A shaky back nine in the wind cost Jaco van Zyl victory in the Africa Open two weeks ago, but the in-form South African will be one of the favourites at the European Tour co-sanctioned Tshwane Open which starts at Copperleaf Golf Estate on Thursday.
Van Zyl is chasing his first European Tour victory, which is a long-awaited event seeing as though he has had five top-three finishes in the last three years, as well as seven other top-10s and 11 Sunshine Tour victories.
The 34-year-old will need to improve his form off the tee, however, with Copperleaf being a lengthy 7,123m monster, but he does have the confidence of coming off a win in last weekend’s Sunshine Tour event, the Dimension Data Pro-Am in George.
“The course is really long but the greens are receptive, so I’m sure the scoring will be low,” Van Zyl said of the Copperleaf course formerly known as Gardener Ross.
“My short game is still sharp and my ball-striking was really good last week, I hit the ball nicely and it’s a bit better every week. You have to know what to hit off the tee here and what sort of lie you want to hit your second from,” Van Zyl, who is 82nd in driving distance on the European Tour this year and 37th in accuracy, said.
There is no doubt Van Zyl is a major threat in the final co-sanctioned event of the 2012/13 summer, sitting in first place in the Investec Cup standings, third on the Sunshine Tour order of merit, 33rd on the Race to Dubai and up to 104th on the world rankings after starting the year in 146th. His last three finishes have been tied 11th, tied second and last week’s victory in George.
But the field is a useful one and there are many dangers lurking, much like the numerous large bunkers that are a feature of the Ernie Els-designed course at Copperleaf.
Steve Webster of England is perhaps the most consistent performer on the European Tour thus far this season with four top-10 finishes in six starts, while South Africans Garth Mulroy and Thomas Aiken are also in fine form.
Africa Open winner Darren Fichardt is in the field and there is no lack of experienced worldwide winners either, with Michael Campbell, Jeev Milkha Singh, Jose-Maria Olazabal, Simon Dyson and Darren Clarke all teeing it up on Thursday.
Other participants who have shown top-class form lately include James Kingston, Adilson da Silva, Trevor Fisher Jnr and Danie van Tonder.
Olazabal is a golfing legend, a 31-time winner worldwide, including two Masters crowns, and a triumphant Ryder Cup as captain last year.
But the Spaniard admitted that he is going through a tough time with the driver, which is a major drawback on this particular course.
“Last weekend when I left home we had snow, so I didn’t have much practice over the last week because of the weather. But my last tournament was good [tied 17th at the Dubai Desert Classic four weeks ago], although I’m having a tough time with my driver. It’s still my Achilles heel and with the course as long as it is, you need to hit it solid off the tee,” Olazabal said.
Campbell, a New Zealander, is also a major champion having won the 2005 US Open as a qualifier. He suffered a missed cut in his last tournament – the Dubai Desert Classic – but was in good form in the Middle East before that with top-20 finishes in both Abu Dhabi and Qatar.
A Maori, Campbell seems to have a healthy outlook on a game that catapulted him to stardom in 2005 before sending him back into anonymity.
“It’s only a game. My results reflect that I’ve turned around again, but I’ve always been up and down like a yo-yo, some very big highs and very big lows. I accept that and I’ve always had them. That’s golf,” Campbell said.
Dyson is a regular visitor to South Africa, having played in 13 co-sanctioned events and finished in the top-20 four times.
And he is a wary admirer of the talent in this country.
“Without a doubt I’ll be watching a few South Africans. They seem to come off the conveyor belt every year and you’ve got some really, really good talent. They all hit it a mile, which sickens me. Every single one of them seems to bomb it, even Sterne who must be 5-foot-one and Schwartzel who could hide behind the pin! It’s just ridiculous, it must be something in the water… or the biltong!” the Englishman joked.
Though the fairways are generally wide, there is a host of bunkers, and golfers who are not accurate run the risk of becoming mired in these sandy expanses.
“It’s brutally long in places, but some of the short holes are typical Ernie – lots of run-offs. A good short game is going to come to the fore if you do miss the short holes. It’s going to be a tough test, because every par-five feels like 650 yards, so it’s not the usual where everyone is going to be hammering it in two. The course is good and it’s in great condition,” the veteran Clarke said.
Milkha Singh is another who has been coming to South Africa for a long time, since 1998, and he is looking forward to a bit of wind blowing around the Highveld grassland course outside Centurion, the Indian having won the Scottish Open last year at the blustery links of Castle Stuart.
“It’s long but bearable. But I hope the wind picks up, that would make it interesting and I’m really happy in the wind,” he said.