SA young guns eye Open
Defending champion Richard Sterne (file)
Cape Town - A group of 'young lions' hope to maintain local dominance of the South African Open championship when it begins on Thursday at Pearl Valley Golf Estate near Cape Town.
Defending champion Richard Sterne, Charl Schwartzel, Louis Oosthuizen and Thomas Aiken want to stretch domestic dominance to nine years in the European and South African tour co-sanctioned event.
Zimbabwean Mark McNulty was the last non-South African winner of the 99-year national golf championship, second oldest in the world after the British Open, when he triumphed in the East London-hosted 2001 edition.
Since then the South African trophy has been lifted by Trevor Immelman and Tim Clark (twice each), Retief Goosen, Ernie Els, James Kingston, and Sterne last year by one stroke from Gareth Maybin of Northern Ireland.
"Winning the South African Open last year was a defining moment in my career," Sterne told reporters as he prepared to confront the par-72, 6,800-metre Pearl Valley course designed by American legend Jack Nicklaus.
"For most South Africans the 'majors' are the biggest focus of their careers, but for me it has always been a dream and a goal to win our national championship.
"When I watched James (Kingston) win two years ago and I saw the tears running down his cheeks at the prize-giving ceremony, I wondered if I would feel the same way.
"I wondered if winning the national championship would reduce me to tears, and it did. It was a defining moment standing in front of a South African gallery as the winner.
"It is almost unbelievable to see your name engraved on that trophy beside names such as Sid Brews, Bobby Locke and Gary Player - the pioneers of South African golf," admitted Sterne.
A swing problem has stymied the South African Open title holder in recent weeks with last place in the Sun City Challenge followed by a much improved showing at the Alfred Dunhill Championship in Leopard Creek last weekend.
Sterne mixed two rounds of level-par 72 with a couple of sizzling 66s to finish the first of four European-South African tour events five shots behind shock winner Spaniard Pablo Martin.
Schwartzel, winner of three European titles, was runner-up in Leopard Creek and after tying for third and second in the South African Open must believe his time has come to top the final leaderboard.
"I'm in good form at the moment. My swing feels good and I'm ready to go," warned a golfer who has collected just under one million euros on the European circuit this year.
Oosthuizen is also dreaming of glory.
"You don't want to think too much about that first win on the European tour, but at the same time you can't not think about it," confessed the England-based professional.
And Aiken, who had a hole in one during the Dunhill Championship, is not short of confidence after seven top-10 European Tour finishes this year, including a share of eighth place at the Open in Turnberry.