple of events at Lumine GC, finishing a closing 4th at the ‘Lakes’ and 23rd at the ‘Hills’ (poor final round), both followed by this birdie-machine’s efforts at Karen. This year he seems to have taken the same approach and has been rewarded with an even better duo of results, a win at the Lakes and just outside the top-10 a week later.
Defending here after that win in 2016, Soderberg hit an opening 70 before having to withdraw with a shoulder injury, something that probably had enough affect to spoil his chances throughout the year but these recent results indicate he is back to his best, and that could well be good enough to make a serious challenge for the eventual title, come the Autumn. For now, he is the main wager of the week well worth playing this week at the extra place offered by one firm.
There is plenty to choose from round the 50-1 mark. Max Orrin is with form at all the right places including a brace of wins round high-scoring courses and playing very well on the Algarve Tour recently without winning, the same tour that found the three recent ‘order of merit’ winners, whilst 22-year-old Connor Syme is a winner waiting to happen and if it not this week, he will be claiming some notable scalps on the main tour sometime soon. A decorated amateur, the Scot went unbeaten through the 2017 Walker Cup before impressing in a fledgling professional career. However, despite a top-12 in Portugal and a recent 11th at the Tshwane he may need a tad more time, especially around this type of track. This may be a warm-up for bigger fish on the big league and as such Victor Perez‘ two top-15s at Joburg and Tshwane tilt the scales in his favour.
An excellent amateur, Perez may have been unfortunate in his first full season on the Alps tour, finding himself with three top-10s and a 15th, all behind the impressive Matt Wallace, whilst he also came across that rival when running-up a couple of months later. No surprise that his impressive run was rewarded with a maiden victory in an admittedly moderate field but winning breeds confidence and he backed up some progressive form with his first Challenge Tour win in the Basque region, around what was said to be a tricky, undulating course.
I’m not convinced that a winning total of 24-under suggests a test but results in Denmark and Finland dictates he can play in tougher conditions. As mentioned, the Frenchman has two recent results that count plenty for collateral form and it was only a poor final back-9 that cost him a top-10 finish last time. Like a few of the younger players, there is plenty of improvement in the locker and he interests me a lot this week.
Cases can be made at the prices for the likes of Lundberg (great form round here but rubbish recently) and Adrian Meronk (fancied a few times last year, 5th round here with a final round 65), whilst up top Felipe Aguilar takes a huge drop in grade and warmed up with a top-5 at the Tshwane but 28-1 is short enough.
Those that follow the twitter feed will know that Oliver Lindell was recommended as the ante-post bet for the Road To Oman. I feel that a season’s experience on the tour is vital and whilst players can come from nowhere to dominate (both Broberg and Koepka both stick out long in the memory) recent winners have taken advantage of both a few previous months at this level and took part in competitive events during the close season. All three of Gouveia, Smith and Rai had decent opening seasons before winning on the Algarve tour and subsequently the Challenge Tour.
Young Lindell caught the eye on more than one occasion last year and was in a position to gain his card when lying second going into payday at the finale. It may be a blessing in disguise that he failed to hold on during a windy final round as his mind may have also been on the impending national service. Fast-forward a few months and a victory on the Gecko tour, when halfway through his service, and we may have a player more mature than his tender years. Given his ability to win on his home tour (NGL) as a raw novice, it was no shock that he followed the maiden with two victories and numerous top-10 finishes to rank a clear second at the end of the 2016 Nordic Golf League, all whilst still a teenager.
Last season may have had a disappointing ending but this is a player that will be winning at this level very soon and it will be a major shock should he not qualify in the top-15 come the end of the year. Given his warm-up events at Lumine in 2017 (11/4) his effort round here was not quite what was ordered and following a moderate result at Joburg, I just wonder if this is the right place to catch him. Ante-post players will be looking for a top-15/20 to start this year and that will do us for the moment despite a healthy looking 80-1 in one place.
A wary start to what could be a very interesting year for the future. All eyes on the leaderboard over the weekend, watch for those making moves before just stalling, add experience and there you go – future winners ahoy!