After a gap of 34 years, the Mercedes-Benz South African Open returns this week to the historic East London Golf Club. First played at the course in 1906, East London is one of the great, old championship golf courses in the country and has been a significant feature of the proud history of the South African Open.
Defending champion in the second European Tour event of the year in South Africa will be Sweden’s Mathias Grönberg who won his third European Tour title last year at the Randpark Golf Club in Johannesburg.
The 29 year old triumphed as darkness fell thanks to a birdie four on the final hole for a closing 67, which gave him a 14 under par total of 274 and a one shot victory over the 1994 Open champion Nick Price, Darren Fichardt and Ricardo Gonzalez.
Fichardt and Gonzalez will again line up in a high quality field which includes Darren Clarke, Thomas Björn, Retief Goosen and Paul McGinley, all of whom finished in the top 18 on the 2000 Volvo Order of Merit.
All competitors will find an elegantly manicured golf course restored to its former glory thanks largely to the generosity of the motor manufacturer Daimler Chrysler, who make Mercedes-Benz in the city and who will sponsor the tournament.
It has cost more than five million rand to complete the makeover, with Daimler Chrysler injecting the bulk of the funding into the exercise. The effort has readied both the course and clubhouse for the South African Open and is a positive investment for the future of golf in the country.
More than four million rand went into the revamp of the clubhouse which includes a striking new entrance foyer and a new roof. Locker rooms have also been extended and modernised, the historic bar has been extended and refurbished and the car-park improved.
On the course itself, six new tees have been built, increasing the overall length by some 200 metres and several new bunkers have been added while others have been redesigned. The practice area has also been greatly enhanced.
The 156-strong starting line-up will find a course that demands good shotmaking. This assessment is confirmed by the history books which show that amongst the seven East London champions are three of South Africa's greatest ever golfers, Sid Brews, Bobby Locke and Gary Player.
In total Player has won the South African Open on 13 occasions, and his victory at East London in 1967 came in the middle of five consecutive successes. In addition, Player’s winning total of 279 is the lowest four round winning total recorded at East London.
Other multiple winners of the event include Bobby Locke, whose 1937 East London victory was one of nine, Sid Brews, whose seven successes included a stop at East London in 1930, and George Fotheringham who won five times in the seven years preceeding World War I.
When Locke won in 1937 it was when still an amateur and, notably, two other victories at East London were posted by members of the unpaid ranks, namely Houghton's Micky Janks in 1948 and Reg Taylor of Kensington in 1954.
In more recent times, the most successful player in South African Open history has been European Tour member and World Number Two Ernie Els who won at Houghton in 1992, Royal Cape in 1996 and Durban in 1998.