Charl Schwartzel waltzed away with the Alfred Dunhill Championship at Leopard Creek Country Club last year, lapping the field and defeating runner-up Kristoffer Broberg of Sweden by 12 shots.
And he had the South African Open Championship in his grasp last week, letting it slip with a momentary lapse of concentration during the final round and opening the door for Morten Orum Madsen’s maiden title. So there is a sense of determination about the 2011 Masters champion as he prepares for his title defence on one of his favourite courses.
“It’s like a holiday for me here,” he said. “I love the course. It’s one of my favourite places in the world, and I feel at peace here. Maybe it’s because I’m so relaxed that I play well here usually.”
It was his second and third rounds last year – a pair of 64s that featured golf as good from Schwartzel as anyone has ever seen, even if he felt he could have played even better – that put away any challenge to his victory before the final round even got underway. And it is that kind of hammer blow early on in the tournament that can separate him from the chasing pack.
“That’s probably the best I’ve ever played,” he said as he looked back on that win. “And I felt as if I was getting there again at the SA Open, but for two bad holes. If I hadn’t had those two bad holes at Glendower, I’d probably have won.”
There are players in the field who can stick around with him if he goes low, however, so it is not a forgone conclusion, just as nothing ever is in golf.
Hennie Otto is one player who showed during the South African Open Championship that he is capable of sustained low scoring – that was a tournament that he should have won once Schwartzel’s challenge faded.
Otto built that scoring around brilliant middle rounds too. His second round was a six-under 66, and his third round included a triple-bogey seven on the ninth, but he still managed to card a seven-under-par 65.
He didn’t have a great tournament in last year’s Alfred Dunhill Championship, but his game is so very close to the finished product right now. A few good holes early on in his campaign and he could get on a roll which could vault him clear.
Another who went low at the South African Open Championship was runner-up Jbe’ Kruger. His charge came on the final day, when he signed for a seven-under-par 65 to finish two shots behind Madsen. Trevor Fisher Jnr also went low in the final round, his eight-under-par 64 catapulting him up the leaderboard into a share of seventh.
Kruger had top 10s in the 2010 and 2011 Alfred Dunhill Championship, and the South African Open Championship performance has revitalised him after a tough 2013 campaign in Europe and Asia. Fisher has a best finish of a share of 14th at Leopard Creek, but his performance last weekend has buoyed him.
Of course, there are other players in the field who could also contend: Madsen showed he has the temperament to hang on when the ride gets bumpy, and he is just one of a hot of European Tour players who have won before: The likes of Ross Fisher, Robert Rock and Danny Willett are tough customers, as are Alejandro Canizares, Thomas Levet and Michael Hoey.
And that’s not even to mention Marco Crespi of Italy, the European Tour rookie who hung on so impressively for a share of fourth in the South African Open Championship last week after his brilliant opening 65.
Schwartzel won’t have things his own way at Leopard Creek. But he’ll like his chances. “You can’t come here to find your game,” he warned. “It’s guys who are playing well already who will be contenders.”