By Lali Stander
Andy Sullivan will be looking to spoil the South African party at the Africa Open and make it a hat-trick of victories in co-sanctioned events this year, but Jaco van Zyl will hope to convert his resurgent form into a win at East London Golf Club on Sunday.
Van Zyl has arrived in Buffalo City as the favourite, alongside Englishman Sullivan, and will be looking to extend the country’s stranglehold in the €1-million European and Sunshine Tour event when the pair line up in a world-class field on Thursday.
“I’m definitely gunning for a podium finish this year,” Van Zyl declared and he has the form following a third-place finish in the Dimension Data Pro-Am two weeks ago, and a tie for second in the co-sanctioned Joburg Open on Sunday.
In his six starts at East London Golf Club, the 13-time Sunshine Tour winner has broken par 21 times in 24 rounds, including bogey-free rounds of 67 and 66 in 2011 and 2012 respectively, and his record in Buffalo City certainly supports his confidence.
He tied for fifth in 2014, finished fourth in 2011 and 2012 and tied for second in 2013, but had his first taste of victory at East London Golf Club when he defeated Dean Lambert 8 & 6 for the South African Amateur Championship title in 2000.
The 35-year-old Dainfern golfer certainly knows what it takes to make the winner’s circle on Sunday.
“The layout is typical of the old-style courses and I fell in love with this course when I first won here in 2000,” he said. “The course offers a lot of risk and reward and a lot of options, but it punishes any wayward shots. When the wind is up, it tests every shot in the game and strategy is key. That’s why the Africa Open has always been my favourite summer event.
“And the awesome crowds in East London, their enthusiasm is second to none and their support is incredible. I think that’s why South Africans have won the past seven Africa Opens.”
Van Zyl was ranked 62nd in the world when his career was interrupted with double knee surgery in April last year. He returned to the competitive stage in January and shook off some rust in the South African Open and Dubai Desert Classic.
Although he is confident from tee to green, the putter still causes him some headaches.
“I only missed one green, but I had 33 putts for that final-round 66 at the Joburg Open,” he said.
“I am striking the ball unbelievably well, and the short game is coming along nicely, too, but I was really frustrated with the putter. Hopefully that final aspect of the game falls into place this week and I can finally pull it off in East London.”
Previous winners Shaun Norris, Retief Goosen, Charl Schwartzel, Louis Oosthuizen, Darren Fichardt and Thomas Aiken have fiercely protected South African honour at the Africa Open, but there is a two-time European Tour champion in town who hopes to change the course of history.
Barely a month after he defeated 2010 Africa Open champion Schwartzel in a play-off for the South African Open title at Glendower, Sullivan added the Joburg Open title to his tally.
Now Sullivan is targeting a South African triple in his third trip to East London Golf Club, and the 27-year-old Nuneaton professional, wearing his perpetual smile at the putting green ahead of the pro-am, said one of the reasons he does so well in this country is the crowd support.
“The crowds are very knowledgeable and I really enjoyed the crowds in my two previous visits to East London,” he said.
“The Eastern Cape fans really got behind the golfers, no matter the nationality. They love being out there with us and getting treated to some great golf. It really feeds the confidence when you have crowd support and I am counting on the fans to give me a fighting chance this week.”
Sullivan, who rose to seventh in the Race to Dubai and rocketed to 58th in the official world golf rankings after his win at Royal Johannesburg and Kensington Golf Club, said his game is as good as it has ever been since he turned pro in 2011.
“I just want to get myself into a strong position for Sunday,” he said. “I enjoy the pressure of leading a tournament or chasing a leader on the final day. I can’t get enough of that adrenaline rush. I wish I could bottle it.
“To hold another trophy in South Africa would be fantastic, to become the first foreigner to lift the Africa Open title would be incredibly special.”