The first event of the new year arrives this week in the form of the BMW SA Open hosted by City of Ekurhuleni, at the picturesque Glendower Golf Club. With Rory McIlroy, Ernie Els, Brandon Stone and Andy Sullivan in the field, it’s easy to forget what else there is to look forward to during the countdown to Thursday. We’ve picked out five things you ought to know before the tournament gets into full swing.
1) South African talent will be on show
A new season almost always heralds the arrival of another batch of promising young phenoms. Last year, an impressive crop of South African and Asian youth led the way, spearheaded by Brandon Stone, who picked up two trophies in an accomplished year. The first of those titles came in this week’s event, but several of his up and coming compatriots look likely to push him all the way in his title defence.
Among them is Christiaan Bezuidenhout, the man who finished runner-up to Stone at Glendower GC 12 months ago. The 22 year old started the final round six shots behind Stone, but fired a 67 on Sunday to come up just two shots shy at 12 under par. Bezuidenhout, who won the inaugural par 3 contest at the Alfred Dunhill Championship last month, will also have competition from Zander Lombard, who claimed three top fives last season.
The 21 year old started the season well, taking a share of 12th at Glendower GC in between outright fourth and second places at the Australian PGA Championship and Joburg Open respectively. Despite narrowly missing out on the retention of his tour card last season, expect to see Lombard leading the pack of young South African stars eager to make their mark.
2) The Race to Dubai presented by Rolex is back
It may be a new year, but for many of the players in this week’s field the target remains the same – to be teeing it up in Dubai at the end of the season. Turning those aspirations into something tangible will be as fiercely challenging as usual, but picking up the first major points of the calendar year in South Africa will be the primary goal for this week’s field.
Sam Brazel is the early pacesetter in the rankings following victory at the UBS Hong Kong Open in December, but reigning champion Stone will have a chance to take top spot for himself with victory. European Tour winners Jamie Donaldson, David Horsey and James Morrison will all be looking to pick up maximum points as they tee off in their first event of the new season. The superstitious golfer should know that four of the last five winners of this tournament made it to Dubai at the season’s climax. A good omen, indeed.
3) History matters
To rank second behind The Open Championship in any category is satisfying, but the BMW SA Open is runner-up in perhaps one of the most prestigious categories going. First played in 1893, it’s the second oldest National Open Championship, established 96 years before it became part of the European Tour International Schedule and 33 years after The Open’s first edition.
In that time, Gary Player, a nine-time Major Champion and one of the game’s great icons, has claimed an enviable 13 titles, including five in a row beginning in 1965. This week’s host Ernie Els has triumphed five times and has won it more than anyone since the event joined the tour in 1997, thanks to winning performances in 1998, 2007 and 2011. Fellow Major Championship winners Trevor Immelman and Vijay Singh have also hoisted the trophy high, meaning this year’s victor will be in good company as winner of one of the tour’s most significant titles.
4) Sir Nick Faldo returns
If absence really does make the heart fonder, there’ll be even more admiring glances in Sir Nick Faldo’s direction this week. When the six-time Major winner tees off on Thursday, it will have been 27 months since his last appearance on the European Tour, excluding his Open Championship appearance at St Andrews in 2015. Faldo, who will be making his first appearance at the BMW SA Open, is 36 years older than last year’s winner Stone, but that won’t stop the defending champion and his peers seeking a pearl of wisdom or two from one of the game’s greats.
He may not be among the favourites to triumph in the fourth event of the season, but with 30 European Tour wins to his name, you can be sure the 59 year old will attract a healthy following in one of the continents he’s yet to win in.
5) The graduates are out in force
After the trials and tribulations of securing a European Tour card, try keeping this year's European Challenge Tour and Qualifying School graduates away from the action in South Africa. There will be 38 recently qualified men in the field, including 12 of the 16 men who earned automatic qualification from the Challenge Tour. Among them is Jordan L Smith, whose stunning rise from the top of the Euro Pro Golf Tour in 2015 to the summit of the 2016 Challenge Tour Rankings was one of the stories of the year.
Among those also fresh from the Challenge Tour is Romain Langasque, who has enjoyed a whirlwind 18 months. The 2015 Amateur Champion posted an eye-catching final round of 68 at the 2016 Masters Tournament, before impressing at the Omega European Masters on his way to a share of seventh. Qualification is not just a young man’s game, though, with 47 year old Ricardo Gonzalez earning his card following six demanding rounds at Q-School, alongside more recent European Tour regulars Edoardo Molinari and Eddie Pepperell, who are also in this week’s field.
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