But the home favourites are being surprisingly cautious about their chances against Lee Westwood, the straight-driving, two-time defending champion. That the field includes Justin Rose, Martin Kaymer and Nicolas Colsaerts is further cause for a pragmatic approach. By KEN BORLAND.
A South African has not won the Nedbank Golf Challenge at Sun City in five years, but the two firm home favourites, Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel, both downplayed their chances at the Gary Player Country Club on Wednesday.
Schwartzel is the more familiar with the great course at Sun City and will be making his fourth appearance when the $5-million tournament tees off on Thursday.
But the 28-year-old’s form disappeared after a freak rib muscle tear in June and is only just showing signs of reappearing, leaving Schwartzel unsure of his chances.
Oosthuizen, meanwhile, began the year with victory in the African Open and added the Malaysian Open crown in April, but has failed to win since then, even a run of five successive top-10 finishes in recent weeks not entirely cheering him up.
The 30 year old has also had to weather the disappointment of two playoff losses this year, including the heartbreak of just missing out on the Masters title won by Bubba Watson at Augusta.
Ranked number seven in the world, Oosthuizen is one of the hottest golfers on the planet right now, but he was surprisingly downbeat about his chances at Sun City.
“It’s been frustrating because I feel I’ve been playing better than my finishes. I guess I’m satisfied with the year overall, but disappointed that I lost twice in playoffs. I just haven’t been putting myself in good positions come Sunday.
“I always say I want three wins a season, I’ve got two, so to win here this weekend would end the year on a high,” Oosthuizen said on Wednesday.
Oosthuizen, whose previous appearance in the NGC was a last-place finish in 2010, expects two-time defending champion Lee Westwood to be his biggest obstacle, particularly since the Englishman can call his driver into service on most holes.
“I forgot how narrow the fairways are and how thick the kikuyu is. The rough is really thick all around the fairways and greens, because of the recent rain, so you have to drive straight or you’re going to struggle. The greens are running pure but the rain has made them a bit slow and you just have to adapt to the speed,” Oosthuizen said after his pro-am round on Wednesday.
“So you have to think that Lee Westwood’s name is going to be right up there. He has an amazing record around this course, he’s a world-class player and one of the best ball-strikers in the game.
“He drives the ball so straight and he has great iron play, so he gives himself so many opportunities for birdies. He’s able to take driver on a lot of holes where the rest of us take three-wood, that’s how confident he is with that club,” Oosthuizen said.
Schwartzel, born and raised in Gauteng, said he was actually not entirely comfortable on the 7162m Gary Player Country Club course.
“It’s always a fantastic week here and I’ve always loved the golf course, but it’s not really suited to my game. I’m a fader of the ball and you mostly see holes moving left-to-right here with the fairway slopes. So you need to draw the ball here to do well,” Schwartzel said.
The 2011 Masters champion’s main problem this year has been the changes to his swing caused by the rib injury he suffered at the US Open.
“It was a bit of misfortune when I tore my intercostal – I don’t even know how it happened, I basically sat down and could hardly breathe – and it halted my pretty good form up till then.
“I came back two or three weeks early because I wanted to play in the Open, but I created some bad habits in my swing to play around the injury. That led to a lot of inconsistency and frustration.
“But for the last month-and-a-half, I’ve been pain-free and I’m getting the swing back to where it was. But it’s been a long process coming back from that injury and I’m not expecting anything this week. If I have a good week and play the way I know I can, then I’m easily capable of winning. But it’s too early to say what’s going to happen, even though things are definitely turning,” Schwartzel said.
Justin Rose was, like Schwartzel, born in Johannesburg, but the Englishman is now at home in all the great cities of the world having won four titles in the US, five in Europe, two in South Africa and one each in Japan and Australia.
With the minimum of fuss, he has risen to number four in the world rankings – the best in the NGC field – and his recent form includes a brilliant 62, the low round of the tournament, in the final round of last weekend’s World Tour Championship in Dubai, where he finished second to world number one Rory McIlroy.
Westwood, Schwartzel and Oosthuizen will all have maximum respect for Rose and his ability to claim the spoils at Sun City, while they will also no doubt see former world number one Martin Kaymer as a threat.
Belgium’s Nicolas Colsaerts is likely to be a crowd favourite, with the spectators getting to see just how far he does smite the ball, but he will have to marry consistent accuracy to his tremendous power in order to win the title.
There is a third South African in the field in Garth Mulroy, who qualified by virtue of winning the 2011 Sunshine Tour Order of Merit, but it is difficult to see the world number 201 having the game to beat the rest of the field which also includes resurgent 1999 Open champion Paul Lawrie. DM
Photo: Charl Schwartzel (L) of South Africa and teammate Louis Oosthuizen (R) walk with their caddies on the 18th fairway during the third day of the Mission Hills World Cup golf tournament in Haikou, China’s Hainan province November 26, 2011. RE
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