The 2017 Race to Dubai kicks off with a double header in the opening week, with the Alfred Dunhill Championship at the breath-taking Leopard Creek Country Club in South Africa starting a few hours after the Australian PGA Championship
Twelve months ago Charl Schwartzel secured his fourth Alfred Dunhill Championship title, reinforcing his undisputed status as the king of Leopard Creek Country Club. Champion on the 2005, 2013, 2014 and 2016 European Tour seasons, he has finished in the top two in eight of his 11 appearances with an aggregate score of 122 under par.
His victory last year sent records tumbling as he became the first South African to win an official European Tour event four times. At 31 he also became the youngest South African to reach ten European Tour victories, surpassing Ernie Els who was a year older when he got into double figures at the 2002 Dubai Desert Classic. Retief Goosen is the only other South African player to have previously reached the mark.
The Alfred Dunhill Championship, co-sanctioned with the Sunshine Tour, was first played in 2000 at Houghton Golf Club in Johannesburg. The tournament superseded the South African PGA Championship, which became the first European Tour co-sanctioned event five years earlier.
Anthony Wall took the crown in 2000, the first title of the new millennium, before the event moved to its new home of Leopard Creek Country Club and a new December date from 2004.
Schwartzel won the first of four titles that year and since then eight of the 12 editions have been won by South Africans, with Ernie Els, Richard Sterne, Garth Mulroy and Branden Grace joining Schwartzel on the honours board.
Schwartzel, the 2011 Masters Tournament Champion, will be bidding to become only the fourth player to win the same European Tour title on five or more occasions. He is aiming to take his place in the history books alongside Bernhard Langer, Tom Watson and Tiger Woods in that exclusive club.
Schwartzel will be joined by fellow Major Champion and 2016 Ryder Cup Captain Darren Clarke, along with Branden Grace - South Africa’s highest ranked player on the Official World Golf Ranking - and compatriots Haydn Porteous and Brandon Stone, both of whom picked up maiden titles in the 2016 season at the Joburg Open and BMW SA Open hosted by City of Ekurhuleni respectively.
The Alfred Dunhill Championship also marks a new dawn for a number of graduates from the Challenge Tour and Qualifying School, including school winner Nathan Kimsey.
Designed by South African legend Gary Player, Leopard Creek Country Club - on the southern edge of Kruger National Park in the province of Mpulamanga - is undoubtedly one of the most spectacular European Tour destinations.
Flanked by the aptly named Crocodile River, sightings of these formidable reptiles, along with hippos, antelopes, buffalos and elephants, are commonplace on the course or in the bordering Kruger Park.
The 505 meter par five 13th is one of Leopard Creek’s most memorable holes, with a green right on the edge of the Crocodile River that offers magnificent views into Kruger Park.
The par five 18th with its island green, and the par four 9th with its peninsula green jutting out of the same body of water also offer plenty of drama.
The course opened in 1996 and the layout incorporates many characteristics of the local area as it winds through trees, bushes and grassland. The course features several water hazards including large lakes and ponds, streams set in rocks and cascading waterfalls.
But it is the plentiful variety of animals that makes the Alfred Dunhill Championship one of the most special stops on The European Tour. And keep an eye out for the unique leopard statues on each tee.
• The tournament has a history of producing debut winners. Since the first event in 2000, eight players have entered the winners circle for the first time on The European Tour. They are: Anthony Wall (2000), Adam Scott (2001), Justin Rose (2002), Mark Foster (2003), Marcel Siem (2004), Charl Schwartzel (2005), Alvaro Quiros (2007) and Garth Mulroy (Nov 2011).
• Defending champion Charl Schwartzel will be looking to join a very exclusive club of players who have won the same official European Tour event on five or more occasions. If he takes the title this year he would join Tiger Woods (eight victories at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and seven at the WGC-Mexico Championship), Tom Watson (five victories at The Open Championship) and Bernhard Langer (five German Open titles).
• The 2003 championship witnessed a six-man play-off, for only the second time in European Tour history. Mark Foster was the player who prevailed, beating Anders Hansen, Trevor Immelman, Paul Lawrie, Doug McGuigan and Bradford Vaughan. The first time this occurred was the 1990 Vino Verde Atlantic Open.
• European Tour history was made in the 2007 tournament when Alvaro Quiros became the first player to win a European Tour event in his first event as a full Member, having graduated from the 2006 Qualifying School.
• 2013 was also a historic event, as Keith Horne became the first player to make two holes-in-one at the same hole in consecutive rounds of the same tournament. He aced the par three 12th on days two and three.