After the Christmas and New Year break, the European Tour gets underway again this week with The South African Open Championship Hosted by the City of Ekurhuleni. Morten Ørum Madsen of Denmark will defend his title at Glendower Golf Club in Johannesburg.
Although it’s the first event of the calendar year, this will actually be the third tournament on the 2015 European Tour schedule. Danny Willett of England holds a commanding early lead in the 2015 Race to Dubai after his victory in the highly lucrative Nedbank Golf Challenge.
South Africa’s Branden Grace won the last Tour event of 2014 – the Alfred Dunhill Championship. But, owing to its far smaller prize fund, that victory has him just sixth on the standings. Willett doesn’t play this week though, so there’s a good chance for Grace and others to close the gap.
Denmark’s Morten Ørum Madsen was the winner in this event last year. He took the title by two strokes from home players Jbe Kruger and Hennie Otto.
The course at Glendower dates from 1935, although the layout has been significantly altered and upgraded since then. At its heart is a classic parkland course featuring mature trees and well-placed bunkering and water. Measuring over 7,500 yards, the power hitters have a distinct advantage here.
Four things to watch for at The South African Open Championship this week:
1 – The home players.
Branden Grace (above) will start as one of the favourites this week. The 26-year-old South African won with something to spare in the last European Tour event of 2014 – The Alfred Dunhill Championship. He’s claimed three of his five European Tour titles in his home country and, as a renowned streaky player, he has a great chance to add to that total this week.
2011 Masters winner Charl Schwartzel will be looking to make amends for the early final-round collapse he suffered in this event last season. A triple bogey and a double bogey in his first 10 holes cost him a chance of victory in the 2014 tournament.
As this event is co-sanctioned by the European Tour and the South African Sunshine Tour, the home nation is strongly represented. In fact, there are 67 South African players on the start-sheet.
2 – Ernie Els.
The veteran South African has won this event on five occasions and his chances of adding to that tally can’t be discounted. He’s also accepted the role of host and ambassador for the event this year. His two charities – Els for Autism and the Ernie Els & Fancourt Foundation will become beneficiaries.
“I’m very honoured to be offered the role and accepted without hesitation,” he said. “This is a tournament with incredible history and it has featured strongly throughout my career.”
3 – The history.
In 1893, the first South African Open was contested as an exhibition tournament. It has been a fixture since then and the great South African golfers of the last century have dominated the tournament. Bobby Locke won nine times between 1935 and 1955 before Gary Player (above) took over, winning 13 times from 1956 to 1981. Other South African Major winners - Ernie Els, Retief Goosen and Trevor Immelman have all lifted the trophy. 2010 saw the 100th staging of the prestigious competition. This year will be the 104th edition.
4 – The graduates.
This isn’t one of the strongest fields on the European Tour schedule so it provides a chance for those who have moved up from the Challenge Tour, or come through Qualifying School, to shine. Look out for Sam Hutsby and Jordi Garcia Pinto who are stepping up from the Challenge Tour this season. And keep an eye on young Q-school graduates like 2013 US Amateur Champion Matthew Fitzpatrick (above) of England and 18-year-old Italian Renato Paratore.