Charl eyes Masters defence ahead of Joburg Open

With his ambition to successfully defend his Masters title out there now, Charl Schwartzel will throw everything into the defence of his Joburg Open crown on Thursday as a way to start that particular campaign.

The 2011 Masters champion will also get to join an elite band of champions if he wins, as he will win for a third successive year to go with his six-stroke victory in 2010 and his four-shot triumph in 2011 in the event co-sanctioned by the Sunshine Tour and the European Tour.

A hat-trick of victories would allow him to join a list of those who have won the same European Tour event three times in a row and includes Ernie Els, Sir Nick Faldo, Colin Montgomerie and Ian Woosnam.

“I’m always looking for a quick start,” said Schwartzel. “You want to get the mind going in the right direction, and for me this is a great place to start.”

But as much as defending his title in the €1.3-million Joburg Open is a priority, there are other New Year’s resolutions on Schwartzel’s mind: “It would be fantastic to retain my Masters title,” he said. “Any major victory would be very good for me, but to defend a major title would be incredible.”

To get that quest underway at Royal Johannesburg and Kensington Golf Club, he faces a field featuring a resurgent Retief Goosen – he finished third last week in the Africa Open behind Louis Oosthuizen – as well as 2008 Joburg Open champion Richard Sterne.

Both Goosen and Sterne are on the comeback trail after long periods battling back problems, and Sterne managed an eye-catching sixth last week in his first tournament in nearly a year.

And besides the obvious talent in the 210-man field – 206 professionals and four invited amateurs – Schwartzel will also have to contend with a pair of tough courses as the players play on the West Course and the East Course for the opening two rounds, and then on the East after the cut has been made.

“The East Course is playing very long,” he said, “and with all of the rain, the rough has become very dense. You can’t afford too many loose shots. You can get lucky, but it’s not ideal to be off the middle.”

He made four birdies and just one bogey in his round on the East Course during the pro-am. “Today was the longest I’ve played it in the last two years,” he said.

“It will make the competition a bit tougher, but I do like it. A lot of the shots suit my eye and the greens are beautiful, so if I can get the putter going, then I should shoot some rounds in the 60s again,” he added.

It was a brilliant 10-under-par 61 in the second round on the West Course last year which paved the way to his win, but he also had 68, 68 and 67 on the East – widely regarded as one of the toughest tournament layouts in South Africa.

With the seventh lengthened by 45 metres and the first changed from a par-four to a par-five, it’s going to take great play to match his 19-under-par finish last year.

“It’s definitely made a difference, but not a huge one,” said Schwartzel. “I still think the scoring will be low at this course – don’t be fooled by the length.”

And in addition to wanting to retain his Masters crown, he’s after the world number one spot too: “Even though Luke Donald is playing such good golf that he will be hard to catch, my long-term goal is to reach number one,” he said.

The Joburg Open could be the first step.

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