South African Open Preview, Picks & Analysis
IF IT is January and it is the European Tour then it must be . . . South Africa. Twelve months ago, Graeme Storm provided one of the feel-good stories of the season when he won the South African Open, beating Rory McIlroy in a playoff. Storm went on to enjoy one of the best years of his life; McIlroy promptly announced that he was suffering from a cracked rib as a result of hitting too many golf balls in practice. It ruined his year, as he was never able to fully recover and went through 2017 with a victory to his name.
Storm returns to Glendower Golf Club to defend his title, knowing that he will have to fend off the challenges of a group of home players all desperate to produce the goods in front of their own fans. Ernie Els, Retief Goosen, Charl Schwartzel, 2016 champion Brandon Stone, and European Tour winners Branden Grace, George Coetzee, Haydn Porteous, Dean Burmester, Darren Fichardt and Dylan Frittelli will all be in the field, confirming the astonishing strength in depth of South African golf. Without a word of exaggeration, it would be no surprise to see any of these golfers emerge as the winner.
Els will host the tournament and is realistic enough to realise that he is now in the autumn of his career and will have no great expectations of adding to the five South African Open titles he has already won. “The 2017 BMW South African Open Championship was highlighted by the fact that we had one of the world’s best players, Rory McIlroy, in the field. The 2018 tournament will be highlighted by some of our best local professionals making sure that this title comes back to South Africa,” Els said. It would be a brave man or woman who would bet against that happening – and your correspondent is not that brave!
Pride is at stake for the South Africans, with four of the past five stagings of this tournament having been won by foreign golfers. Storm won last year, it was won in 2016 by Stone, in 2015 by Andy Sullivan, in 2014 by Morten Orum Madsen, and in 2013 by Henrik Stenson.
If not Els, then who? When looking for a possible South African winner it is always difficult to see beyond Charl Schwartzel. The former Masters champion is now 33 years old and only two victories on American soil seems like scant reward for his remarkable talent. He won The Masters in 2011 and then had to wait almost five years for his next success on the PGA Tour, beating Bill Haas in a playoff for the Valspar Championship. He has 11 European Tour titles to his name, the last of which came at the Tshwane Open almost two years ago.
Schwartzel has a swing and possesses a rhythm that is the envy of many, so why does he not have more wins to his name? He drives the ball superbly and is from the top drawer with an iron in his hand but, like so many others, he struggles on the greens. He simply doesn’t make enough of the putts that really matter, and also has a propensity to miss short putts. But when you look at his stroke it is difficult to work out how this could possibly be. It is smooth and it is textbook but, time and again, he leaves the ball short of the hole. And as we all know, the hole will never, ever move towards the ball.
Dylan Frittelli, on the other hand, has had spells recently where he looks like he will never miss. He won the Lyoness Open in July and added the Mauritius Open a couple of weeks before Christmas, and during the second of those victories he putted like a magician. He was also second at the Turkish Airlines Open and finished fourth at the Dubai World Championship. So this is a man who is walking on air right now. Confidence is everything in golf and 27-year-old Frittelli now believes that he can compete with and beat the best in the world.
At 6ft 2in and tipping the scales at around 12st 7lb, he has the perfect physique, and a long, willowy swing allows him to propel the golf ball an awful long way. He will be pumped up for this tournament and would dearly love to win it. An added incentive for the South African is that he goes into the week just outside the top 50 in the world rankings – a good performance will take him into the all-important top 50, opening up the door to a host of lucrative new opportunities, not least entry into to the majors and the money-spinning WGC events.
Of all the young South Africans, Stone is the one who appears to have it all. His two European Tour titles both came in South Africa and although the 24 year old suffers worrying spells where he cannot hit a barn door, playing in front of his home fans always seems to bring out the best in him. There are many knowing sages who believe that Stone has the game to win majors if only somebody can convince him that he really is good enough.
One man who needs nobody to convince about his ability is Grace, who seems to have been around for ever but, remarkably, is still only 29 years old. Grace, of course, is the man who shot a scarcely believable round of 62 during The Open at Royal Birkdale last year – the lowest score ever recorded in a major. He capped 2017 with a stunning performance to win the NedBank Challenge at Sun City – another South African winning another tournament in his home country. Grace has had his troubles on the greens but now seems to have finally settled on the claw grip and has at last found some consistency on the greens. He will be a hard man to beat at Glen Dower.
Branden Grace. One of the best in the world
Dylan Frittelli. Playing the golf of his life
Brandon Stone. Just needs to believe
Branden Grace. Can win anywhere
Dylan Frittelli. Has few weaknesses
Brandon Stone. Beautiful swing
George Coetzee. Needs some big weeks to restore confidence
Charl Schwartzel. Class act
Haydn Porteous. Infuriatingly inconsistent
Dean Burmester. Hits the ball a mile
Darren Fichardt. Late developer
Aaron Rai. Knows how to win
Tapio Pulkkanen. Has his own way of doing things, but don’t underestimate him
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