Schwartzel spells trouble for Grace
By Neville Leck Last updated: 6th February 2013
It's not going to be easy to stop Branden Grace successfully defending his Joburg Open title at Royal Johannesburg & Kensington Golf Club this week.
He has everything going for him as he heads back to the scene of a maiden triumph on the European Tour that sparked a record-breaking year.
But he must know that there are some major threats facing him in the days ahead and that if there is anyone who looks more capable of thwarting his title defence, it might well be fellow South African Charl Schwartzel.
That is, of course, if the 2011 Masters champion, who has yet to hit a golf shot in anger this year, can come out with all guns blazing in the same sensational way that he did when he closed his 2012 season with successive and overwhelming victories in the Thailand Golf and Alfred Dunhill Championships.
I believe I'm correct in saying that his combined winning total in those two events totalled more than 20.
Vacation rust? Yes there night be some, but Schwartzel, himself, is not expecting any of note
To the contrary, he's upbeat and champing at the bit to get back into competitive golf.
"I'm feeling really nice and refreshed after a long break," the Johannesburg-born resident said on his official website this week.
"My game feels good. I've being practicing hard to get my game as sharp as it was at the end of last year."
Schwartzel has twice won the Joburg Open (2010 and 2011) at hometown Royal Johannesburg & Kensington and having played more rounds of golf there than he cares to remember, he knows the East and West Courses like the back of his hand.
It is no wonder then that he adds: "I always enjoy playing the Joburg Open on courses I played lots of times as a junior and an amateur, and I've had a lot of success there as a pro.
"And it's also nice to play a European Tour event at a golf course where you feel so comfortable, and in front of your home crowd!"
Grace, however, is not going to go down without a fight. He too will tee-off on Thursday with a lot of armament.
This partly because the world number 25 will most likely be inspired by the memories of how he came straight out of the European Tour's Qualifying school last season to grab a maiden Tour win here that sparked the dream run that saw him engineer a sensational, back-to-back win in the following week at the prestigious Volvo Golf Champions and then go on from there to further triumphs in the Volvo China Open and the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in Scotland.
No other European Tour qualifier has come straight out of Q-School and won four times in the same season, but his glowing memories of it are not all that Grace will have going for him in the fourth of the six European Tour events being played in South Africa this season.
He'll also be packing some serious form when he tees off on Thursday, the 24-year-old Pretoria-born, George-based South African having picked up three consecutive top ten finishes in the Volvo Golf Champions (7th), the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship (5th) and the Commercial Bank Qatar Masters (6th) in his last three starts.
In the absence of European big guns like Rory McIlroy, Luke Donald, Justin Rose and Lee Westwood, the major overseas challenge to the strong local line-up could well come from recent standouts like Chilean Felipe Aguilar, who finished third in Dubai, and Portugal's Ricardo Santos and Englishmen Robert Rock and Steve Webster, all of whom tied for seventh in Dubai last week.
And while we should never underestimate the winning potential of other overseas invaders like tried and tested Tour winners Danny Willett, Robert Rock, Oliver Fisher, David Horsey and young gun Tom Lewis of England, Grégory Bourdy of France, and Soren Hansen of Denmark, it is more than likely that it will be another Pretoria local who will give Grace the hardest run for his money.
He is Richard Sterne, who before an injury turned him into something of an invisible man in recent seasons, brought his number of European Tour victories to five when he beat fellow countryman Garth Mulroy and Swede Magnus A Carlson in a play-off for the Joburg Open title in 2008.
Sterne has shrugged away that 'invisible man' tag with a vengeance this season.
He tied for seventh in the Alfred Dunhill Championship in December and was runner-up to Stephen Gallacher in last week's Omega Dubai Desert Classic after opening with a sensational 10-under par 62 in the first round.
The Joburg Open, which is co-sanctioned with the Sunshine Tour, has the largest field of the season, with 210 players teeing off in what will be its seventh edition.
This is made possible by the fact that before the 36-hole cut on Friday night, the field will be split, every player having to play one round at each of Royal J&K's East and West courses.
The two weekend rounds, however, will both be played on the tougher East Course. And the weather forecast? According to golfweather.com, it's not good news.
There won't be much wind, but there is a strong possibility of thunder storms and rain on each of the four days - and especially late on Sunday afternoon.
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