The European Tour begins its new year exactly where it finished the old one, in South Africa, but this time for the inaugural Joburg Open at Royal Johannesburg and Kensington Golf Club.
Following on from the successful staging of the Alfred Dunhill Championship at Leopard Creek Golf Club and the South African Airways Open at Humewood Golf Club in December, the players return to action this week in the city of Johannesburg for the first tournament of 2007.
Carrying a prize fund of €1 million, the Joburg Open will see an expanded field of 200 play both the East and West courses at Royal Johannesburg and Kensington over the first two rounds, with the players moving to the East Course after the halfway cut, set at 70 plus ties.
Among the leading contenders for the €166,660 first prize is one of Johannesburg’s favourite golfing sons, Charl Schwartzel, who seems to feature prominently every time The European Tour visits South Africa.
Schwartzel served notice of his prodigious talent on only his third European Tour start, when he finished joint third in the 2003 South African Airways Open, and the following year saw him capture his maiden title when he held off strong opposition including Ernie Els to win the Alfred Dunhill Championship at Leopard Creek.
Els responded by pushing his young challenger into second spot at Leopard Creek the following year and 22 year old Schwartzel found himself consigned to the bridesmaid’s role once again when, before Christmas, Spanish rookie Alvaro Quiros beat him by a stroke.
Now Schwartzel has the perfect opportunity to put December’s disappointment behind him and start 2007 with victory in front of supportive home galleries. However, with a further 15 European Tour winners in the field plus a large crop of talented newcomers, his task will not be an easy one.
David Frost, who won the South African Open the last time it was played on Royal Johannesburg’s East Course in 1986, and Michael Kirk, a former Challenge Tour winner who is now professional at the merged club, both have course knowledge on their side, while another South African to look out for is Louis Oosthuizen.
The 24 year old was runner-up with Schwartzel behind Els at the Alfred Dunhill Championship in December 2005 and a member of the South African team, alongside Schwartzel, which won the World Junior Team Championships in 2000.
With so many playing spots available, the tournament provides ample opportunity for new or less established European Tour players to pick up vital Order of Merit points early on in the season, and among them are 2006 Challenge Tour Number Two Johan Axgren of Sweden and Alexandre Rocha of Brazil, who was joint winner of The European Tour Qualifying School Final Stage at San Roque in November.
Meanwhile, an additional objective of the event is to raise funds for the establishment of a driving range near Diepsloot, north of Sandton, near Johannesburg.
The range will offer schoolchildren and other members of the community regular coaching sessions and those who show talent and persistence will receive free second-hand equipment and, eventually, club membership.
“The tournament will showcase the city and its people to sports lovers throughout the world and we want everyone in the city to feel that the Joburg Open belongs to them,” commented Clr Amos Masondo, the Executive Mayor of Johannesburg.
Schwartzel, as the home grown favourite, will be hoping it belongs to him.