The Volvo Golf Champions, dubbed by the European PGA Tour as the “Tournament of Champions”, makes a welcome return to Durban Country Club on Thursday, as the cream of the European Tour look to start the new year in the best possible fashion – back in the winner’s circle.
The field is a stellar cast from the game’s most universal tour, and is comprised of winners from the last year. In a year that sees the Ryder Cup being played, local golf fans can be sure to see many of Europe’s best players up close and personal, as they look to get a head start in the race to Gleneagles.
Of course, there will also be a strong South African contingent, headed by defending champion Louis Oosthuizen. Joining the holder will be six other locals: Charl Schwartzel, 2012 Volvo Champions winner Branden Grace, and the consistent Richard Sterne.
South Africa’s favourite golfing son, Ernie Els, was a late withdrawal from the event. His absence will set the scene for another South African to emerge and make a dream start to the season, as Grace so memorably did in 2012.
“It’s just wild,” he said recently, explaining playing in the winners-only event.
“You know every guy is there for a reason. We want to start the year with a bang, and then kick on from there. Look at my situation in 2012; one win led to another, and it’s amazing how one win can carry you through the rest of the season,” Grace enthused.
It was Oosthuizen who prevailed last year, as an exhibition of ball-striking on the back nine saw him just about hold off Scott Jamieson. The Scotsman was inches away from chipping in for eagle on the 18th hole, to force a play-off.
A relieved “King Louis” duly picked up his winner’s cheque, as well as a digger from the sponsors, after several polite requests from the keen farmer. He will be back to defend his title, but he will be pushed by some of the most exciting, emerging talents in the world of golf.
Top of that list is the Tour’s Rookie of the Year, the impressive Peter Uihlein of America, who bucked the trend and cut his teeth on the continent, instead of the PGA Tour like many of his amateur rivals.
Another youngster who is expected to impress is Italy’s baby-faced ace, Matteo Manassero, who has already won four European titles before his 20th birthday.
Along with the young, there is plenty of experience in town, in the form of the colourful, cigar-puffing Miguel Angel Jimenez, who won the Hong Kong Open last year. Thomas Bjorn, a popular winner at the revamped Nedbank Golf Challenge recently, is also a tenacious veteran, while former champion Paul Casey is starting to show the form that one saw him in the top ten world rankings.
That the Volvo Golf Champions event has come back to the “Old Lady” of South African golf is no mean feat, as history dictates that the tournament moves to a different course on the European Tour roster each year. But when the mooted Asian venue for this year’s instalment hit a snag, Volvo were more than happy to return to Durban.
“It’s a natural fit for us, and also for the players. With the Emirates flight from Durban straight to Dubai, it falls in line with the players’ schedule, and we look forward to another fantastic tournament,” Per Ericsson, the President of Volvo Event Management explained.
Ericsson also revealed that Volvo were increasing the prize pool, and this year’s field will share a very festive bounty of $4 million (R42.5 million).
The Volvo team have made several aesthetic changes to the Country Club layout, opening up some parts of the notorious bush, though these will hardly take anything away from the course’s defence.
While it is considered short by modern standards, Durban Country Club humbled several newcomers last year, with its sudden changes of winds, and its subtle elevations.
Local knowledge, then, will be crucial and, with the greens even slicker, it will be no surprise if the usual suspects, Oosthuizen and Schwartzel, are sniffing around the top of the leader board come Sunday afternoon. - Sunday Tribune