The 2016 Order of Merit race con­tin­ues in 2017.

Golf Digest (South Africa) - - Contents - By Stu­art McLean

The 2016 Sun­shine Tour Order of Merit didn’t end with the Al­fred Dun­hill Cham­pi­onship in De­cem­ber, as it usu­ally does, but will only be con­cluded on March 2 fol­low­ing the Tsh­wane Open at Pre­to­ria Coun­try Club.

Bran­don Stone would have nor­mally clinched the Order of Merit ti­tle with his run­away vic­tory at Leop­ard Creek, but that No 1 spot is still up for grabs, as three co­sanc­tioned events – SA Open, Joburg Open andTsh­wane Open – plus two other tour­na­ments, the Eye of Africa PGA and DiData Pro-Am, re­main to be played be­fore the sum­mer is over.

Fu­ture sea­sons will be­gin in April and end in March, in order to cre­ate a more flow­ing and ex­cit­ing fin­ish to the Order of Merit. The Sun­shine Tour wants the sea­son to grad­u­ally build up to a cli­max with a se­ries of all the high-pro­file tour­na­ments, rather than be­gin with a few of them, as they have been do­ing since 2007.

“There are sev­eral good rea­sons for us chang­ing the sched­ule back to how it used to be,” said Play­ers Com­mit­tee Chair­man Alan Michell. “The Sun­shine Tour is all about the sum­mer sea­son. Our big events take place be­tween Novem­ber and March, and we want this pe­riod to run as one sea­son, not hav­ing a di­vi­sion right in the mid­dle. It makes it more in­ter­est­ing for play­ers and fans.

“Start­ing the sea­son in Jan­uary was also dif­fi­cult for the new young pro­fes­sion­als com­ing out of Q School.They had great dif­fi­culty get­ting into the co-sanc­tioned tour­na­ments in Jan­uary and Fe­bru­ary, which wasn’t ideal in terms of be­gin­ning their ca­reers. Now the Q School will be in March, and those who get their Sun­shine Tour cards will more eas­ily get into the tour­na­ments which kick off the new sea­son in April.

“We also be­lieve that hav­ing the Q School in March, rather than De­cem­ber, will at­tract more Amer­i­can and Euro­pean play­ers to our tour. If they get a card they can re­turn here later in the year to play the en­tire sum­mer while the north­ern hemi­sphere takes a break be­cause of the weather.We are very con­scious of mar­ket­ing our tour over­seas. Hav­ing qual­ity over­seas golfers com­pet­ing here bet­ter pre­pares our own play­ers, and these vis­i­tors will hope­fully then go home and tell their friends about South Africa.”

Michell also pointed out that of­ten the Order of Merit was de­cided early in the year by play­ers get­ting off to a hot start in Jan­uary and Fe­bru­ary.That took any ex­cite­ment out of the Order of Merit race for the rest of the year.

Stone was the top Sun­shine Tour per­former in 2016, earn­ing an of­fi­cial R6.6mil­lion in nine tour­na­ments, plus R1.25 mil­lion for be­ing run­ner-up in the Chase to In­vestec Cup bonus pool. His two wins were worth over R5 mil­lion, and he was run­nerup in both the In­vestec Cup and Cape Town Open, while pick­ing up a big cheque in the Mau­ri­tius Open for sixth place. He cur­rently heads the Tour stroke av­er­ages with 69.13.

In to­tal, in­clud­ing his Euro­pean Tour earn­ings, the 23-year-old banked in the re­gion of R15 mil­lion for the year.

If any­one is to catch Stone on the Order of Merit, that player wowuld need to win at least one of the re­main­ing co-sanc­tioned tour­na­ments, and ad­di­tion­ally have a cou­ple of high fin­ishes. Richard Sterne and Haydn Por­te­ous, with earn­ings of over R3 mil­lion in 2016, would be the most likely con­tenders.

Sterne ended 2016 on a high with sec­ond place in the Al­fred Dun­hill, while Por­te­ous had a costly MC at Leop­ard Creek.

An­other four play­ers earned over R2 mil­lion in 2016 – Zan­der Lombard, Chris­ti­aan Bezuiden­hout, Dean Burmester and Justin Wal­ters – and they too would be in the reck­on­ing.

Bezuiden­hout is favoured to win Rookie of theYear hon­ours, be­ing al­most R2 mil­lion ahead of his near­est ri­vals thanks to a run­nerup fin­ish in his first event of the year, the SA Open at Glen­dower.

The im­por­tance of do­ing well in the co-sanc­tioned Euro­pean Tour events was un­der­lined by the fact that the player with the most wins on the Sun­shine Tour in 2016 – Jaco Ah­lers had three – does not fea­ture promi­nently on the Order of Merit as yet, be­ing out­side the top 10 with earn­ings of R1.12-mil­lion. Ah­lers missed the cut in three of the five co-sanc­tioned out­ings, and his big­gest cheque was R317 000 for vic­tory in the Zam­bia Open.With the new ex­tended sea­son, though, he still has an op­por­tu­nity to make a big­ger im­pact be­fore the sum­mer is over.

Bran­don Stone.

Jaco Ah­lers.

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