The European Tour travels back to South Africa this week for the Joburg Open. Co-sanctioned by The Sunshine Tour, home player George Coetzee will defend the title at Royal Johannesburg and Kensington Golf Club.
This event has been a fixture on the European Tour since 2007 and it’s been dominated by South African players since then. Of the eight editions of the tournament, six have been won by home golfers. Charl Schwartzel and Richard Sterne have each claimed the title on two occasions.
George Coetzee was the champion last year. It was his first victory on the European Tour after 107 starts and 24 top-10 finishes on the circuit. He returns to defend the title this year and is looking forward to the week.
“I have always enjoyed the event and the venue. It’s close to where I live, so I can stay at home and enjoy it,” he said.
This tournament is played over two courses: the East and West layouts at Royal Johannesburg and Kensington Golf Club. As such, there’s capacity for a larger, 210-man field. All those on the start sheet will play one round on each course over the first two days before the longer East Course hosts the final two days of action.
There’s a prize fund of €1.3 million up for grabs in this event and the winner will walk away with €206,000. More importantly for a number of the Sunshine Tour players in the field, there’s the chance to earn European Tour playing rights with a victory.
Four things to watch for at the Joburg Open this week:
1. Darren Clarke will make his first competitive start since being named European Ryder Cup captain for the 2016 matches at Hazeltine. Clarke hasn’t recorded a top-10 finish on the European Tour since winning The Open Championship in 2011. He’s hoping his new role may inspire him to re-find his game. “Obviously my own competitive instincts haven't been too good of late and the captaincy might actually be a blessing in disguise in terms of my golf because it will take my mind away from practising too hard and I'll have a lot of things to focus on,” he said. “Hopefully it will help me play a little bit better.”
2. The Open Championship. For the second time, this tournament will act as a gateway into The Open Championship. The top-three finishers within the top-10 at the Joburg Open (not already exempt) will gain a place in the field at St Andrews. Last year it was South Africans George Coetzee and Justin Walters and Jin Jeong of South Korea who earned a place in the Major via this route.
3. The home nation will be well represented this week with 85 South African players on the start sheet. Defending champion George Coetzee will be among the favourites, but others to watch will include two-time winner of the Joburg Open Richard Sterne, Thomas Aiken – three times a European Tour winner, and Keith Horne – runner-up to Branden Grace in last week’s Dimension Data pro-am on the Sunshine Tour.
4. Alex Noren of Sweden will be looking to build on the great form he’s showed already this season. After spending almost all of 2014 on the sidelines through injury, he’s almost back to his best early in 2015. The 32-year-old finished ninth in Qatar, second in Dubai and tied 11th in Thailand. He could well be the winner this week.