Ernie Els will attempt to pen another chapter for himself in golf’s record books this week when he defends his title in the Alfred Dunhill Championship at Leopard Creek Golf Club in Mpumalanga, the first of three visits to South Africa during The 2007 European Tour International Schedule.
Since 1972, outside the Major Championships and World Golf Championships, only three golfers have won a single European Tour Order of Merit event on four or more occasions; Bernhard Langer, who won five German Opens and four German Masters, Nick Faldo who won four PGA Championships at Wentworth Club, and Seve Ballesteros who captured the Open de France four times.
Now Els has a chance to join that exclusive club when he attempts to win the Alfred Dunhill Championship for a fourth time, his previous victories coming in the 1995 season at the Wanderers Club, in the 1999 season at Houghton Golf Club, and in the 2006 season at Leopard Creek.
Twelve months ago, Els’ three stroke victory over fellow countrymen Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel not only gave him his 22nd European Tour International Schedule victory, but also finally cast aside any lingering doubts that he had not fully recovered from the knee surgery he underwent the previous July following a sailing accident on holiday.
Schwartzel, the 2005 champion and winner of the Sunshine Tour Order of Merit in the past two seasons, returns to compete again as does Oosthuizen, the duo part of a strong home contingent overall.
However, a glance at the Roll of Honour shows the Alfred Dunhill Championship always attracts a worldwide entry and headlining the international players in action this year is one of the heroes from Europe’s Ryder Cup success at The K Club in September, Lee Westwood.
The 33 year old is a regular visitor to South Africa and knows what it takes to win in the country too, having captured the Dimension Data Pro-Am title in 2000 and the Nelson Mandela Invitational, in tandem with Simon Hobday, in 2003.
Westwood, a wild card selection for The Ryder Cup, was a revelation once again at The K Club where he and Sergio Garcia, as they were at Oakland Hills in 2004, ended the three days of competition as Europe’s joint top points scorers. How the Englishman would love to translate his match play form into the card and pencil format and notch his 17th European Tour title this week.
While Westwood has achieved virtually everything in the game, the Alfred Dunhill Championship will represent the first step on what he hopes will be a successful professional career for his young compatriot, Oliver Fisher.
The 18 year old, who became the third youngest player in history to come through The European Tour Qualifying School – Final Stage at San Roque last month, where he finished fifth, turned professional the following week and will make his debut in the paid ranks at Mpumalanga.
Rounds of 68-70-68-74-74-71 in the demanding arena of the Qualifying School proved the teenager has both playing ability and mental strength, especially considering he played the last round on the day of his grandfather’s funeral back home in England.
Now the protégé of Nick Faldo, and winner of the six time Major Champion’s Junior Series on two occasions, takes the next step on the ladder of his golfing career where his progress will no doubt be monitored closely.
The Alfred Dunhill Championship is the first of three counting events in South Africa towards the 2007 Order of Merit, the next event being the South African Airways Open at Humewood Golf Club next week, while the inaugural Joburg Open takes place at the Royal Johannesburg and Kensington Golf Club from January 11-14, 2007.