The Africa Open started in 2008 and it has had a South African winner on every occasion – Shaun Norris, Retief Goosen, Louis Oosthuizen (twice), Charl Schwartzel, Darren Fichardt and Thomas Aiken – and, with locals winning just two of the last six co-sanctioned Sunshine Tour/European Tour events, it is a record they are eager to maintain in the Eastern Cape.
It has been Andy Sullivan who has struck the biggest blows to South African dominance at home as the Englishman has claimed back-to-back titles at the SA and Joburg Opens, and he is one of the favourites at East London Golf Club.
Sullivan is the highest-ranked golfer in the field at 58th in the world and victory in the Africa Open would lift him into the top-50, ahead of the cut-off for Masters qualification on April 2.
“It’s been like a fairytale winning two so quickly, but I still have a lot to prove. I’m in a pretty good place, 58th in the world and the top 50 is obviously a nice carrot with qualification for the Masters,” Sullivan said yesterday.
“I don’t class myself as being there in that upper echelon yet, I still have a lot to prove, but I had a taste of it in Dubai when I played with Rory McIlroy and Martin Kaymer and I was seven-under on the first day. So I don’t think I’ll be frightened when I get to that higher stage and I have three more bites at the cherry to get to the Masters, ending in Morocco at the end of the month,” Sullivan said.
The wind was blowing strongly in East London on Wednesday and is forecast to continue gusting through the weekend, but Sullivan said blustery conditions would not worry him.
“It looks like the wind is going to be up all week, but I grew up playing in the wind, I love it. It’s going to be good, it’s a different test.
“Last time I played here, in 2013, it was really windy and I finished fifth. So it’s nice to come back to where you’ve played well before and luckily I’ve been able to get a feel for the course again because it’s been windy the last two days as well. Sometimes you practise and it’s dead calm and then the wind blows its arse off on Thursday …
“I still think there will be quite a lot of birdies out there, the scoring should still be quite good because some of the holes become a lot easier downwind,” Sullivan said.
Apart from Sullivan, several other Englishmen have the pedigree to contend strongly at East London Golf Club. David Howell is a former Ryder Cup player with five European Tour wins and he is in form after tying for second in last week’s Joburg Open; Oliver Fisher lost to Thomas Aiken in a playoff in last year’s Africa Open; and countrymen Graeme Storm, Lee Slattery, Simon Dyson, Andrew Johnston, Oliver Wilson and Chris Wood should also be watched.
But South Africans Jaco van Zyl, Keith Horne, Jacques Blaauw, Callum Mowat and former champion Fichardt have all been in good form recently.
Van Zyl and Fichardt, in particular, have good memories of East London Golf Club.
In six starts at one of the oldest courses in the country, Van Zyl has broken par 21 times in 24 rounds, and he tied for fifth in the 2014 Africa Open, finished fourth in 2011 and 2012, and tied for second in 2013.
The 35-year-old has won 13 times on the Sunshine Tour and is happy to shoulder the weight of expectation.
“I’m definitely gunning for a podium finish this year. I’m striking the ball unbelievably well and the short game is coming along nicely too, but I was really frustrated with the putter last week. Hopefully that final aspect of the game falls into place this week and I can finally pull it off in East London,” Van Zyl said.
Horne is a seven-time winner on the Sunshine Tour and is comfortable with playing in the wind, thanks to being born in Durban.
“I’m not as good in the wind as I used to be because I’ve lived in Joburg for the last 13 years, but I grew up on the coast and I have the technique and mindset to play in the wind. It’s mostly about mental preparation, you can’t fight the wind, you’ve got to use it and accept it,” Horne said.
What both locals and foreigners agree on is that East London Golf Club is a top-class venue; it may be a short course at just 6107 metres but it is a track with teeth when the wind blows.
“You can go out and think you’re going to shoot very low, flopping wedges into all the greens, but the course has got teeth. There are birdies out there, but you have to keep double-bogeys off the card. If you take the course for granted, it can really bite you,” Horne said.
“It’s a great layout, the design has all those dunes which makes it very natural. It looks like it’s been here forever and hasn’t changed much.
“A bad shot at the wrong time and you lose your ball. It opens up a bit on the back nine, but the front nine is tricky. There’s always a bit of guesswork, it’s a strategic course, the greens are small and if you miss the fairways then you can score anything,” 2014 runner-up Fisher said.
He is one of a group of in-form Englishmen with their eyes on becoming the first foreign winners of the Africa Open, with Sullivan at the forefront of the ‘invasion’.
“There’s a generation of great golfers in England at the moment and there’s definitely still a lot to come. The England Golf Union have the right set-up and their coaches are a massive help. When we get there on the pro circuit, we’re not scared to perform because we’ve played at a higher level as amateurs,” Sullivan said.