Crocs, hippos, lions join Els
Johannesburg - Ernie Els will compete for attention with crocodiles, hippos and lions when the 2010 Road to Dubai begins on Thursday on a golf course with a difference.
The par-72, 6 472-metre Leopard Creek Golf Club on the border of the world renowned Kruger National Park in Mpumalanga hosts the one-million-euro Alfred Dunhill Championship.
Designed by legend Gary Player, it is widely regarded as the best in the country and a fitting setting for the first of four December and January tournaments co-sanctioned by the South African and European tours.
"Leopard Creek is surrounded by bushveld and the fact that you could be playing while hearing a hippo snort or see a lion near a fence is unique, as is the pitch shot you might hit over a lake full of crocodiles," boasts Player.
Wide manicured fairways, huge bunkers, hilly greens and many lakes and rivers are other features of Leopard Creek, owned by South African billionaire Johann Rupert.
Former 'major' winner Els opted out of the Sun City Challenge last weekend to spend time with his family and his appearance at Leopard Creek will be the only one of the South African season.
Fellow South African Richard Sterne defends the Dunhill title and other big-name entrants include nine-time European Tour winner Thomas Bjorn of Denmark, Paul McGinley of Ireland and David Howell of England.
There are five former champions in the field - Sterne, Els, John Bickerton of England, Alvaro Quiros of Spain and another South African, Charl Schwartzel.
Bickerton could hardly believe his luck two years ago as he trailed Els by two strokes with one hole to go only for the South African to find water twice in a triple-bogey-eight finish.
Sterne, bottom of a 12-man invitation Challenge field last weekend and the sole competitor to finish over par, has confessed to swing worries ahead of his return to Leopard Creek.
"For a long time now my swing has not felt comfortable - it feels as though it is all about my hands. It is something small but I must correct it," said the defending champion.
"I am extremely frustrated. It is not like I want to stop playing or anything. What annoys me is I know I am capable of much better," the South African admitted.
Englishman Lee Westwood won the 2009 Road to Dubai - the European Tour order of merit - just 18 days ago after a final-round 64 swept him to victory in the season-ending Dubai World Championship.