It was the event that kick-started his European Tour career and a season that would culminate with him claiming the Sir Henry Cotton Rookie of the Year award in 2008. Now, five years on, Pablo Larrazábal is back at Leopard Creek revelling in the memories of that special debut.
Larrazábal, after beginning his maiden year as a European Tour professional at the Alfred Dunhill Championship, would go onto become one of the sporting stories of 2008 when he won the Alstom Open de France after coming through the 36-hole pre-qualifying event at Chantilly the week before many of The European Tour’s biggest stars arrived at Le Golf National in Versailles.
But the season had begun with an encouraging first performance at Leopard Creek, a showing that would set the tone for an impressive first term on The European Tour.
“Back in 2007, this was my first tournament on tour after taking my European Tour card through Q-School,” said the 29 year old, who finished 37th in The 2012 Race Dubai.
“To be back is very special because it’s been a long time since then. In those days I had a lot of pressure coming to the first tee, but I started 70-70 and was in the top ten going into the weekend.
“I struggled on Saturday and Sunday but it was a good week for me and I made the top 30. To start the year like that, my first European Tour season, was a good thing and gave me some early confidence that I was going to be able to compete at this level.”
Since then, the Barcelona man made it two European Tour titles at the BMW International Open in 2011, when he overcame his celebrated compatriot Sergio Garcia in a play-off, and Larrazábal admits his expectations have been heightened since his maiden appearance at the event in December 2007.
“It’s a different story now,” he continued. “I’m not playing to make the cut any more. I play to be up there and to try to win golf tournaments and that’s why I came. I love the course, I love the track. It’s an amazing venue and it’s great to be back so hopefully those memories can help me this week.”
Another man absolutely thrilled to be back at the Mpumalanga venue is South African native George Coetzee, who finished third in the last staging of the event in 2011.
Situated on the border of the spectacular Kruger National Park, Coetzee, who hails from four hours away in Pretoria, says the layout has an allure all of its own but an atmosphere comparable to some of the most revered courses on the planet.
“We all love to come here,” he said. “The vibe you get from this course, especially with the views from some of the holes, is just unbelievable.
“There’s nothing else in the world that can compare to this place. You have Pebble Beach with the ocean, St Andrews with the history, but then you get this and it is something else. It’s like being out amongst the wildlife. The view from the 15th tee box makes you feel like you’re looking over the entire world.
“It puts you in a good mood being here. I’ll travel from all over the world to come to play in this event; it gives you such a good feeling and what's better than being happy when you play golf.”