The European Tour returns to South Africa after only three weeks away, but this time the Race to Dubai has begun anew. The South African Open hosted by the City of Johannesburg will showcase an exciting mix of Major Champions, fresh faces, and local talent. Here are five things to know about the penultimate event of the calendar year.
The SA Open is the second oldest national Open championship, dating back to 1893, when it was played as an exhibition in Port Elizabeth. Only The Open Championship, which started in 1860, is older. It officially became part of the European Tour’s International Schedule in 1997, when it was won by Vijay Singh. However, this year marks the beginning of a new chapter, as it combines with the former Joburg Open, to bring the national championship back to the city of Johannesburg and place it on an even greater stage.
Return of the venue
Randpark Golf Club will host the South African Open for the third time in the event’s history and the first time since 2000, when Mathias Grönberg shot 14 under par to secure a one-stroke victory and a third career win. Randpark Golf Club boasts two lay-outs, Bushwillow and Firethorn, both of which will be used this week. Bushwillow is a par 71 measuring 7,114 yards, while Firethorn plays to a healthy 7,504 yards and is also a par 71. Competitors will play once on each course on Thursday and Friday, before the halfway cut sends the top 70 players and ties to the Firethorn course for the final two rounds.
Adding to the field this week are home heroes Ernie Els, Trevor Immelman, Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel, who have all reached the pinnacle of the sport by winning Major Championships. Els, a World Golf Hall of Fame Member won the U.S. Open twice, in 1994 and 1997, and has also lifted the Claret Jug on two occasions, in 2002 and 2012. Immelman famously won the 2008 Masters Tournament in dominant wire-to-wire fashion, which instantly solidified his place in South African sporting history. Childhood friends Schwartzel and Oosthuizen fed from the success of each other.
Oosthuizen has the somewhat unfortunate distinction of finishing runner-up in all four Majors, but he will always have his 2010 Open Championship victory to his name, which spurred on his good friend Schwartzel, who slipped on the Green Jacket two Majors later at the 2011 Masters. The four supremely talented players are a threat to win any event and together they hold 110 worldwide professional victories.
Challenge Tour early success
Through only two events, the 15 graduates of the European Challenge Tour have already put the European Tour on notice. At the season-opening Honma Hong Kong Open presented by Amundi, graduates Victor Perez of France and Kim Koivu of Finland both finished inside the top ten – ahead names like Tommy Fleetwood and Patrick Reed – while eight of the 12 graduates who teed it up made the cut.
Last week saw further inroads made, as six players who played on the Challenge Tour in 2018 finished in the top 15 of the Afrasia Bank Mauritius Open at Anahita. Meanwhile, at the Australian PGA Championship, Challenge Tour graduate Sean Crocker, along with Tom Murray, who agonisingly finished 16th on the Road to Ras Al Khaimah, both notched top ten finishes, once again proving just how elite the competition is on Europe’s top-developmental circuit.
Ready to win, now
For American Kurt Kitayama, the 2018 European Tour Qualifying School offered him his first chance to play golf on European soil. Following a tidy win at First Stage, a successful advancement through second Stage then a near-win at Final Stage, the 25 year old found himself holding a European Tour card in remarkably short order.
The University of Nevada Las Vegas graduate may have been unknown to the international golfing audience, but after a win last week at the Afrasia Bank Mauritius Open, any plans he might have had of flying under the radar at the South African Open have surely been ruined. Kitayama impressed last week, opening with a pair of 65s and marched forward over the weekend to seal a two-shot victory on 20 under par. Already a winner, Kitayama’s opening-tee shot on Thursday will mark only his fourth career-start on the European Tour.