There will be a determined European Tour Challenge to wrest the Tshwane Open title from the hands of defending champion Dawie van der Walt when the €1.5-million (roughly R23-million) tournament gets underway at The Els Club Copperleaf in Centurion from 27 February to 2 March.
South African professionals George Coetzee, Thomas Aiken, Hennie Otto, Darren Fichardt and Jbe’ Kruger add 11 European Tour titles to Van der Walt’s tally of two, but the top six European Tour players in the tournament co-sanctioned by the Sunshine Tour and the European Tour have 30 European Tour victories between them.
Van der Walt will return to defend his title in what is the last of a run of seven co-sanctioned tournaments in South Africa over this summer swing when the City of Tshwane hosts the second Tshwane Open in one of the most lucrative tournaments on the local circuit.
Of the seven, only two were won by foreigners, namely Morton Ørum Madsen’s victory in the South African Open Championship and Thomas Björn’s victory in the Nedbank Golf Challenge.
Between them, Simon Dyson of England and Niclas Fasth of Sweden have won 12 European Tour titles with six each, and that gives an indication of the strength of the challenge the top South Africans will face if they are to keep the trophy in Tshwane.
And the experienced David Howell of England and Northern Ireland’s Michael Hoey have won five times each, with Frenchman Gregory Bourdy and England’s Ross Fisher have four titles apiece.
But the reality is they will have to contend with South African stars, all of whom have shown recent good form – notably Coetzee and Aiken, who won the last two co-sanctioned events in South Africa, taking the Joburg Open and the Africa Open respectively.
Coetzee brings an additional advantage to the tournament, being the highest-ranked player according to the Official World Golf Rankings in the field: The week before the Tshwane Open, he was ranked 59th, and a solid showing in making the round of 16 at the World Golf Championship-Accenture Match Play during the week saw him move closer to the top 50.
Aiken was also inside the top 100 in the world a week ahead of the tournament at 79, while Fichardt at 108th and Otto at 123rd are lurking just outside the top 100.
So while the weight of experience seems to be with the European Tour players challenging for the Tshwane Open, the highly-ranked Sunshine Tour players will make full use of ‘home-ground advantage’ when play begins next Thursday.