Malelane: Charl Schwartzel is hunting down the Big Five at Leopard Creek – a record five wins in the Alfred Dunhill Championship on this magnificent golf course right next to the Kruger Park.
And the 2011 Masters champion took dead aim at that target with a six-under-par 66 in Thursday’s first round which gave him a share of the lead with Ireland’s Paul Dunne. SA Open champion and Sunshine Tour Order of Merit leader Brandon Stone is one stroke
back on 67 alongside compatriot Jean Hugo, England’s Max Orrin, Scotland’s Scott Jamieson, Sweden's Alexander Bjork and Spain’s Pablo Larrazabal.
Branden Grace, South Africa's highest ranked player at No 16 in the world, is with a group of players on 69 after he bogeyed the 18th.
Schwartzel won here last year to make it four titles, and he’s now known as the King of Leopard Creek. So how was Thursday in his bid for the Big Five?
“You're always a little anxious when it comes to the first round. But I made a good par save at the first hole which got me going. And then another one at seven helped me keep momentum. I was making good swings and not dropping shots. I was one under through nine, and was looking at two or three birdies on the back nine but I ended up making five. I was making good swings and executing well.
“It’s too early to think about winning though. If you try and force things in this game it’ll bite you so, yes, just more good swings and executing well for the rest of the week and we’ll see what happens,” said Schwartzel.
The Emerald Isle sparkles when it comes to producing world class golfers – like Major champions Harrington, McDowell, Clarke and McIlroy in recent years.
And Thursday at Leopard Creek another young gem of a professional, 24-year-old Dunne from County Wicklow, shot his 66 to show that he’s very much on the up.
Dunne in the 2015 Open Championship at St Andrews, still an amateur at the time, shared the lead through 54 holes and was paired with Louis Oosthuizen in the final round. Okay, he did shoot 78 to fall back into 30th place but, clearly, here was another potential champion and he certainly played well Thursday, with eight birdies and a double-bogey
(at the treacherous par-4 ninth).
“I had a decent first year on the European Tour this year but a few days ago I changed my set-up slightly – pushing the ball a little
forward in my stance, and I’m hitting the ball really well now,” said Dunne who acknowledged that having Major champions from Ireland and Northern Ireland as his role models has helped him in his young career.
The highlight for Stone was an eagle three at the par-5 13th, which as far as location goes it’s everybody’s favourite hole as the green
borders the Crocodile River and the Kruger Park beyond, offering game viewing when your partners are putting out.
“I love that hole more than any other anywhere, but actually snap-hooked my tee-shot,” said Stone. “As I hit it I was like ‘oh no’, it’s in the creek. I mean it’s like a rookie error, even amateurs don’t go in there. But down on the fairway the guy (spotter) gives it a green flag (which means it’s dry) and I’m very happy.”
The ball ended up on the fairway, albeit close to the little creek that runs alongside the left of the hole, and from there Stone hit a high, majestic six-iron from 185 metres to about two paces behind the hole and rolled in the putt for a three.
“The morning’s conditions were perfect and there was hardly any wind and the greens were running so true so I felt I did have a good draw and fortunately I made the most of it.”
There was one tricky moment when he pulled a long drive into the rough at the par-5 18th and had to decide whether to play a risky shot over trees in a bid to reach the island green in two and give himself an eagle putt. “Then I just heard my dad’s voice (Kevin Stone, also a professional golfer and a man who has taught virtually everything he knows) in the back of mind saying ‘what are you thinking, trying to hit a high, slicing five-iron against the breeze to a back flag’.
“So I thought ‘let me just knock my next shot down the fairway. My pitching feels good at the moment so I knew I could give myself an opportunity of hitting it close for three and making birdie that way anyway. I did give myself a birdie putt with a good pitch but I left it in the jaws of the hole, just three inches short and I had to give myself a quick slap on the back for that. But overall, a really good day.”