JOHANNESBURG – There may be higher ranked golfers and more recognisable names in the field of 240 players teeing it up at the SA Open at Randpark from Thursday, but Erik van Rooyen could just be the surprise packet this week.
The European Tour’s 2018 Graduate of the Year enjoyed a stellar breakthrough campaign which saw him finish 38th in the Race to Dubai standings, 11 places better than his nearest rival for the award.
He follows Nacho Alvira, Byeong Hun An, Brooks Koepka, and compatriots Dylan Frittelli and Justin Walters as recipients of the prize - awarded to the top-ranked player to have graduated from the European Challenge Tour the previous year.
Following his runner-up finish to maiden European Tour winner at last year’s Joburg Open, Shubhankar Sharma - at the same venue where this week’s tournament is being played - Van Rooyen finished 10th at the Tshwane Open at the beginning of March and then finished in a tie for seventh at the Trophee Hassan II championship in Morocco.
In July at the Irish Open, Van Rooyen banked his biggest cheque of the year after finishing in a tie for fourth and two weeks later he finished in a tie for 17th at the 147th Open Championship at Carnoustie - his maiden outing in a Major.
Van Rooyen skipped last week’s Afrasia Mauritius Open to focus on this week’s SA Open at a venue where a year ago he took a liking to the layout in pushing Sharma all the way.
There are however a number of South Africans in the field this week who’ll fancy their chances of becoming the latest winner of the tournament - the last local to win it being Brandon Stone, who triumphed at Glendower three years ago.
Frittelli, who finished in a tie for fifth in Mauritius, is in good form, while Justin Harding was in contention last week until the final round when he couldn’t get anything going and had to settle for fourth place.
Stone will be back for another crack at the title, as will former Joburg Open winner Haydn Porteous, and Major champions Louis Oosthuizen, Charl Schwartzel, Ernie Els and Trevor Immelman. Branden Grace, George Coetzee, Dean Burmester, Darren Fichardt and Thomas Aiken will also be among the local contingent looking to become their country’s open champion.
The overseas challenge will be led by England’s Matt Wallace, a three-time winner on the European Tour this year and a player who finished the recent Race to Dubai competition strongly with top-five finishes at the Nedbank Golf Challenge and at the DP World Challenge.
Last year’s surprise SA Open winner, Chris Paisley from England - who won with wife Keri on the bag - is also back for another stab at the title.@jacq_west