Johannesburg – The form shown by Louis Oosthuizen all year, and the apparent return to something approaching his best golf by Charl Schwartzel, has raised hopes of a South African winner – something the local fans will feel is overdue – in this week’s Nedbank Golf Challenge.
The 32nd edition of “Africa’s Major” begins on Thursday, and there hasn’t been a home-grown champion since Trevor Immelman took the honours in 2007. Swede Henrik Stenson, winner two Sundays ago of the South African Open, won in 2008, Australia’s Robert Allenby in 2009 and England’s Lee Westwood then took over with his victories in 2010 and last year.
In fact, 12 months ago the final leaderboard had a far too “foreign” look for the South African supporters. Westwood, who won on a score of 273, was followed by Swede Robert Karlsson on 275, American Jason Dufner and Northern Ireland’s Graeme McDowell on 277, and South Korea’s Kim Kyung-Tae on 280.
Schwartzel, the only South African in the 12-man line-up last year, was sixth on 282.
Now Schwartzel is back and, after a quiet period for a good part of this year because of a niggling intercostal injury and – as he puts its it – an inability to string four rounds together, he played some sublime golf in last week’s World Tour Championship in Dubai which brought the 2012 European season to an end.
The 2011 Masters champion shot 68-67-67-68 to tie for third on 270 with Luke Donald, five behind winner Rory McIlroy and three back of runner-up Justin Rose. Oosthuizen, in turn, was just one back of his good friend Schwartzel – they were paired together in the final round – to put the finishes touches to a fabulous season on the fairways of the world.
Highlights included winning the Africa Open and the Malay-sian Masters. And, of course, he lost to Bubba Watson in a play-off for the more famous Augusta Masters, and also lost in extra time to Matteo Manassero in the Singapore Open.
“King Louis”, with 69.4 topped the stroke averages on the European Tour ahead of Rose and McIlroy, and he finished third in the Race to Dubai (equating to earnings on the European Tour throughout the season) with just shy of eabout R36.5m in prize-money. He recently rose to a career-high sixth in the world rankings, and is now seventh.
“It’s brilliant to see Louis and Charl hitting form just at the right time,” said NGC tournament director Alastair Roper on Monday. “In fact, since we announced this year’s line-up in mid-October, we’ve seen some of the other guys looking pretty good too – Westwood for one, also Sweden’s Peter Hanson who won the BMW Masters in China, and of course Rose who shot that spectacular 10-under-par 62 in Dubai on Sunday on his way to finishing second behind McIlroy.”
Good rains at Sun City – which included 40ml on Saturday – means that the Gary Player Country Club is looking lush and beautiful. But it also means that the rough is going to be severe this year and title contenders will have to keep it on the straight and narrow.
British Open champion Ernie Els, a three-time Nedbank winner, opted not to take up – as a current Major champion – an automatic invitation to play this year but the field is still a good one since it contains three of the world’s top 10 – Rose (4), Westwood (6) and Oosthuizen (7).
Field: Schwartzel, Hanson, fellow Swede Carl Pettersson, Germany’s Martin Kaymer, Scot Paul Lawrie, Italy’s Francesco Molinari, Belgium’s Nicolas Colsaerts, American Bill Haas and SA’s Garth Mulroy, the 2011 Sunshine Tour No 1. – The Star