/ 15 January 2010

The eagle finally lands for Schwartzel

Last Sunday just after 8pm, the 27th edition of the Africa Cup of Nations football tournament kicked off in Luanda, Angola. It can only be fitting that a little less than three hours earlier, a son of the soil lifted the Africa Open golf trophy.

With the Jo’burg Open currently under way at the Royal Johannesburg and Kensington Country Club, it would be equally fitting for a Jo’burg boy to claim the fourth edition of the European and Sunshine Tour-sanctioned tournament.

And indeed, a Jo’burg boy, the lanky, unassuming Charl Schwartzel — already having claimed the Africa Open — is poised to open the 2010 season with a back-to-back win.

Schwartzel claimed the fifth victory of his professional career in style last week. He scored a final-round six-under-par 67 to upset countryman Thomas Aiken who, until Schwartzel came to the fore virtually from nowhere, was the favourite to win in East London.

Schwartzel’s win was a long time coming. He has performed well at home and commendably in Europe. What has been lacking in his game is that large yet invisible ingredient in golf — luck.

Who can forget his ferocious fight-back on the last day of the Dunhill Championship in December last year, only to lose by a shot to Spaniard Pablo Martin who made birdie on the 18th to claim the trophy and the cheque?

In the past year it has been so close yet so far too many times for Schwartzel and, when he finally won last week it, came as no surprise to anyone who watches the leaderboards week in and week out.

Schwartzel agrees: “It felt like this has been coming for a long time. It really felt so close. It was just a matter of luck. You need that luck as well. I played fantastically this week, but also had a bit of luck.”

He will need Lady Luck to stay with him this weekend, because all the other ingredients are in place. His tee-to-green game is impeccable and his putting very competitive. He truly has a chance to claim the fourth edition of the Jo’burg Open.

If truth be told, of the South Africans playing this weekend, no one deserves it more than Schwartzel. He has made more cuts and more top 10 positions internationally than most of the other players.

But Aiken will want to use the tournament to wipe away the bad memories of last week, when he failed to make birdie on the 18th to force a play-off and perhaps go on to win the Africa Open.

Glendower professional James Kamte is reportedly experiencing domestic problems and his missing the cut in East London last week possibly corroborates the rumours. He will need a miracle to spring a surprise this weekend.

Three former champions — South African Richard Sterne, Argentinian Ariel Canete and Dane Anders Hansen — will also be in the field, none of whom should be written off.

Sterne, however, has had a very poor run in the past year. Defending champion Hansen, who is also the 2009 Order of Merit winner, would love to make history and win that honour again this year, and Jo’burg would be a great place to start if he is to catch Schwartzel, who is already in the lead.

South African fans are lucky though, if one considers that some of the world’s top golfers are playing this weekend. It therefore does not matter that the likes of Northern Ireland’s Darren Clarke is an unlikely winner, but being in the field is a win for the country’s tour.