Rory McIlroy has come a long way since he last played golf in South Africa and the world number two said on Tuesday that he will be in full competition mode when he tees it up in the South African Open on Thursday at Glendower Golf Club.
McIlroy’s last competitive rounds in South Africa came in December 2009 when he shot 73 and 76 at the Nedbank Golf Challenge at Sun City and then withdrew due to flu.
A year earlier he had finished one stroke out of the playoff between eventual winner Richard Sterne and Gareth Maybin, tied for third with Ernie Els and Lee Westwood, at the 2008 SA Open at Pearl Valley.
Having missed the cut the weekend before at the Alfred Dunhill Championship at Leopard Creek, the top-three finish lifted him to his highest ever ranking of 40th.
“It’s my first time in South Africa for a while, since my first couple of years as a pro. I’m very happy to be back, I’ve already had a great few days and I have good memories here,” said McIlroy.
“Obviously I want to go one better in this tournament this time around and I spent a week in Dubai before Christmas hitting balls and then for 10 days afterwards, so I am in competitive mode.
“You obviously want to do something else while you’re down here, so we spent some time in the bush on safari, which was one of the best experiences of my life, but I feel in a very competitive mood and I want to get my confidence up at the start of the year.”
Having enjoyed his pro-am round on Tuesday, McIlroy said he had identified hitting fairways at Glendower as being the way to go if he is to earn his first title on South African soil, his 14th European Tour crown and his 23rd professional win worldwide.
“There’s obviously been a lot of rain here recently because the greens are so soft and holding, which puts a premium on hitting fairways. My game feels okay, I’ve been practising quite a bit even though I hadn’t hit a ball for a couple of days. But once I’m into my rhythm it should be fine,” McIlroy said.
While an on-song McIlroy would clearly be an overwhelming favourite to win the tournament, he recognises the dangers lurking in the field.
“There are obviously some very strong players in the field, Brandon Stone is the defending champion, he played great last year, he knows the course well and he’s played well here before, which gives him a great chance. Andy Sullivan is the same, and you can never count out Ernie or Retief Goosen. But if I play the way I know I can, then I will have a chance,” the 27-year-old Northern Irishman said.
As far as Stone is concerned, he still has the wonderful memories of his breakthrough triumph a year ago at Glendower, but he insists he will be starting 2017 with a clean slate.
“This is only the second time I’ve been back to Glendower since the SA Open, so obviously a lot of memories are flooding through the system, which is quite enjoyable. Glendower has always been a place I enjoy coming to, it’s always been a place I’ve played well at, so hopefully I can try and replicate last year’s result,” said Stone.
“But I’m still a whippersnapper, just with a fancy parking this year; that’s the only thing that’s changed. I’m still the same person that I’ve always been and I still love playing golf. But now it’s 2017 and not 2016 anymore and I have to reset goals. I have a lot more aspirations, the bar has been raised and I’ve got to try and live up to that now.”