While his Alfred Dunhill Championship debut last year was nothing spectacular, Wilco Nienaber has since grown very close to being the finished article as a professional golfer and he starts this week edition of the tournament as one of the favourites.
While there was heartbreak for him when he came so close in the Joburg Open, it would not be surprising should he immediately bounce back from his late loss in last week’s tournament and win at Leopard Creek in this second event on the European Tour’s ‘Africa Swing’, co-sanctioned with the Sunshine Tour.
He finished in a share of 24th last year, carding rounds of 72-73-72-74 in the extreme heat for a tournament total of three-over-par, 11 strokes behind the brave victory of Spaniard Pablo Larrazabal.
It was his maturity under pressure until the 70th hole in the Joburg Open which was most impressive, and, in the end, it really was as much pressure as anything else which caused him to slip up on the final two holes with victory in his grasp.
Dane Joachim B Hansen, who is also in the field at Leopard Creek, was the man who plugged away at Nienaber’s lead, and then pounced as the tall South African faltered. A second victory in as many weeks – especially since the Joburg Open win was his maiden victory on the European Tour.
Nienaber, however, will be straining every sinew to show he’s learnt from the hard lessons on the final two holes in Johannesburg and that he has the tools to deal with that adversity. With his length, he has the taming of Leopard Creek, but it will take even more accuracy than he displayed last week for him to get over the line.
He will have stiff competition, too. Larrazabal will defend tigerishly, and Brandon Stone will want to recreate the form which gave him the title in 2016 but a gaping six-stroke margin. Christiaan Bezuidenhout will have got over the jetlag which hampered his Joburg Open performance last week, and Daniel van Tonder will be keen to show that his local form can translate onto a bigger stage.
On the European side of the field, Joel Sjoholm of Sweden was edged out by Larrazabal last year, and he loves Leopard Creek. While lightning may not strike twice, it’s not far-fetched to believe he loves it enough to contend for a second year running.
But it’s left-handed Robert Macintyre who catches the eye. The Scot, fresh from a maiden European Tour win in the Aphrodite Hills Cyprus Showdown on November 8, some front-running from him could provide the stimulus required for Nienaber to step up again.