Garth Mulroy is hoping inspiration from “his favourite course” can spur him on in his defence of the Alfred Dunhill Championship title this week, but he will have a number of his eminent countrymen to contend with at Leopard Creek Country Club – including Major Champions Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel.
Mulroy finished two clear of Scotsman George Murray in November 2011 to claim both his maiden European Tour title and also take a big step towards winning his native Sunshine Tour Order of Merit, which he did so after consolidating his lead with a ninth place finish at the following week’s SA Open Championship.
But if he is to mount a successful title defence this week, the South African will have to see off the twin threats of Oosthuizen and Schwartzel, who warmed up for his first European Tour appearance of the 2013 season with a stunning victory at last week’s Thailand Golf Championship on the Asian Tour.
The 2011 Masters Tounament Champion’s 11-shot win was the biggest margin of victory of any tournament in the world this year.
Schwartzel boasts an extraordinary record in the Alfred Dunhill Championship, having won the first to be staged at Leopard Creek in 2005 before notching a further four runner-up finishes in 2006, 2007, 2010 and 2011.
Also travelling to the heart of Mpumalanga in fine fettle is Schwartzel’s great friend and fellow Major Champion Oosthuizen, who has not finished outside of the top six in each of his last four European Tour appearances.
The 2010 Open Champion will be looking to win his sixth European Tour title and first at the Alfred Dunhill Championship to extend his impressive record on home soil, having won seven of his ten professional victories in South Africa.
With this week’s 14th edition of the Alfred Dunhill Championship – which has been held at Leopard Creek since 2005 – representing the 50th event to be co-sanctioned between The European Tour and the Sunshine Tour since the the first in 1995, at the Lexington South African PGA Championship. Defending champion Mulroy admits it is always a pleasure to return to the Malelane venue.
“It was a huge win for me last year,” said the 34 year old, who has also won two further events on the Sunshine Tour. “Anytime you win is great but as a South African you don’t play too many events that are co-sanctioned with The European Tour, so it was nice to win one of those and especially at just the right time because it locked up the Order of Merit win on the Sunshine Tour and gave me status in Europe for 2012.
“It’s probably my favourite course in South Africa. You’ve got to drive the ball well, the greens are always great and I love the bush too. You get to go and look at some animals, I’ll have my family up there with me so it should be nice – I love going back to Leopard Creek.
“I hope it can inspire me again. It’s always nice to go back to a place where you have played well or won in the past is a good feeling arriving there.”
Situated on the southern border of the Kruger National Park, Leopard Creek is renowned for the stunning safari backdrops and the plethora of wildlife that regularly makes itself visible as some of the world’s best golfers compete for the €1,500,000 prize fund.
In 2011, Mulroy sprang into contention after a magnificent eight under par 64 on Saturday handed him a two shot lead heading into the final round and it was a performance that shocked even him.
“Leopard Creek is such a difficult course that the 64 on Saturday came as a bit of a surprise,” he reflected. “That day I almost got lost in what I was doing, didn’t even know what I was shooting or how many under par I was, but just kept making putts to keep the round going to get myself right into the tournament.”
Things were not quite as straightforward on the Sunday, though, as Mulroy was caught twice – the second time after making bogey on the 14th as Murray eagled the hole ahead – but fought back to win by two thanks to a gain at the 15th hole which was followed by a quite remarkable birdie putt at the following par three.
He said: “I pulled my tee ball a little and was miles from the pin. I had a triple-breaker over a ridge and down the hill from more than 60 feet, and half way down the ridge I could see it just couldn’t miss; it was just one of those ones you know is in.
“When I stood over it I remembered a few years before watching Richard Sterne make exactly the same putt. I hadn’t thought about it again until it flashed back into my head when I was over my putt. I pictured him making it and the line it was and it worked!”
Branden Grace, looking to continue the form that saw him capture four European Tour titles in 2012 after regaining his card at the 2011 Qualifying School, will also be at Leopard Creek with designs on an early scalp in 2013; while his fellow Pretorian George Coetzee, currently ranked at World Number 49, will be looking to maintain his top 50 berth ahead of the final World Ranking of the year next Monday – a placing that would see the 26 year old secure a coveted place in April’s Masters Tournament field.
Following the launch of The 2013 Race to Dubai at the inaugural Nelson Mandela Championship presented by ISPS Handa at Royal Durban Golf Club last week, the Alfred Dunhill Championship is the second of six events to be staged in South Africa in a season that will see The European Tour traverse every continent in a minimum of 45 tournaments across the globe.
Scott Jamieson won the opening event at Royal Durban Golf Club, and the Scot will this week be hoping to extend his lead at the top of the embryonic Race to Dubai Rankings.