Several of South AfricaÂs top international campaigners will be hunting a maiden European Tour title on home soil when the Africa Open tees off in Buffalo City from 5-8 January 2012.
European Tour members George Coetzee, Jaco van Zyl, JbeÂ Kruger and Branden Grace will go head-to-head with defending champion Louis Oosthuizen and 2009 winner Retief Goosen as they chase an early start in the 2012 Race to Dubai when the Â1-million tournament returns to East London Golf Club for the fourth consecutive time.
Although Coetzee finished the 2011 season ranked 26th in Europe after an impressive season that included seven top-10 finishes and earnings of Â913 128, a maiden European Tour win has so far eluded him.
The 25-year-old Pretoria professional underlined his ascendancy with third place finishes in the Portugal Masters, the Barclays Scottish Open, BMW International and Alfred Dunhill Championship and came very close to breaking through for his maiden title at the Johnnie Walker Championship at Gleneagles, where he was pipped to the title by DenmarkÂs Thomas Bjorn in a playoff.
Coetzee hopes he can break through in East London.
ÂI came close a couple of times this season, so I feel itÂs just a matter of time,Â said Coetzee. ÂIÂll be pushing hard next year and if I can sneak into the winnerÂs circle in East London, that would be a perfect start to the 2012 season.Â
Coetzee won two of his four Sunshine Tour victories at coastal courses and said his previous finishes in this event Â a tie for 28th in 2010 and 71st in 2011 Â wonÂt weigh on his mind come January.
ÂI learned so much playing in Europe this past year,Â he said. ÂI really improved my course management, which has not always been sharp at the East London layout. ItÂs the type of course where you can cash in on a windless day, but you have to keep your wits about you when the wind is up. I think thatÂs where I fell short in previous years.Â
Van Zyl also enjoyed a strong season in Europe and finished 50th on the final rankings. He tied for third at the Omega European Masters and finished second at the Tropheé Hassan II, but it is a tie for third at Alfred Dunhill Championship and fourth at the Africa Open that has the 32-year-old Johannesburg professional hopeful of translating his solid form on home soil into a maiden European Tour win.
ÂItÂs going to be tough,Â he said. ÂThe field is dusted with European Tour and Sunshine Tour winners and everyone wants to start a new season on a high, so the guys will be motivated.Â
ÂEast London is a great venue for our first event. The wind really gets rid of the cobwebs. Last year I saw first hand how the leaderboard was flooded when the wind died down and how it separated the men from the boys when it started blowing. ItÂs a real thinking manÂs course and IÂm looking forward to the challenge.Â
Kruger, too, has fond memories of East London and a strong performance could put the Bloemfontein pro back on the winning track.
ÂI had a bunch of top 10 and top five finishes this season and I improved my consistency, but I didnÂt win anything, so thatÂs a priority for next year,Â said the 25-year-old, who ended the season ranked 92nd in Europe, 15th in South Africa and fourth on the Asian Tour Order of Merit.
ÂIn 2010 I finished third at East London and in January I tied for eighth, so I think itÂs fair to say that I love this course. The course suits my eye and there are a lot of risk and reward opportunities.
ÂI think itÂs a fair test with plenty of birdie opportunities. But when the wind comes up, your red numbers can turn blue in a heartbeat.Â
Grace secured his European Tour card in a return trip to Q-School this December and is champing at the bit to get the 2012 season started.
ÂItÂs been a frustrating season,Â said the 23-year-old from Knysna. ÂI had some really good results and some pretty poor ones, so IÂm keen to start with a clean slate. I love the track in East London. ItÂs the kind of course where the wind plays such a big factor and itÂs never over until the last putt drops.Â
Grace hopes to convert two ties for eighth and a runner-up finish in 2009 into his first European Tour victory come January.
ÂIt took me a couple of years to break through on the Sunshine Tour and I feel the time is right for me to challenge for my first European Tour win. East London and I have a good history, so I hope I can cash in on three solid performances and pull it through this time.Â
The field will be further boosted by three 2011 European Tour champions in SSP Chowrasia of India and South Africans Thomas Aiken and Garth Mulroy, as well as 2011 Challenge Tour winners Benjamin Hebert from France and EnglandÂs Sam Little.
Chowrasia captured the Avantha Masters in February, while Aiken won the Open de Espana in May. Mulroy broke through for his first European Tour win at the Alfred Dunhill Championship in November.
Hebert reeled in three victories at the Rolex Trophy, English Challenge and Credit Suisse Challenge while Little also cashed in three times, winning the Roma Golf Open, M2M Russian Challenge Cup and the Allianz Golf Open Grand Toulouse.
By Lali Stander