MALELANE – SA’s Brandon Stone is aiming to make the perfect start to the 2020 European Tour campaign when he returns to a course he feels was built for him for this week's Alfred Dunhill Championship.
The 2017 champion is extremely fond of Leopard Creek Country Club, describing it as the "holy grail of golf in Africa", and he is thrilled to be back.
Stone said: "How could you not be happy to come back here? Let’s be honest, it’s the holy grail of golf in Africa.
"I’ve been out a couple of times already and the course is ridiculously good. The condition this year is simply sublime. Any time you get to this special place is fantastic, and the fact that we get to come for a tournament just makes it better.
"I’ve often said to people back home that I felt like Mr (Johann) Rupert built this course for me, because it seems like every hole I stand on I just love the tee shot and love the way it sets up.
"Obviously, you’ve got the likes of Ernie (Els) and Charl (Schwartzel) – I mean, Charl’s had amazing success around here – but at the moment I do feel like I can compete with the best.
"My game feels good, I feel at ease, I feel at home, and I’m hoping to get the 2020 season off to a flyer.”
Stone's career has gone from strength to strength since his win here three years ago, with his maiden Rolex Series victory coming at the 2018 Aberdeen Standard Investments Scottish Open.
The South African was unable to return to the winners' circle in the 2019 Race to Dubai season but saved his best for last, finishing in a tie for second at the Portugal Masters last month.
And he is hoping to take that momentum into the new season.
He added: "I kind of felt towards the end of last season I ran out of tournaments. I hit form towards the end of the year, which would have been great if I had made it into the final tournaments, but I didn’t.
"At the same time, I feel that I’m carrying that momentum through to now. Although the 2019 season wasn’t quite according to plan I feel extremely positive about 2020, that it’s going to be the best year yet.”
Also in a high quality field is Stone's compatriot Branden Grace, who won here in the 2015 season.
This week's tournament will be Grace's last of the calendar year before he takes a five-week break, and he is looking forward to getting back out on the course.
He said: "It's great to be back. I’ve not been on the course yet, but obviously I’ve seen the changes last year, and the changes have been phenomenal.
"Now the course has settled in a little bit, it’s going to be a different beast.
"Not everyone from South Africa – and definitely not the guys from Europe – are quite used to the heat, and secondly, this type of grass. It’s going to be something you have to adapt to and make the most out of it, but I’m excited.”
Fellow South African Zander Lombard finished last season 59th in the Race to Dubai Rankings, rounding off his campaign with a strong performance at the Nedbank Golf Challenge hosted by Gary Player, where he finished in a tie for eighth.
He was pleased with his year's work and is keen to keep it up as the new season begins.
"It's amazing what I’ve achieved this year," said Lombard. "Not just on the course, but off the course too – how I do things, sticking to my processes.
"It’s been really amazing and it’s worked out for me, so I hope I can keep the trend going into the next season.”