From The European Tour
After Rory McIlroy provided such a thrilling finale to the 2015 season on Sunday, the 2016 campaign begins in earnest this week, with the Alfred Dunhill Championship heralding the start of eighth edition of The Race to Dubai.
Leopard Creek Country Club, in Malelane, provides the spectacular backdrop for the first of 45 tournaments in the season-long race, as the battle to succeed McIlroy as the Europe Tour’s Number One gets under way.
For the seventh consecutive year, the starting gun in the Race to Dubai sounds in South Africa, with the Alfred Dunhill Championship one of six European Tour events to be held in the country during the 2016 season.
Fittingly, there is a strong home presence to mark the occasion led by Major Champions Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel and defending champion Branden Grace, who will be hoping his fine form at the end of the 2015 season continues into the new campaign.
After claiming a maximum haul of five points at the Presidents Cup, Grace finished third in the DP World Tour Championship, Dubai last week to end the 2015 season in the same position in The Race to Dubai.
That performance rounded off a superb season for the 27 year old, which began with his victory in the Alfred Dunhill Championship 12 months ago when he opened the 2015 season with a stunning round of 62 and went on to finish seven strokes clear of compatriot Oozthuizen. In so doing Grace became the fourth consecutive South African winner of the tournament, following Garth Mulroy in November 2011 and Schwartzel in 2013 and 2014.
It was Grace’s fifth European Tour title, and he soon added a sixth when winning the Commercial Bank Qatar Masters a month later.
Grace will be hoping for another fast start to the season, while Oosthuizen and Schwartzel will also be looking to extend their impressive records on home soil, having claimed ten European Tour titles in South Africa between them.
The Alfred Dunhill Championship also represents the start of a new chapter for 12 players in the field who graduated from the European Challenge Tour last term, led by Portugal’s Ricardo Gouveia, who ended the term as Number One in the Road to Oman Rankings.
Similarly, there are 21 players who emerged from the European Tour Qualifying School Final Stage including South African Ulrich van den Berg, who claimed the first card at PGA Catalunya Resort earlier this month after tying for top spot with Spaniard Adrian Otaegui and American Daniel Im – both of whom are also in the field.
The Qualifying School and Challenge Tour graduates may take heart from the Alfred Dunhill Championship history of producing first-time winners, with eight players – Anthony Wall (2000), Adam Scott (2001), Justin Rose (2002), Mark Foster (2003), Marcel Siem (2004), Schwartzel (2005), Alvaro Quiros (2007) and Garth Mulroy (2011) – claiming their maiden European Tour titles at the event.
Meanwhile, former Ryder Cup player Niclas Fasth will make his 500th European Tour appearance this week, becoming only the second Swede after Robert Karlsson to reach the milestone.