SA Open set to end year with a bang

Much to everyone’s surprise and probably his too, James Kingston won his first European Tour title when he captured the South African Open at Pearl Valley last year.

He will, however, find it difficult to defend his title this year in the tournament that teed off yesterday.

It is not because the Rustenburg professional is not any good but more to do with the fact that he is in a strong field with at least eight opponents who know how to win better than he does.

Among them are in-form Henrik Stenson, fresh from capturing the Nedbank Challenge with finesse after he led from day one. The Swede is in such fine form that the defending champion will have to dig deep into his game to stave him off.

Not even lightning on Friday and Sunday at Sun City could stop Stenson. Pearl Valley in Paarl would have to throw worse hazards of nature to derail the resolve of this champion.

Wisely, Stenson skipped the Dunhill Championship at Leopard Creek last week to be fresh for the SA Open.

A wise golfer would want to rest his muscles after the punishing rough that adorned the Gary Player course two weeks ago. Not that Stenson missed many fairways en route to clinching the $1,25-million. But a break between Sun City and Pearl Valley will work in his favour.

The Big Easy is back
However, South Africa’s most loved golfing son Ernie Els is back. He missed the Nedbank Challenge to be with his son in the United States and would want to finish the season at home with a flourish.

This will be even more significant because Els will remember vividly how he painfully handed the Dunhill to an English journeyman, John Bickerton, tripling the closing 18th last year.

Els held a two-stroke lead going to the 18th but frivolously and amateurishly threw his regulation second in the water, before overshooting the green with his fourth and then missing an eight-foot putt that could have at least forced a play-off.

So, Bickerton, who probably was not even watching the last moments of The Big Easy’s play, knowing well that the then world number four would not mess up, was pleasantly surprised to be called from the clubhouse to collect Els’s cheque and trophy.

Even though he has had a tough two seasons, there is no doubting that Els is one of the best golfers in the world, with probably a textbook swing, good enough to make him a winner come Sunday. Even the legendary Gary Player has predicted that Els is far from over. In fact, Player was bold enough to predict that The Big Easy can still unseat Tiger Woods to become world number one. Ahem!

Also challenging for the SA Open honours are South Africa’s other top players in the form of Retief Goosen, who also missed the Nedbank and the Dunhill, Tim Clark, who could use a better putter, and Trevor Immelman, who has not played any decent golf since winning the US Masters earlier in the year.

Watch out for Immelman
Besides Els, Immelman is the other South African to watch and he has the potential to become the world’s next number one in the next five years or so.

A two-time winner of the South African Open himself, Immelman just needs to forget about bad rounds and learn to recover, a true measure of major-winning champions.

The South Africans and indeed Stenson are not going to have it easy with three British challengers lurking in the field.

World number 10 Lee Westwood, who put in a decent round at Sun City, will be eager to leave South Africa with one title of the three he registered for.

Nedbank and Dunhill have already eluded him and taking the oldest South African championship would seal his coming down here rather perfectly.

And then there is the veteran with 19 worldwide victories, Darren Clarke. Arguably one of the most loved professionals on tour, not least for being a man who shows his emotions, Clarke will want to show why he has had the mettle to play in five European Ryder Cups.

Clarke is no stranger to South African courses. Although without a major victory to his name, he is one of the most consistent players in the world having finished tied second at The Open Championship in 1997, tied eighth in The Masters in 1998, joint 10th in the US Open in 1999, and tied ninth in the PGA Championship in 2000.

He is here to end his drought and Clarke may just be the man to challenge Stenson to a photo-finish on Sunday.

Last of the British stars is Justin Rose. The lovable Mr Rose has the added advantage of enjoying sympathy here because he was born in South Africa and won his maiden professional victory on our soil in the 2002 Dunhill Championship. Today he holds six wins worldwide and this year he made his Ryder Cup debut for Europe. Discount him at your own peril.

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