Don't count out the 'Big Easy'
By Neville Leck Last updated: 9th January 2013
Branden Grace and Scott Jamieson have owned this week's headlines as we head into the European Tour's 2013 start-up, the prestigious €2million Volvo Champions, which tees of at Durban Country Club on Thursday.
And well they should, for was Grace not the little-known South African young gun who came away from the Tour's qualifying school last year to shock the field at the Joburg Open, qualify for the tournament winners-only Volvo Champions a week later, win that in a play-off with his boyhood heroes, Ernie Els and Retief Goosen, win the Volvo China Open and then top off a magnificent season by triumphing in another of the European Tour's bigger events, the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in Scotland?
Jamieson cannot claim to have matched Grace's dream season, but the 29-year-old Scot, who started as an outsider with bookmakers like Paddy Power, did capture his first European Tour title when he won the inaugural Nelson Mandela Challenge at Kwa-Zulu Natal's oldest golf Club, Royal Durban, in early December.
And so, when he tees off at Durban Country Club, which not is too much older and not much more than a good drive away from Royal Durban, it will be with "great memories" of South Africa's busiest port City and with high hopes of clinching what he calls a "Durban Double"
That said, however, there is another figure who is quite capable of casting a giant shadow over this week's championship and who should be considered as a good punt by those who like to bet on golf, and that of course is Ernie Els, who was recently nominated for the Laureus 'Comeback of the Year' award following his second Open Championship triumph last year.
The South African veteran has never lost the great swing that has rightfully earned him the tag, "The Big Easy", but an awry putter had been costing him dearly until it all came right at the Open and now, boosted no-end by this turn of events, he is another who will be teeing off on Thursday with plenty of optimism.
Els makes that clear in his latest post on his official website when he says: "I'm delighted that my 2013 schedule is teeing off this week at the Volvo Golf Champions where I will be playing in front of my home fans on one of my favourite golf courses in South Africa.
"I've always enjoyed my golf at Durban Country Club (one of the world's top 100 clubs). I've won here a couple of times before, most recently the (Centennial) South African Open at the end of 2010, and I have some great memories of the course.
"It is a fantastic layout and the home fans really encourage me whenever I play here. I've always felt a special bond with them and the club."
"It should be a great week for South African golf. A prestigious European Tour event like this is broadcast to millions of homes around the world, which not only showcases the fantastic golf facilities our country has to offer, but also highlights the current strength of our nation's golfers."
Yes, Els feels that his greatest threat could well come from the strong South African contingent, but he is not ruling out some of the quality offshore players in a field that not only includes fellow major winners in Padraig Harrington and Darren Clarke of Ireland and Northern Ireland respectively, Scotland's Paul Laurie and Spain's Jose Maria Olazabal, but also features two of the younger stars of Olazabal's triumphant 2012 Ryder Cup team, Belgium bomber Nicolas Colsaerts and classy Italian Francesco Molinari.
And the South Africans he'll be keeping an eye on?
"Branden Grace is defending this year and also in the field are Retief (Goosen) and Louis Oosthuizen, as well as Jbe Kruger and Darren Fichardt - and that's a pretty strong representation - even in a limited field of this quality."
Els says he was "disappointing to miss out on winning the Volvo in 2012" where he and Goosen were beaten by Grace's birdie at the first extra hole of the play-off, but it pleased him that Grace was able to go on and stamp his mark on the game as he did.
"Not so long ago he was a member of the Ernie Els & Fancourt Foundation, as in fact was Louis Oosthuizen, and we're so proud of what they have gone on to achieve. They are such an inspiration to our current crop of members."
If form in the closing events last season is going to count for anything this week, however, Oosthuizen might well be the South African Els needs to watch most closely. It's not for nothing that at No 6 in the World, Oosthuizen was the highest ranked South African at the end of last year.
Nor was it a coincidence that with earnings of €3 187 364, he finished in third place behind World No 1 Rory McIlroy and World No 4 Justin Rose, in the Race To Dubai.
The weather gods for the four tournament days were not looking too friendly when I took a peak at Golfweather.com's usually reliable forecast on Tuesday.
The forecast for Thursday is that a southerly wind will get up to 31 km/h by mid-day when there could also be thunderstorms and a 30% chance of light rain for the rest of the day.
There will be slightly less wind on Friday, but there is a 60% chance of heavier rain all day and Saturday's weather could be similar though the chance of rain has been reduced to 30%.
There is some sunlight at the end of the tunnel, however. The forecast for Sunday is mild and sunny with no wind and no rain.
Note: In addition to the first two winners of the 2013 season, every winner from The 2012 European Tour International Schedule as well as past champions of the Volvo Golf Champions and players with ten or more European Tour victories were all eligible to compete in this year's Volvo Champions which will see a limited, but elite field of 33 teeing off on Thursday in the European Tour's opening event of the year.
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