Britons eager to impress at Africa Open

Defending champion Louis Oosthuizen will start his Africa Open title defence at East London Golf Club on Thursday, but the 2010 Open champion is bound to come under pressure from some determined European Tour players looking to start the season with a return to the winner’s circle.

Once touted as the next big things, England’s Richard Finch, David Howell and Chris Wood have not quite yet lived up to the lofty expectations placed on them early in their careers.

While Finch has not lifted a trophy since his two victories in 2008, four-time winner Howell, who ranked third in Europe in 2006, slipped to a low 103rd in the final Race to Dubai last year. And Wood, who turned pro on the back of a successful amateur career, is still chasing his maiden win.

The British trio is looking to change gears this season and are hunting solid performances in Buffalo City. “My wife is due with our first child this March and I need to take some time off around the birth, so I decided to get the season off early,” said Howell.

“I played the SA Open here 10 years ago and I remember the course as a great competitive track, which is why I decided to enter the Africa Open. I played seven holes on Tuesday, but I was surprised that I couldn’t remember the holes. But I liked the look of what I saw during practice,” he added.

Howell went on to mention the course, and said: “There are lots of birdie opportunities and also lots of disasters waiting to happen out there. If you stray off the straight and narrow, you are in for some heavy punishment. I’m looking forward to getting the tournament underway now.”

“Although Ryder Cup qualification is not his predominant goal, he admits that playing for Europe is always in the back of his mind. “My performance in the last couple of years doesn’t really merit the Ryder Cup as a primary goal,” he said. “But you might get off a nice start and a win comes along and your mindset changes.”

A good start at the €1-million event, co-sanctioned by the Sunshine and European Tours, could go a long way in his campaign to return to the winner’s circle. “Golf is a fickle game and things can change quickly for better or for worse. We always live in hope. Right now, I just want to concentrate on putting four good rounds together to get this season off to a solid start,” he said.

Also making his Africa Open debut, countryman Finch had his first look at the par-73, 6,120m layout on Monday. “I played eight holes on Monday and I walked the rest on Tuesday,” he said. “This is definitely the type of course that will demand a lot of different shots, weather depending, and I’m keen to get going.

“It’s quite links-like in its design and the way it plays, although the grass is different to what we are used to back home. But I think if the wind gets up, it’s going to be a great test and one I am relishing to get to grips with. With no wind there will be lots of birdie chances but if it blows, the wind will really exaggerate any poor shots. Today the weather is pretty benign, but I think you will have to be on your toes if the weather changes.”

Wood came agonisingly close to claiming his maiden European Tour title 12 months ago when he fired a 68 to tie Oosthuizen and Spain’s Manuel Quiros in the final round here. The South African prevailed in the ensuing play-off, but Wood hopes to be the one on the podium this year.

“I’m thrilled to be back,” he said. “I’ve got great memories from my debut here last year and I’m really looking forward to a great start to 2012. It’s always fun to return to a track where you’ve challenged or did well at in the past and to draw on those positive memories is a big plus. This is a great venue and I hope the wind blows a little this week, because that really gives this course a chance to show it’s pedigree.”

And, after nine months away from the competitive circuit, Sweden’s Peter Hedblom is another European Tour member chomping at the bit to get play underway.

“I had surgery to both shoulders nine months ago and it’s been a long and lengthy process to get back to playing form,” he said. “You get rusty when you don’t compete. You need the challenge to get those competitive juices flowing. That’s why I chose to start the season here.”

He was ready to tackle the event and said: “It’s one of those great, old fashioned courses and I just loved it at first glance, but I’ve had a good look at the course and I think this could be a tough week for some when the wind gets up. I hope I’m not among them. It will be nice to play four days, not two, so I’ll have to make sure I keep it in play.”

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