It came as a shock because Schwartzel’s game normally purrs in sweet cohesion around the course bordering Kruger National Park, which he unashamedly admits is his ‘happy place’. He has a phenomenal record in Malelane, winning the European Tour co-sanctioned event in 2004, 2012 and 2013, while he finished second in 2005, 06, 09 and 10.
Opposite to where Schwartzel sat in the pre-tournament press conference, there is a photo of him as a 20-year-old with the Alfred Dunhill Championship trophy, sporting a broad grin, braces and all. But golf is not bringing him much joy at the moment.
“That feels like yesterday, but it’s actually 10 years ago!” Schwartzel mused when the photo was pointed out to him.
“This course has always treated me very well over the years, it does something for my game, but I think I’m still a long way away from winning.
“The pattern the whole year has been that I get my game going, it looks like I’m going to contend, and then one or two bad holes make me fall back. And then I do it all over again and the cycle is really frustrating. I’m making enough birdies to win, but mistakes are costing me so much. It’s just a swing that’s not repeating itself, it’s not consistent enough,” South Africa’s highest-ranked golfer said.
But Schwartzel is still cautiously optimistic that if he can harness the feel-good factor from a course he has dominated in the past, as well as his tremendous work-ethic, then something just might click over the next four days in Malelane.
“It’s frustrating, especially playing in your home country, because you want the results to come. I just have to keep working at it. I’ve been on tour for 11 years now and I’ve had lots of these downs, I know how it goes. There’s no shortcut to getting out of it, it’s just practising and playing. I’ve come here in the past and not been playing my best, but somehow, something seems to spark and I get going,” Schwartzel said.
But this is “Wild Africa” as Schwartzel put it when talking about his leopard and rhino sightings early Wednesday, and things can get gory for golfers who are not on top of their game on a typical Gary Player layout that brings reward and punishment.
“It’s a good challenge, it’s a golf course where you can shoot a low number, but it can also bite you. It’s got tough stretches in the middle and you need to be on your game,” Louis Oosthuizen warned.
South Africa’s second-highest ranked golfer was also wary of donning the favourite’s mantle on a course which has not always been kind to him, and Oosthuizen has also been struggling on the greens lately, changing his putting grip mid-tournament in last weekend’s Nedbank Golf Challenge.
While Schwartzel and Oosthuizen will capture the bulk of local attention, there are several other South Africans ready and waiting to claim the European Tour title at one of the country’s greatest courses.
While George Coetzee did not have the greatest time at Sun City, he will clearly be a threat, while Branden Grace is probably due a victory. Richard Sterne is the 2008 champion, while Hennie Otto is in form and hungry.
Peter Uihlein, the 2013 European Tour Rookie of the Year, is a star in waiting and has expressed his liking for the course.
But one of the joys of playing at Leopard Creek is that even if your golf game is not going well, the scenery, animal and bird life is magnificent.
Danny Willett showed his game is in great nick with his impressive Nedbank Golf Challenge triumph last weekend, but even he gets the sighs when he thinks of the Leopard Creek course bordering Kruger National Park.
“Every year, regardless of how many years you’ve come here, everyone marks their ball on the 13th and walks to the back of the green. You look out over the Crocodile River, so it’s a pretty awesome hole,” Willett said.
Willett came out tops in a 30-man field last weekend; the size of the field this weekend (156) suggests the winner of the 2014 Alfred Dunhill Championship could come from anywhere, like a leopard emerging from cover to drink at dusk in the Crocodile River.