Five-time European Tour winner Richard Sterne hopes his decision to take a relaxed approach to the Africa Open this week will pay some handsome dividends.
Sterne makes a long-awaited comeback from injury at the Â1-million European and Sunshine Tour co-sanctioned event at East London Golf Club from 5-8 January.
ÂMy last competitive round was at the Telkom PGA Championship in February last year, so I donÂt mind admitting that IÂm a little nervous,Â said Sterne after completing his practice round on Tuesday.
ÂIÂve played five lots of nine holes in the last three weeks, but today was the first time I played 18 holes in nearly a year. It went surprisingly well, so IÂm cautiously optimistic for the week ahead,Â he added.
The 30-year-old reached a record high 29th in the official world golf rankings after winning the 2008 Joburg Open, Alfred Dunhill Championship and South African Open, but recurring back injuries forced his complete retirement from the game last year.
ÂI have three bulging discs in various places in my back and I was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis, a form of arthritis,Â Sterne explained.
ÂUnfortunately there is no overnight cure for this type of injury and the recovery process is a long one . At the start I wasnÂt patient enough and didnÂt give the therapy a proper chance to work, so within a week or two IÂd be on the crutches list again,” he said.
ÂThe bulging discs caused me a lot of pain, even referral pain in my ribs and really limited my movement. I got very stiff in my upper body and couldnÂt rotate more than an inch either way. The spondylitis didnÂt help the cause,” said the 30-year-old.
He went on to add: “In this sport you have to practice several hours a day, six days a week for several weeks on end to stay in top form. IÂve stuck out the therapy and gym work for the last 11 months and I finally got onto medication for the ankylosing spondylitis. I feel better than ever and IÂm ready to compete.Â
Although his focus will be to complete 72 holes, SterneÂs competitive spirit is as strong as ever and he hopes to get close to the course record 61 he set at the par 73, 6,120m layout in 2008.
ÂIt is early days, so IÂm not over-confident but the record is still unchallenged and I hope IÂm the one to equal or better it,Â he said.
ÂI just love this course. I played Inter-Provincial here in 1997 and the SA Amateur, where I did quite well, so the course definitely has some good memories. ItÂs a thinking manÂs course. I enjoy the fact that you have to play a lot of feel shots around this track.
ÂThe wind does blow here and that eliminates quite a few of the players. I think the course suits my eye very well and thatÂs why itÂs so exciting to come back at this venue.Â
Although Sterne has a 10-year exemption on the Sunshine Tour courtesy of his SA Open victory, the Stellenbosch professional will have to play in Europe on a medical exemption. This is a situation he hopes to remedy as soon as possible.
ÂI canÂt say that IÂm not bothered with how I play this week,Â he said.
ÂI want to come out here and do well; I kind of expect myself to do well. I might be a bit hard on myself, but thatÂs the bottom line. I feel like IÂm playing quite well, so if I can have a couple of solid rounds, come Sunday I might be in with a chance.
Compatriot Thomas Aiken is also looking to convert his 2010 runner-up finish into his second European Tour win. ÂIf there is a course I believe I can win at, itÂs this one in East London,Â said the 2011 Spanish Open winner. ÂThis is one of those great, old fashioned layouts that used to dominate the golf course rankings before the estate courses squeezed them out.
ÂItÂs a true risk and reward course, where you need to think your way around. A slight miscalculation could easily cost you two shots.
ÂI believe golf needs this kind of course, because thatÂs what adds to the excitement of this tournament. You never know what can happen and things can change in the blink of an eye, especially when the wind is up.Â
Aiken and Sterne will face tough opposition from Major winners Louis Oosthuizen and Retief Goosen, both former winners, as well as 2011 Sunshine Tour Order of Merit winner Garth Mulroy, who leads a slew of top international local challengers including George Coetzee, JbeÂ Kruger and Jaco van Zyl.
Meanwhile former European Tour winners David Howell, Peter Hedblom, Scott Strange and SSP Chowrasia head a cast of hungry European Tour players looking for a fast start this yearÂs Race to Dubai and Ryder Cup standings.
Article: Lali Stander