By Grant Winter
Former champions Ernie Els and Trevor Immelman have been drawn together alongside England’s David Howell for the first two rounds of the BMW South African Open, proudly hosted by Ekurhuleni at Glendower Golf Club.
“Being paired with Ernie is always special,” said Immelman, the last player to win back-to-back SA Opens in 2003 and 2004, which he followed with a coveted Green Jacket at the 2008 Masters.
“As a kid, he was one of the guys I watched and idolised. Later, when I got onto the European Tour and then the PGA Tour, he was the guy who took me under his wing and showed me the ropes.
“Our lives has run separate courses with kids and stuff like that, but I still run into him regularly. We had a good chat on Tuesday and it’s going to be a lot of fun to play with him.”
Based in the United States, Immelman has not competed on home soil since his Nedbank Golf Challenge victory in 2007.
However, his game has not been at the high level it once was over the last couple of years and he lost his PGA Tour card.
A good performance this week could be the just what Immelman needs to spark a return to form and some momentum at the start of the season.
“I’ve never stopped working hard,” he insists.
“I’ve recently made a few tweaks to my swing with encouraging results and I’ll be putting the swing out as a test for the first time this week. You never quite know what can happen but I hope I can get out there and get some momentum and have a good tournament.
“I feel like if I do manage to find a way to get myself in with a chance, I’ve never been afraid of that position, but in the last number of years, I really haven’t done that very often. What I do know is that if I can get myself into position, I’ll know how to handle it because I’ve never been afraid of contending.”
Immelman only played the championship layout once before in 1997, but he could make a great start with some high quality shots.
“I was still a teenager then, so I had my first look at the course after all the changes on Tuesday. My caddie has caddied here for the last two SA Opens, so he knows it well. The beauty about this style of a course is that it’s not tricked up. There’s nothing hidden from you. It’s just a great old-style course. You can pretty much see everything. I don’t feel like playing it a million times is going to give you an advantage.
“It’s a tough course, though, which keeps coming at you with long par-4s and long par-3s. You can reach the par-5s in two, but then again there’s quite a bit of water around. You’ve just got to execute high quality shots.”
Tournament host Els is chasing his sixth SA Open victory after edging out Retief Goosen for his fifth title at Durban Country Club in 2010.
The Big Easy, Immelman and Howell will undoubtedly have the fans streaming through the gates to catch the action from the 10th hole at 7.10am.
World number 14 Branden Grace, playing in the group ahead of Els, will start his title chase alongside 13-time Sunshine Tour champion Jaco van Zyl and fellow European Tour winner Marcel Siem from Germany.
Meanwhile two-time champion Goosen is also back after a four year absence and will have the company of George Coetzee and England’s Lee Slattery from the first at 12 noon.
“It’s great to be back here,” said Goosen, who turns 47 next month.
“I love the SA Open, and I love this golf course. I have happy memories of this place right back to my junior days.”
Starting right behind Goosen party is another featured three-ball comprising defending champion Andy Sullivan from England, 2011 SA Open champion Hennie Otto and Scottish amateur Daniel Young, who earned his spot as the reigning Sanlam SA Amateur champion.