Englishman Andy Sullivan remained on top of the leaderboard after the second round of the South African Open at Glendower Golf Club on Friday, but there was a new local favourite challenging him as the tournament reached the halfway mark.
Sullivan posted a solid two-under-par 70 to go to eight-under-par overall, but while fellow overnight leader Jbe’ Kruger plummeted down the leaderboard with an 80, Charl Schwartzel came charging through with a 69 that left him just one stroke behind the 28-year-old from Nuneaton, the birthplace of George Eliot.
But Sullivan looks a genuine contender for the second oldest national open title, bringing an aggressive approach despite the tightness of the parklands course and the punishing tangle of kikuyu rough that lurks just off the fairway.
Things have only been looking up lately for Sullivan: He and his bride greeted the arrival of baby daughter Ruby in 2013, Sullivan has improved his European Tour order of merit position from 98th in 2013 to 33rd last year; and he will quite literally be rising up in spectacular fashion one of these days after winning a trip into space last September for a hole-in-one at the KLM Open.
Schwartzel surged to within a stroke of Sullivan by finishing birdie-eagle-birdie, but is struggling with a badly bruised toe and a swing that is making progress but is not quite where the 2011 Masters champion would like it to be.
“I’m not that far off, but there’s still a lot of holes left and someone can make up a score very quickly as we saw with my round.
“I was just missing fairways by a little bit, or when I finally hit a good shot I would three-putt, so nothing was really going for me. But any time you finish like that, it turns your day into a much better one and nobody was more surprised than me!
“I’m trying to get an old feeling back in my swing and it’s the same with the putter, I’ve spent quite a few hours on the practice green. I’m just trying to remember what I used to do, even going as far back as my junior days, just trying to be more consistent.
“But my toe was worse today. There’s no real pain when I hit the ball, it’s just the walking that is very painful. But I’m not playing in pain otherwise I would withdraw,” Schwartzel said.
Schwartzel is currently South Africa’s highest-ranked golfer at number 31 but is yet to win his national open. While his dream of putting his name on the same trophy as all the South African greats from Bobby Locke to Gary Player and Ernie Els is still very much alive, Kruger will probably have to wait another year after just scraping into the weekend on the cut-mark of two-over, 10 strokes off the pace.
Kruger spoke on the first day of how everyone in the field respects Sir Ernie so much, but the five-time champion joined him on two-over-par and looked in danger of missing the cut after a disastrous run of bogey, triple-bogey, triple-bogey from the eighth hole.
The absence of tournament host Els from the weekend would have cast a pall over the event, but the heir to Player’s throne pulled himself together and consecutive birdies on the 13th and 14th holes brought him to safety before he parred his way in to ensure that he is not totally out of contention on level-par, eight behind the leader.
Sullivan is a jovial, down-to-earth fellow and his approach to the testing Glendower course has been to keep it simple and attack.
He started on the 10th hole and promptly birdied the par-four 11th and 12th holes, but then had the misfortune of being out on the course when a brief squall hit the Edenvale area.
“The first three holes, it was flat calm and perfect for scoring. But then I stepped on to 13 and the wind really got up. Plus it wasn’t so warm so the ball didn’t go as long, so I was happy to get through my first nine holes without a blemish.
“I attacked just as much as in the first round, but the course was a bit tougher today and a couple of poor drives got punished. But I probably played a bit better today. I have nothing to fear, I have a good record in South Africa and I feel that I’m up to the task. I’m just going to go out and enjoy the weekend,” Sullivan said.
While Sullivan mostly used driver off the tee, Schwartzel opted for a mixture of driver, three-wood and two-iron and it worked well for him, particularly on his closing holes.
On the seventh he hit driver a long way, but an overhanging willow tree forced him to hit a low nine-iron for his approach, which finished 12-15 feet short of the hole, but Schwartzel nailed the birdie putt.
On the par-five eighth, a driver and five-iron left him on the front left fringe of the green and he sank a 20-footer for eagle.
Schwartzel went for the two-iron off the tee on the 367-metre ninth hole and a wonderful sand-wedge that spun left-to-right left him with an eight-footer for birdie, which he drained for a thrilling finish to his round.
It will also be a big weekend for JJ Senekal, who fired a 67 to move into a tie for third place on six-under-par with Denmark’s Lasse Jensen and fellow South African Colin Nel.
“It’s a great position to be in. There are a few good names up there and it’s good to see myself up there with the best. It feels good, it’s our biggest event and the one you want to do well in. It’s like our fifth major, not that I’ve played in one.
“This is our prestige tournament and with Ernie being involved and all of the history it’s exactly where you want to be. I watched Trevor Immelman win at Erinvale and walked with him. Back then I was trying to catch golf balls and gloves, now I’m the guy that wants to hand them out, so I’m living the dream. It was my dream and always what I wanted to do. Golf was life from a very young age and I’m happy to be here,” Senekal said.
For Els and Kruger, it’s just a case of being happy to be at Glendower for the weekend.