Golf 11.1.2017 04:52 pm

Brandon Stone will defend SA Open title, if you believe in omens

Brandon Stone is vying to become the first man since 2004 to defend his SA Open title successfully. Photo: Luke Walker/Gallo Images.

Brandon Stone is vying to become the first man since 2004 to defend his SA Open title successfully. Photo: Luke Walker/Gallo Images.

The similarities between him and the only man to have defended the SA Open title, Trevor Immelman, are truly startling.

The last time someone defended their South African Open title was back in 2004 when Trevor Immelman went back-to-back at Erinvale Golf Club.

Brandon Stone is at a similar age to his compatriot as he attempts to repeat that feat at Glendower Golf Club from Thursday.

Also read: Makhura fails to pitch for tee time with Rory McIlroy

Immelman was 24 when he defended the national open crown and won a Major – the Masters – four years later, but his success did not last and he has all but vanished from view now.

He had a strong paternal influence in his father Johan, who was the commissioner of the Sunshine Tour.

Stone is 23 and is being tipped as a potential future major winner and also enjoys the backing of a father who is highly respected in golf – Kevin Stone, a professional himself with 10 Sunshine Tour wins.

While Stone is highly-regarded on the European Tour as a whole – world number two Rory McIlroy described him as a “very strong player who had a great year” – it is back on home turf where he has really shown his talent, following up his SA Open triumph at Glendower a year ago with a commanding victory in last month’s Alfred Dunhill Championship at Leopard Creek.

Stone himself says he feels like a different player back at home, largely because his father is around and able to provide hands-on mentoring.

“My dad has had a very watchful eye over me for a very long time, but at the same time, he’s never pushed me. It’s always a little bit of perspective that he’s giving me. Him being a professional golfer, he obviously has that background knowledge and knows what he’s talking about, so I take whatever he says and digest it and try and process it the way that I can, but he has been incredible.

“You can see a direct correlation when he’s with me and how I play; a lot more consistent golf, it’s less sporadic and it’s professional. I think that’s the element he brings to my game: I just get a lot more focused when he’s there,” Stone Jnr said.

Most pundits believe the winning recipe this week will be an aggressive but accurate approach off the tee in order to maximise the receptiveness of soft greens, and Stone certainly has an excellent driving game.

It won’t be as long as McIlroy’s, but with the limelight pair grouped together for the first two rounds, it will be fascinating watching the crucial contest off the tees.

“Rory obviously hits the ball miles and whilst I’m not long, I’m not short,” said Stone.

“I might be close to him pound-for-pound, but so long as I have my feet on the ground, I’m not going to out-drive him.

“The key when you play with guys like that is managing your game and concentrating on your own strengths. Often if you’ve got the adrenaline of a big group or a big atmosphere, you hit the ball five or ten yards further. It’s important to be aware of that.”

Retief Goosen is a two-time SA Open champion who would like nothing better than to improve on his fourth-place finish last year, although winning would make him the oldest man to claim the title, and he provided a warning to McIlroy about much the same thing.

Also read: ‘Competitive’ Rory McIlroy on a safari to hunt SA Open title

“There’s a bit of elevation to this course and I’m not sure how much Rory has played at altitude. Sometimes it’s difficult to judge the distances and how far the ball goes here is hard to believe sometimes. So I think we might see some over-clubbing from Rory,” Goosen said.

Andy Sullivan, the 2015 SA Open winner at Glendower, is clearly another to watch and his excellent record in South Africa – two wins, four top-fives and three other top-20 finishes in his last 16 starts – means he was always going to be here for the first week of 2017 European Tour action.

Or could this be Jaco van Zyl’s week?

The South African is certainly due after nine top-three finishes on the European Tour but without that elusive, breakthrough victory.

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