Tuesday, 10 January 2017
Ernie Els  (Getty Images)
Ernie Els (Getty Images)

Tournament host Ernie Els is expecting a birdie-fest when the European Tour's first event of 2017 gets under way at the BMW SA Open hosted by City of Ekurhuleni on Thursday.

The South African is a five-time winner of his home Open and South Africans have won 12 of the 20 stagings since the event became part of the European Tour International Schedule in 1997.

Defending champion Brandon Stone leads the home charge at Glendower Golf Club but with veteran serial-winners like Els and Retief Goosen complementing a strong, young South African contingent, a home win could be on the cards again.

And with soft conditions after a lot of recent rain, Els believes the potential is out there to go low.

"It’s soft and long, especially this morning," he said. "On the Highveld here, the altitude starts helping in the afternoon. It feels like the air gets thinner.

"It’s very thick around the greens, very lush. I’ve never seen it lush like this. When conditions are soft, the pros really like that. They like to go at the golf course, be very aggressive.

"You’ll see a lot of birdies out there and you’ll see some mistakes made also."

Leading the overseas contingent is World Number Two Rory McIlroy, who is playing the event for the first time since the 2009 season.

At 27 and with four Major Championships to his name, the Northern Irishman is a veteran compared to 23 year old Stone, and Els would love to see the two go head-to-head on Sunday.

"Brandon won the last event he played and he’s the defending champion here, so he’s got a lot of confidence going," he said.

You’ll see a lot of birdies out there and you’ll see some mistakes made also - Ernie Els

"I think it will be a wonderful match-up if it happens on Sunday.

"The first two rounds, you’re really just playing for position. But they’ll be watching each other and obviously Brandon wants to start emulating what Rory’s done, so it will be a really good learning curve for him."

In terms of his own game, Els admits he is not at his brilliant best but is enjoying helping grow the event in his third year as host.

"I’ve always felt the SA Open was one of the top events on my calendar," he said. "Obviously when they asked me to become an ambassador here at that age, after 45, I thought it was a good transition for me. I’m involved with the event, the decision making and that’s good.

"We've got this nice date now and we’ve got some really great young South African golfers playing here this week.

"It’s a great venue, very close to where I grew up, so I know the place very well. It’s nice to see the tournament starting to grow a bit now."

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Tournament Leaderboard

Pos Player nameNatHolePar
1STORM, GraemeENG18-18
2MCILROY, RoryNIR18-18
3SMITH, Jordan LENG18-17
T5AIKEN, ThomasRSA18-14
T5FISHER JNR, TrevorRSA18-14

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