Sterne: The man to beat

The east course of the Royal Johannesburg & Kensington Golf Club boasts a unique feature of having the two longest back-to-back par fours in the world—the multiple bunker-protected 474m hole 10 followed by the beautiful downhill 457m hole 11.

Come Sunday, the 130-year-old course could also boast the first back-to-back winner of the Jo’burg Open in the form of Richard Sterne.

Fresh from successive victories of the Alfred Dunhill Championship and the South African Open in December, the form book suggests that Sterne is the man to beat.

The problem with golf reporting — or sport reporting, for that matter — is that you have to give readers a prediction of the likely winner.

In many sporting codes there are better odds of getting the predictions correct.
For example, the Soccer World Cup features just 32 teams, but only 10 have a real chance of reaching the final. However, professional golf is a throbbing headache.

With 210 local and international professional players challenging for the third edition of Africa’s most prestigious and expensive tournament, predicting only one man to win is high-risk business, form book or not.

Chances of getting it wrong far outweigh those of any of the players actually winning on Sunday.

Sterne was not mentioned by any bookie to win the Dunhill and, even after he romped to victory, not many shouted at the top of their voices to tip him to triumph in the SA Open the following week.

Surprise, surprise; suddenly the diminutive Sterne is the hot favourite for most pundits to clinch the €1,2-million (about R16-million) Jo’burg Open. And who can blame them.

A good bookmaker cannot ignore an in-form candidate, but, more importantly, we all relish that feeling of being able to say ‘I told you so”.

Sterne on to something big
In all fairness, Sterne is on to something exciting. He has won two back-to-back tournaments, is presently third in the European Tour’s 2009 Race to Dubai, he just clinched the Sunshine Tour’s 2008 Order of Merit and is turning tough matches into wins when it matters most.

That should count for something when he competes again this week.

Making a comeback is Argentine Ariel Cañete, who won the inaugural Jo’burg Open in 2007, which incidentally was his first win on the European Tour.

Since then he has disappeared off the leader boards, only making the cut at last year’s British Open Championship. He hopes to repeat his feat of two years ago and give his career a welcome boost.

Former world number three Retief Goosen has thrown his name into the hat and is playing in the Jo’burg Open for the first time. If recent form is anything to go by, Goosen, who has been on a free fall in world rankings, will find it hard to come out tops on Sunday, even though the field is not that daunting.

The Polokwane professional and two-time US Open winner was sensational at the SA Open at Pearl Valley early in December but for his poor putting. If he strikes the ball well and finds the fairways this week he will live up to the billing as one of the strong contenders. And if he can improve his putting ever so slightly, he may just revive his waning career in the year he turns 40.

Speaking of older players, 2007 SA Open winner James Kingston will also be trying his luck. After winning at Pearl Valley in 2007, it was a not-so-memorable 2008 for the lanky Rustenburg player. He needs to win something soon, before he earns the title of journeyman.

If age is not on Goosen or Kingston’s side, then it sure will be on the side of five of the local rising stars — Louis Oosthuizen, Hennie Otto, Charl Shwartzel, James Kamte and Thomas Aiken.

Eyeing Shwartzel
If Sterne cannot gather steam to make it a third win in a row and a back-to-back at the Jo’burg Open, then my money is on one of these four, especially Shwartzel.

Second only to the reigning US Masters champion Trevor Immelman, the young and solid Shwartzel has the most potential to replace Ernie Els and Goosen as the next local great.

Turning 25 in August this year, Shwartzel has proved to be a winner. Since 2007 he has finished tops on more than one occasion, including the Dunhill Championship and the Madrid Masters on the European Tour and the Vodacom Tour Championship on the Sunshine Tour in 2006.

He topped the Sunshine Tour Order of Merit two seasons on the trot and is now ranked 57th in the world. Sunday may just be his day to announce his arrival in 2009.

Kamte, Oosthuizen, Otto and Aiken have some serious work cut out for them to join Shwartzel in competing to replace Ernie and Goosen at the top. They are good golfers who can hold their own against tough competition.

For all intents and purposes, the Jo’burg Open seems destined to remain in South Africa. For my money, I hope it does not leave Jo’burg—meaning that Shwartzel should scoop it.

But there is still a chance that it may go overseas. Frenchman Raphael Jacquelin and Denmark’s Anders Hansen are making their debut and will be sure to give the South Africans a run for the prize money.

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