Ernie Els heads a star cast for his defence of the Mercedes-Benz -Vodacom South African Open Championship which takes place at Stellenbosch Golf Club for the first time this week.
Last week’s winner Els has dominated the Championship over the past decade, winning in 1992, 1996 and 1998 and finishing runner-up twice in 1993 and 1995. Twelve months ago Els won by three shots from compatriot David Frost with a 15-under-par total of 273 at the Durban Country Club. This week he tees up alongside three other former major champions - Nick Faldo, Ian Woosnam and Bernhard Langer.
Including those three European winners of major championships, there will be no fewer than 13 Ryder Cup players in the high class field. Faldo, Woosnam, Langer, Per-Ulrik Johansson, Thomas Björn and Ignacio Garrido were all involved in the victory at Valderrama.
Two years ago the event, one of the oldest in the world, became co-sanctioned by the European Tour and Vodacom Tour. Vijay Singh, the 1998 US PGA Champion, won the title that year by holding off the strong challenge from Nick Price at Glendower Golf Club in Johannesburg.
The South African Open was first played in 1893, albeit as an exhibition event. It pre-dates even the US Open which began two years later. In 1903 it became open to everyone, amateurs and professionals, competing on a stroke play basis. The event was won six times in that period by Walter Day, a British professional, who had come to the Cape in 1893 to serve the Cape Golf Club, South Africa’s first club.
Past champions include Bobby Locke, who burst onto the scene as a 17-year-old amateur in 1935, winning at Parkview. Although he wasn’t present to defend the following year, he returned to win four times in a row before World War II. After the War, Locke again won his fifth consecutive title, but with overseas commitments didn’t compete every year. He won three more times, never losing a South African Open until 1958.
In 1956 another great South African golfer emerged at Durban Country Club. Gary Player was 20 when he won his first South African Open title but it wasn’t until the mid-60s, after he had won his first Open Championship, that he really dominated. From 1965 he won five consecutive South African Open titles, matching Locke’s record, and he went on to win 13 titles in total, the last one being in 1981.
The choice of Stellenbosch Golf Club in the Cape Winelands as the venue for the 1999 Championship breaks a long-standing tradition. All previous 17 South African Opens played in the Cape since the early years of the century have been at either Royal Cape or Mowbray.
Stellenbosch Golf Club is the first new coastal area course to be awarded the Open since Humewood was brought onto the roster 64 years ago. It is the first major golf event to be held in the Cape since the World Cup of Golf at Erinvale in 1996.
The quality of Stellenbosch as a championship lay-out is not in doubt. The South African Masters was staged there four times in five years and was strengthened after Mark McNulty’s victory there in 1990.
Not so long ago, the course played as a par 74 for the members, with six par fives, but the eighth and tenth were subsequently reduced to par fours. For the championship, the straightforward opening hole has also been reduced from a par five to a par four.
Els, who married his long-time girlfriend, Liezl, on New Year’s Eve and has bought a new house on the Wentworth Estate in England, close to the scene of his three World Match Play titles, should have happy memories of Stellenbosch.
For a start, his wife is from the town and it was at Stellenbosch that Els almost claimed his first victory as a professional in only his third tournament. That was the 1989 South African Masters and Els, after a poor 76 to begin, fired rounds of 68 and 65 to share the third round lead with Tony Johnstone. In the end, he shot a final 73 to lose by one stroke to Hugh Baiocchi. However, the warning bells rang out that week to the other South African professionals that they had a new superstar in their midst.
Three years later Els broke through by landing the South African Open - and a great career in golf took off.