Robert Karlsson returns to the Home of Golf this week to defend his Alfred Dunhill Links Championship crown, 12 months on from the dramatic play-off victory at St Andrews which effectively sealed his place as last season’s European Number One.
Karlsson’s second victory of 2008 – his first came at the Mercedes-Benz Championship – saw him leapfrog Lee Westwood and Padraig Harrington in the money list and he never relinquished his stranglehold, going on to become the first Swede to win the coveted Harry Vardon Trophy.
The 40 year old produced a trademark run of birdies at St Andrews last year to surge through the field with a final round 65, before defeating Ross Fisher and Martin Kaymer in a three-way play-off.
That win came amidst a purple patch last year, with his two victories punctuated by a fine Ryder Cup performance in Valhalla, but Karlsson defends his title in somewhat different circumstances this week after being sidelined for the past four months due to an eye injury.
Having made his return to competitive golf in last week’s Vivendi Trophy with Seve Ballesteros, where he inevitably showed some signs of ring rust, Karlsson is now relishing his defence as he looks to win his tenth European Tour title.
“It was good to be back last week and I’m very much looking forward to going back to the Home of Golf,” he said.
“I've never really played well around St. Andrews before, so to win there meant a lot to me. It was a fantastic feeling to sit on that bridge with the trophy last year and walk up that 18th hole when the play-off was done. It was quite emotional to win around there.
“I beat two really good players in Ross and Martin in the play-off and they are both young ones, too, so that was nice! It was also special the way I did it – I birdied that first hole three times in a row.”
While Kaymer’s own ongoing injury problem – he broke three bones in his foot while go-karting in the USA - prevents him from trying to go one better this year, Englishman Fisher will be in the field once again as he looks to gain ground on the German in The Race to Dubai.
Last year’s joint runner up is currently in sixth position in The Race to Dubai, while third place Rory McIlroy – who made a fine debut in last week’s Vivendi Trophy with Seve Ballesteros – could leapfrog both Kaymer and second placed Paul Casey, who is still sidelined with a rib injury.
Padraig Harrington, who finished tied fourth in last week’s Tour Championship in America, will hope his recent renaissance continues in a tournament that has be kind to him in the past, with the Irishman the only player to win the Championship twice (in 2002 and 2006).
The 2005 champion, European Ryder Cup Captain Colin Montgomerie, is also in the field along with fellow Scottish winner Paul Lawrie (2001) and English pair Lee Westwood and Nick Dougherty, who won the Championship in 2003 and 2007 respectively.
Major winners Ernie Els and Trevor Immelman will both attempt to win the title for the first time, while Thomas Björn and Paul McGinley return to playing duties having taken on captaincy roles in the Vivendi Trophy with Seve Ballesteros last week.
St Andrews’ Old Course, which hosts The Open Championship in 2010, will not be the only challenge facing them, with the players and their amateur partners also rotating between Carnoustie and Kingsbarns during the first three rounds, before those making the cut go on to play the final round over the iconic Old Course.
The amateur contingent will comprise of some of the most high profile figures from the worlds of golf, sport, entertainment and industry, such as Hugh Grant, Don Felder, Ronan Keating, Sir Ian Botham and Sir Steve Redgrave, who will bring some glitz to the fairways.