Sergio Garcia, by his own target, is halfway to victory at Sun City.
The Spaniard put a number on it. ’16’. By his post-round prediction the Spaniard is already halfway there following a bogey-free eight-under-par 64 after the first round of the Nedbank Golf Challenge.
‘Last year, 11 under won it. I think four 68s this time round might be the score,’ the 2017 Masters winners and popular visitor to South Africa said.
Given that he’s already eight under, a level par 72 on Friday would keep him on track to add to his two previous successes on the Gary Player Country Club course.
Garcia’s post-round prediction also brings Charl Schwartzel, Mike Lorenzo-Vera, Mikko Korhonen (all shot 68), plus six golfers on three under, including Louis Oosthuizen, and two on two under, including defending champion Branden Grace, right into the mix on Sunday.
Getting to 16 under, however, is going to ask the toughest of questions of the players in contention. It’s a golf course that is in superb condition, especially so given the lack of rain in recent weeks, and requiring patience and keeping the ball in the right areas. The wind was swirling on Thursday and the greens were tricky. ‘It’s not a place where you’re going to be able to hit the ball close to the pin for birdie too often,’ Garcia said, adding that he ‘sunk three or four putts from range, which is always going to be required to shoot low here’.
In many ways the first day at the Nedbank Golf Challenge feels a bit like the Friday practice sessions of a Formula One weekend, or the opening day of a Test cricket match starting on a Thursday. But, Friday will see the crowds start filling the stands and line the fairways, while Saturday and Sunday will build a crescendo.
However, the first round is as important to the players as any of the others. I have never been a fan of the expression ‘Moving Day’, so often referred to about the Saturday. Each day is a moving day and although there are 72 players teeing up over all four days, only 30 of them finished with par or better and that’s where the winner could well come from.
The toughest hole on day one was the 437m par-four 17th, which averaged 4.35, while the easiest – as is often the case – was the 500m par-five 10th hole, which averaged 4.53. One of the keys to success this week will be who tames the par fives and Grace lost a bit of ground by making one birdie and two pars, offset by a bogey on the 14th. Despite that, he will feel satisfied with his opening 70 and looks to be a man to watch on Friday.
The revamped 18th, which now measures 459m, only produced nine birdies which is a bit surprising as players were generally hitting their tee shots in a similar area short of the bunker on the right-hand side and then striking nine-hours over the water. One of those who closed with birdie was Schwartzel who put a beautiful draw on his 3-wood into Position A, while playing partner Garcia used driver.
Course management is everything on this course, although one has to find the balance between being cautious and not holding back. It’s not a golf course that can’t be ‘bombed’. which is typical of a Gary Player-designed layout, although the tee being pushed back on the 18th hasn’t pleased everyone, Schwartzel included.
He’d prefer to have seen the right-hand bunker taken out which would lead to more aggression off the tee and then aggressive approaches, more so that it’s the closing hole of such a great tournament. Opinion on the ‘new’ 18th is certainly not going to go quiet overnight.
The bookies responded dramatically following the first round. Suddenly, Garcia is the 1-1 favourite to win, Oosthuizen is the second favourite at 9-1 and Schwartzel at 14-1. Rory McIlroy – eight shots back – is at 22-1 with Grace and you can get 25-1 about the next group. Even money for Garcia is way too short. He might be eight under but as Grace himself noted, ‘This isn’t the kind of course where you’re going to follow a 64 with another low score like that.’