At the start of the week, the presence of defending champion Henrik Stenson, the hottest golfer on the planet right now, seemed a tremendous coup for the organisers of the South African Open that starts at Glendower Golf Club in Bedfordview this morning. By KEN BORLAND.
Sadly, Stenson will be a non-starter due to an injured wrist which he managed to play through in his epic victory at the World Tour Championship, sealing an historic Race to Dubai and FedEx Cup double on either side of the Atlantic, but he has understandably decided not to risk further damage and withdrew from the SA Open on Monday.
Apart from the hammering his body took, his mental fatigue must also be great, considering the pressure-filled, hectic end to the season he has just been through.
Much to the frustration of the organisers, the withdrawals have been coming thick and fast with the tournament also losing another Swedish star in Robert Karlsson, local favourites Louis Oosthuizen and Richard Sterne, and rising English star Danny Willett.
But the field is still a quality one and there is no greater threat than Charl Schwartzel, the highest-ranked South African golfer and someone who is eager to claim his national open for the first time.
But Schwartzel is not going to put extra pressure on himself by being desperate to win the title.
“I want to win the SA Open, but I’m not going to put pressure on myself, that’s unnecessary. If it doesn’t happen now then I’ll win it some other time.
“I know how to win but you can’t get ahead of yourself. Being considered one of the favourites is a confidence boost and I can feed off others’ confidence in me. I’ve prepared well and if I play well, then I know I can win,” Schwartzel said.
The 2011 Masters champion may be the biggest name in the field, but the chasing pack is a hungry, determined one as the SA Open is a much-sought-after prize.
Darren Fichardt is the leader of the Sunshine Tour’s order of merit after dominating the co-sanctioned events last summer and he warned that his game is good and is confidence is high heading into the tournament.
“I had a good start to the season, but the middle wasn’t great because I had something to fix in my swing – I was starting too far right.
“But all my lines are good now and the last four weeks, on very tough courses, have been very good. I’m very excited about my ball-striking at the moment and my putting is always good,” Fichardt said.
“It’s nice to be at an event where you’re one of the favourites. I have no problem with that, it doesn’t bother me. I know I’m playing well, but I’ll just take it one hole at a time because this game is very unpredictable.
“For me it’s been all about regaining confidence and winning last year and then playing a full season in Europe has done that and I think I’ve carried that confidence over here. If I play well and make a few putts – I’ve won a few times to know it’s possible to win here as well.”
One thing that is certain is that the SA Open is being played on a truly top-class course. Ryder Cup captain Paul McGinley gave Glendower a glowing assessment after playing in the Pro-Am.
“I’ve never played here before, but I love the course. It’s fabulous, a throwback to tradition in the centre of one of the major cities of the world.
“It’s one of the best I’ve ever played, very visual, really well bunkered and extremely well set up. We don’t get to play on many traditional courses any more and I was delighted.
“I could see this as a real potential venue for a U.S. Open if it was in America. It’s so reminiscent of the great courses in the United States, it would fit in very well,” McGinley said.
The Irishman asked for the contact details for whoever had been responsible for redesigning the greens in 2004 and Sean Quinn, the design principal of Golf Data, will be getting a congratulatory phone call from McGinley.
“Whoever did the green redesigns did a wonderful job. They are very cleverly designed and a nice speed too. It doesn’t look like there’s much slope, but there is and there are some very clever pin-placements too,” he said.
Former SA Open champion, Gavan Levenson, has been based at Glendower for 46 years and has an academy at the club, so if anyone knows what it will take to win the tournament, then it’s him.
He says driving accuracy heads the list of requirements.
“If we were playing this tournament in February or March, things would be different, because there hasn’t been much of a chance for much rough to grow. But driving is really important around here,” Levenson said.
The presence of other former champions like Retief Goosen, Hennie Otto and James Kingston, former world number one David Duval, Scandinavians Niclas Fasth and Soren Hansen, Italian Edoardo Molinari and a rising English star like Ross Fisher ensures plenty of challengers for the prestigious trophy and the winner’s cheque for R2.3 million.
In terms of the European Tour, the SA Open is the opening event of the 2014 season and it is obvious everyone in the field has their sights set on making the kind of start that will set them up for a great year. DM
Photo: Charl Schwartzel (REUTERS/Umit Bektas)
"Take a chance, won't you? Knock down the fences which divide. Tear apart the walls that imprison you. Reach out. Freedom lies just on the other side." ~ Thurgood Marshall