Garth Mulroy is hoping inspiration from his favourite course can spur him on in his defence of the Alfred Dunhill Championship title this week, but he will have plenty of opposition at Leopard Creek Country Club Â including major champions Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel.
Mulroy finished two clear of Scotsman George Murray in November 2011 to claim both his maiden European Tour title and also take a big step towards winning the Sunshine Tour Order of Merit, which he did so after consolidating his lead with a ninth place finish at the following weekÂs South African Open Championship.
But if he is to mount a successful title defence this week, Mulroy will have to see off the twin threats of Oosthuizen and Schwartzel, who warmed up for his return to South African tournament play with a stunning 11-stroke victory at last weekÂs Thailand Golf Championship on the Asian Tour. The 2011 Masters championÂs win was the biggest margin of victory of any tournament in the world this year.
Schwartzel boasts an extraordinary record in the Alfred Dunhill Championship, having won the first to be staged at Leopard Creek in 2004 at the age of 20 before notching a further four runner-up finishes in 2006, 2007, 2009 and 2010.
Also travelling to the heart of Mpumalanga in fine fettle is SchwartzelÂs great friend and fellow major champion Oosthuizen, who has not finished outside of the top six in each of his last four European Tour appearances.
The 2010 Open champion will be looking to win his sixth European Tour title and first at the Alfred Dunhill Championship to extend his impressive record on home soil, having won seven of his 10 professional victories in South Africa.
Defending champion Mulroy admits it is always a pleasure to return to the Malelane venue. ÂIt was a huge win for me last year,Â said the 34-year-old, who has also won two further events on the Sunshine Tour. ÂAnytime you win is great but as a South African you donÂt play too many events that are co-sanctioned with the European Tour, so it was nice to win one of those and especially at just the right time because it locked up the Order of Merit win on the Sunshine Tour and gave me status in Europe for 2012.
ÂItÂs probably my favourite course in South Africa. YouÂve got to drive the ball well, the greens are always great and I love the bush too. You get to go and look at some animals, IÂll have my family up there with me so it should be nice Â I love going back to Leopard Creek.
ÂI hope it can inspire me again. ItÂs always nice to go back to a place where you have played well or won in the past is a good feeling arriving there.Â
In 2011, Mulroy sprang into contention after a magnificent eight-under-par 64 in the third round handed him a two-shot lead heading into the final round and it was a performance that shocked even him.
ÂLeopard Creek is such a difficult course that the 64 on Saturday came as a bit of a surprise,Â he reflected. ÂThat day I almost got lost in what I was doing, didnÂt even know what I was shooting or how many under par I was, but just kept making putts to keep the round going to get myself right into the tournament.Â
Things were not quite as straightforward on the Sunday, though, as Mulroy was caught twice Â the second time after making bogey on the 14th as Murray eagled the hole ahead Â but fought back to win by two thanks to a gain at the 15th hole which was followed by a quite remarkable birdie putt at the following par-three.
He said: ÂI pulled my tee ball a little and was miles from the pin. I had a triple-breaker over a ridge and down the hill from more than 60 feet, and half way down the ridge I could see it just couldnÂt miss; it was just one of those ones you know is in.
ÂWhen I stood over it I remembered a few years before watching Richard Sterne make exactly the same putt. I hadnÂt thought about it again until it flashed back into my head when I was over my putt. I pictured him making it and the line it was and it worked!Â
Branden Grace, looking to continue the form that saw him capture four European Tour titles in 2012 after regaining his card at the 2011 Qualifying School, will also be at Leopard Creek with designs on an early scalp in 2013; while his friend George Coetzee, currently ranked at world number 49, will be looking to maintain his top 50 berth ahead of the final World Ranking of the year next Monday Â a placing that would see the 26-year-old secure a coveted place in AprilÂs Masters field.