South African Open Preview, Picks & Analysis
Post by Sports Writer Derek Clements
IS IT any wonder that so many of the European Tour's best players spend increasing amounts of time chasing the sun on the the PGA Tour? It was only at the beginning of December that they were taking part in the Alfred Dunhill Championship in South Africa. From there they went to Hong Kong and thence headed home for the festive period.
The season gets back into full swing this week and guess where they are playing? South Africa! Who on earth works out these schedules? Surely it cannot be beyond the wit of man to stage tournaments in South Africa on successive weeks.
Anyway, having got that out of my system, this week's tournament is the BMW South African Open, which is being held at the magnificent Glendower Golf Club in Gauteng. It was won 12 months ago by Brandon Stone, one of the brightest young prospects in world golf. He has since added another title and will be confident of making a good run at a successful defence.
The tournament was won in 2011 by Richie Ramsey, in 2012 by Ernie Els, 2013 by Henrik Stenson, 2014 by Martin Orum Madsen and in 2015 it was the tournament that set Andy Sullivan of England on the road to fame and fortune. Glendower is 7,600 yards but the ball flies further in South Africa, so big hitting is no huge advantage.
Over the years, most of the winners of the South African Open have been home grown, but the organisers will be hoping that is not the case this year. BMW have pulled off a huge coup by persuading Rory McIlroy to take part, and it is a brave man who would bet against the Northern Irishman heading home with the trophy and the winner's cheque. Many golfers turn up at routine events to pick up their appearance money and expenses. McIlroy is not that kind of player. If he is taking the trouble to fly all the way to Glendower you can be absolutely certain that he will be doing so with every intention of winning.
McIlroy finished the 2016 season in sensational fashion and will be looking to carry on where he left off. However, he faces a strong field.
There are a host of South Africans to keep an eye on, but we start with Jaco van Zyl, who enjoyed his best season in 2016. If you are ever struggling with your timing and rhythm, Van Zyl is the man you should watch. He has a glorious swing and a beautiful, lazy rhythm. Sam Snead used to say that he tried to imagine liquid honey pouring from a jar when he swung the golf club - presumably, Van Zyl has gone through a lot of honey in his life. If the South African was a better putter he would be a regular winner around the world. This could be the season when he puts that right.
While Stone was the young South African golfer who took most of the limelight in 2016, Haydn Porteous wasn't far behind him. Like Stone, Porteous is a hugely talented golfer with a big future ahead of him and his breakthrough surprised nobody. South African golf is in a very healthy position right now. Apart from Van Zyl, Stone and Porteous, there is George Coetzee, who is emerging from a mini-slump and is certain to find his way back into the winners' enclosure soon. Coetzee is a glorious ball striker and one of the best putters on the planet, but he has consistently struggled with his chipping. He has apparently been working tirelessly for some time to improve that part of his game - if he can sort it out then he is certainly good enough to be anybody on any course.
I am fascinated to see how Richard Bland gets on. With the best year of his life tucked under his belt, he will face 2017 full of confidence and believing that he has the game to win. He had an astonishing run during the autumn and seemed to contend every time he teed the ball up.
And then there is Matthew Southgate, who provided the feel-good story. The Englishman was diagnosed with cancer and his world fell apart. One minute he was dreaming of birdies and eagles, the next he was wondering whether he would ever be able to play tournament golf again. Mercifully, his treatment was successful and not only did he make it to the European Tour but he comfortably retained his card - with all that stress now lifted from his shoulders, wouldn't it be just perfect if Southgate could now go and win a tournament?
Rory McIlroy. Who is going to be second?
Brandon Stone. Looking for a successful title defence
George Coetzee. Looking for a big year
Rory McIlroy. Good to see him back in action
Brandon Stone. Future superstar
George Coetzee. Has he sorted out his chipping?
Jaco van Zyl. Beautiful golf swing
Haydn Porteous. Ready for a second win
Matthew Southgate. Won't be a dry eye in the house when he wins
Richard Bland. Finally playing with confidence
Bernd Ritthammer. This guy is going to surprise a LOT of people
Peter Uihlein. Time for the American to rediscover his mojo
James Morrison. Hugely underrated English golfer
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Tags: european tour