If Charl Schwarztel is to become the first South African to win the $6.5-million Nedbank Golf Challenge since 2007, his superior iron-play will be the difference between him and the rest of the field.
The 31-year-old is fresh off a win on his favourite course in all the world at Leopard Creek where he took his fourth Alfred Dunhill Championship to break a two-year victory drought, and he will have to come to grips with a different kind of course if he is to emulate Trevor Immelman, the last South African to win the prestigious tournament at Gary Player Country Club.
“For different guys, there are different ways of playing it,” he said of the course at Sun City. “Some guys can be aggressive because they’re drawers of the golf ball. I, on the other hand, can’t really be that aggressive. I’ve got to keep the ball in play with a lot of irons, three-woods, and rely on good iron play from the fairway and good putting. That’s what’s going to get me to win.”
But he’s sure that he has what it takes to play more conservatively off the tee and keep pace with some of the big hitters who draw the ball and take advantage of the shape of the course. “The way I hit it today on the range before walking off, I’ve got some sort of benefit where I’m about a club stronger than most guys in this field with irons,” he said.
“So I can, in a way, afford to be a little bit less aggressive, because if they’re 10 yards ahead of me, I still hitting the same club as them. It’s key around Sun City. It’s always been like that. The way the greens here have been shaped, there are little areas where the flags are so you need to be really precise with the irons and obviously that part’s easier if you’ve got a shorter iron in. If I swing it like I did now on the range, I’ll be fine.”
The trick for Schwartzel will be to keep swinging it like he did on the range, because he had to struggle to keep his ball where he wanted it to be in the final two rounds on his way to victory at Leopard Creek. But even that struggle is a source of encouragement to him.
“The win last week for me meant quite a lot in the fact that I had to find a way to win on the weekend,” he said. “It wasn’t good golf like you’d expect from someone who comes in and wins. It was nice to have a bit of a lead going in there, but it’s nice to see that there’s a different way of winning. There’s not just one way.”
His game took a severe dip over the last two years, and it starting to return to him after 18 months of intensive work. “I know the game is good,” he said. “It shows up more often these days. I go through rounds where I play really well and if I can get more and more of those, then I think I’ll compete more often, be in contention more often.”
He’s also begun working on his putting with ‘eye guru’ Sherylle Calder, who has helped, amongst others, Ernie Els and Branden Grace. The result has been a proliferation of what he calls ‘better’ putts, even though he’s not making as many as he would like yet.
But a win this week would make him happy. “Coming back to the Nedbank as a South African is always very special,” he said. “It was the first tournament that I came to watch as a junior. My dad brought me too, so it will always have a very special place in my heart.”