Charl Schwartzel is returning to Leopard Creek this week to defend his title in the Alfred Dunhill Championship, and bidding to join an exclusive club. Photo by Charles LeClaire

Charl Schwartzel is returning to Leopard Creek this week to defend his title in the Alfred Dunhill Championship, and bidding to join an exclusive club alongside golfing greats Tiger Woods, Bernhard Langer and Tom Watson.

When Schwartzel lifted the trophy last year at this pristine bushveld layout right next to the Kruger Park, he became the first South

African to win the same European Tour event four times.

Woods, Langer and Watson are the only players from across the world to have captured the same European Tour event on five occasions, so should Charl lift the trophy again he will be in elite company indeed.

Schwartzel's victory 12 months ago reinforced his undisputed status as the King of Leopard Creek following previous wins in the 2005, 2013 and 2014 seasons.

He has also finished in the top two in eight of his 11 appearances with an impressive aggregate score of 122 under par - and this on a golf course which has plenty of trouble lurking off the fairways in the snake-infested rough, or crocodile-inhabited water hazards.

His victory last year at age 31 saw him become the youngest South African to reach ten European Tour victories, surpassing Ernie Els who was a year older when he got into double figures at the 2002 Dubai Desert Classic. Retief Goosen is the only other South African player to have previously reached the mark.

Schwartzel is also enjoying some good form, coming off third place in the European Tour's season-ending DP World Championship in Dubai two Sundays back.

The Alfred Dunhill Championship, starting on Thursday, signifies a double-header start to the 2017 Race to Dubai as the Australian PGA Championship is also being played this week.

The Alfred Dunhill Championship, co-sanctioned with the Sunshine Tour, was first played in 2000 at Houghton Golf Club in Johannesburg.

The tournament superseded the South African PGA Championship, which became the first European Tour co-sanctioned event five years earlier. Anthony Wall took the crown in 2000, the first title of the new millennium, before the event moved to its new home of Leopard Creek Country Club and a new December date from 2004.

Schwartzel won the first of four titles that year and since then eight of the 12 editions have been won by South Africans, with Els, Richard Sterne, Garth Mulroy and Branden Grace joining Schwartzel on the honours board.

Schwartzel will be joined this week by 2011 Open champion and 2016 Ryder Cup Captain Darren Clarke, along with Grace - South Africa’s highest ranked player on the Official World Golf Ranking - and compatriots Haydn Porteous and Brandon Stone, both of whom picked up maiden titles in the 2016 season at the Joburg Open and BMW SA Open hosted by City of Ekurhuleni respectively.

Flanked by the aptly named Crocodile River, sightings of these formidable reptiles, along with hippos, antelopes, buffalos and

elephants, are commonplace on the course or in the bordering Kruger Park. And it's not entirely unusual for leopards to slink onto this exquisite, nature-lover's layout.