Thomas Aiken and Jbe’ Kruger, the two players who chased Charl Schwartzel all the way to the winning post during the 2010 Africa Open, will renew their competitive rivalry at East London Golf Club on Thursday.
The two European Tour winners are looking to extend South Africa’s stranglehold when they line up in the €1-million event.
A seven-time Sunshine Tour winner, Aiken broke through for his maiden European Tour victory at the 2011 Open de Espana and hasn’t looked back since, finishing the 2012 season 113th in the world.
Boosted by a tie for sixth at the Joburg Open last Sunday, Aiken arrived in Buffalo City in a buoyant mood, ready to go one better than his runner-up finish three years ago.
“I’m definitely gunning for a podium finish this year,” the 29 year old said.
“My first European Tour win came in Spain. It was a huge achievement for me, but I don’t think it will have a patch on the experience of winning on home soil, in front of a home crowd.
“This has always been one of my favourite events. The crowds in East London are second to none and their support is incredible. I think that’s why South Africans have won the past five Africa Opens.”
Aiken’s record at East London Golf Club certainly supports his confidence.
He has broken par 12 times in 16 rounds at East London Golf Club and hit the front in last year’s first round with a bogey-free nine under par 64 that included two eagles and five birdies.
“And with the par five 11th reduced to a par four for the tournament, things could get interesting,” Aiken said.
“It’s the first time we’ll play it as a par 72. It could make it a little more challenging, but my game is coming along nicely and I feel ready for the week ahead. I love this course, because its one of those typical old style golf courses where there is a lot of risk and reward, but you have to think your way around it. There are a lot of interesting holes and I like the fact that there are a couple of drivable par fours, too. It makes things interesting.”
Kruger, who finished third in 2010, said that rain forecast for Friday, a north-easterly wind on Saturday and a south-westerly win on Sunday, the leaderboard could dish up a few surprises.
“We are up against a strong international challenge, but unlike last week the wind could be a real factor at this course,” the Bloemfontein golfer said.
“You can live through four seasons in a day in East London and that could confuse the visitors and play to our advantage.”
After a tie for ninth in Abu Dhabi, Kruger feels he is close to the form he carried into the Avantha Masters last year where he claimed his maiden European Tour victory. He struggled to a tie for 47th at the Joburg Open, but feels he turned a corner when he got the putter working for a final round 67.
“I think this course is perfectly suited to my style, because I hit the ball pretty straight and that is the first requirement here this week,” Kruger said.
“If you veer left or right off the tee here, you’re in trouble. If the putter continues to behave, I’m looking at a good week. I would love to bring it home here in East London, because it’s a great tournament and the support of the crowds here just inspire you to perform.”
Last year’s runner-up Tjaart van der Walt and Jaco van Zyl, who placed fourth, and in-form Trevor Fisher Jnr are also three players to watch, as well as European Tour winners Ricardo Santos from Portugal, England’s Robert Rock and Tommy Fleetwood and multiple Sunshine Tour winners Keith Horne, Branden Pieters and Jean Hugo.
Tickets to this year’s Africa Open are available at the gate. Entry is free for children under 18 on Thursday and Friday and R5 for Saturday and Sunday. Adults also enter for free on Thursday and Friday and tickets cost R25 per day on the weekend.