Following his return to competitive action in last week’s Nedbank Golf Challenge at the Gary Player Country Club, Ernie Els will return to The European Tour fold this week for the first time since the Open Championship in July when he headlines the field for the dunhill championship at Leopard Creek.
Understandably, after over four months out of the game following knee surgery, the two time European Tour Order of Merit winner was a little rusty in Sun City, but with the cobwebs blown away, the 36 year old three time Major winner will start favourite at the Mpumalanga venue, arguably one of the most unusual and distinctive golf courses on The European Tour.
Courses in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Madrid have skyscrapers peering over them while play on the West Course at Wentworth Course takes place in front of a series of sprawling houses with manicured lawns and tall pines. Leopard Creek resembles these courses only in so far as it has 18 tees, fairways and greens and a clubhouse.
To the east of Leopard Creek is Mozambique, Swaziland is just over the hill and a few holes on the inward nine border the sprawling Kruger National Park. There is not a view in golf like the one from the 13th green, 50 feet above the bed of the Crocodile River where, at dusk or early in the morning, the animals come to feed and drink.
From there it is possible to see every one of those that make up Africa's Big Five - elephant, buffalo, rhinoceros, lion and leopard. Elsewhere, there is a hippopotamus known as ‘Harry’ in a lagoon by the 15th and 16th holes, while two crocodiles lurk in the water between the ninth and 18th greens.
While Els – who finished in a tie for third place in the event last year - unquestionably represents one of golf’s big five, he will not have it all his own way in his quest for the lion’s share of the €1 million prize fund, an significant increase in prize money from the €720,000 on offer for the 2005 championship.
Leading the challenge will be his fellow countryman Trevor Immelman who is no stranger to victory in his native country having won back-to-back South African Open titles in 2003 and 2004.
Also keen to put on a decent show will be defending champion Charl Schwartzel who claimed his maiden European Tour title at Leopard Creek 12 months ago when he pipped England’s Neil Cheetham in a play-off after both players had ended their 72 holes on seven under par 281.
"Leopard Creek is unique, a truly fantastic golf course, and what Johann Rupert has done here is very special," said Schwartzel. "Having grown up in the Bushveld, I feel very at home with the Kruger National Park by my side on the back nine. There is no golf course in the world like this and it was a dream come true for me to win both my first tournament in South Africa and my first event on The European Tour. I am truly looking forward to going back and defending my title."
While the marquee names will be most people’s pick to finish with the silverware in their hands come Sunday night, perhaps the more shrewd trend analysts amongst the golfing fraternity might consider backing one of the players outside the realm of favourites.
Because a glance at the record books shows that Schwartzel became, incredibly, the sixth first time winner in succession of the dunhill championship, following in the footsteps of Anthony Wall, Adam Scott, Justin Rose, Mark Foster and Marcel Siem. What price someone completing a Magnificent Seven?
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