Ben Coley previews the SA Open where Charl Schwartzel is the pick of the market leaders, and Laurie Canter looks worth a more speculative each-way play.
In 1996, Louis met Charl. Louis, aged 14, arrived late after a long drive to Randpark, joining Charl, two years younger, on the 10th tee to complete their group in a junior event. Charl chastised the older boy for his attitude; Louis watched as the younger boy struggled to hit any of the par-fours in two shots and several of the par-threes in one, yet somehow still broke 90.
Two decades and two years later, Louis and Charl - Oosthuizen and Schwartzel - were able to look back upon their first meeting and reflect on a friendship which has seen them each win a major, one following the other, and play Presidents Cup golf together.
At the end of the week, Oosthuizen broke down in tears, more emotional at having won the SA Open by a landslide than he had been at St Andrews in 2010, when the world got to know one of the purest swings in the sport. Schwartzel was among the first to congratulate him, having finished a distant third.
Thirteen months further along, and the pair return to headline the SA Open, back to Randpark for the third time having also hosted in 2000. Oosthuizen will start favourite, keeping one step ahead of his younger friend, but it's CHARL SCHWARTZEL who I'm interested in backing at 12/1.
Schwartzel was badly out of form when he finished third here at the beginning of last season. Since the PGA Championship, he'd played in six events, finishing in the top 40 in just one of them.
Even so, a return to familiar surroundings - Schwartzel is from Johannesburg and knows both courses in use this week very well - prompted an immediate upturn. When arriving at Randpark on Monday, he shot 63 at Bushwillow, and come Friday evening he held a one-shot lead after firing another in the tournament proper.
Weekend rounds of 71-72 were nowhere near good enough to live with Oosthuizen, but they weren't altogether surprising. "I'm obviously lacking confidence at the moment," was his pre-tournament message, even after Monday's fireworks, and in the end he was more than happy to get things back on track with third place.
That ought to have set Schwartzel up for a big 2019 and another Presidents Cup spin, but injury curtailed his campaign and he sat out the summer months, before returning at Leopard Creek. It was very difficult to know what to expect, given his sublime course record but the guarantee of competitive rust, and all things considered third place was a quite brilliant result.
It reminds us, yet again, that these co-sanctioned events lack depth. South African players often win them, but only a select group, and among that group nobody has been better at winning them since Schwartzel.
Over the decade just gone, the former Masters champion came home for 29 events which were sanctioned by both the Sunshine Tour and the European Tour, and he won seven. In total, he was inside the top six 19 times (65%) and he could quite easily have won two or three more - most notably when losing an SA Open play-off to Andy Sullivan.
Of course, these numbers only tell us so much, and the fact that Schwartzel's record over the first 10 (four wins, five further top-fives) is so much superior to the last 10 (one win, three further top-fives) reflects the reality that he is not the player now who triumphed at Augusta.
Still, at 35 he has plenty to give and I wonder if he might emulate Bernd Wiesberger, who returned from an enforced absence with a renewed sense of purpose and, crucially, a much better attitude on the course, which translated to his best season yet.
Whether or not Schwartzel quite matches that, time will tell, but on home soil and having been so impressive in December, I'm more than happy to side with him around courses nobody knows better.
"It was nice to swing pain free, but I was even happier about the progress I’ve made with my swing," he said after Leopard Creek. "Looking forward to next year."
There's also some wider motivation here, with three Open Championship places on offer. Schwartzel must know this is a fabulous chance to qualify for Royal St George's, where he played very well in 2011. Having slipped outside the world's top 200 due to his absence, it may very well be his best chance, and there's no way he'll have had his feet up over Christmas as some in better positions are entitled to have.
Seeing Louis win in such emotional fashion here can only further inspire Schwartzel and for my money he remains the biggest threat to the favourite, with Branden Grace yet to convince and Erik van Rooyen still having a bit to prove in these events, albeit he's clearly progressive.
If this old championship is to remain in the hands of the Springboks, there aren't many other likely candidates, but both ZANDER LOMBARD and HAYDN PORTEOUS qualify and both are worth backing.
Lombard somehow already has a reputation for not having it in him to get over the line, despite winning on the Sunshine Tour at 22, beating a vastly more experienced opponent in a play-off.
At 21, he lost a European Tour play-off to an inspired Alvaro Quiros on the European Tour, doing very little wrong, and with his 25th birthday still a couple of weeks away I can't stress enough that he's got time on his side. Golf history is littered with late bloomers, and the desperation some have to put players in boxes when they're barely old enough to drive is a constant source of bewilderment to me.
Lombard will surely win, and it may well be that his breakthrough comes this week as he demonstrated a fondness for both courses when bang in contention in the 2018 SA Open won by Oosthuizen.
That he faded to 15th over the weekend has more to do with form than fortitude, as Lombard had been 67th or worse in nine of his previous 10 starts. By contrast, confidence is sky-high this time after he ended last year with form figures of 17-8-7-26, two of them in high-class company before a solid start to the new season.
Seventh place in Leopard Creek was even better than it looks, as he was favourite for much of the final round only to be a little unfortunate on the 72nd hole, running up a big score in pursuit of the eagle he felt he needed. For some, that's more evidence; for me, it represents another step towards his breakthrough.
Here at Randpark, where he won a big amateur title in 2012 and played heaps of junior golf, Lombard is a massive player. He signalled his intent towards the back-end of 2019 and there's every chance he starts 2020 with a bang.
Porteous, who lives in Johannesburg, succeeded Lombard by taking the Northern Amateur in 2013 with rounds of 71-63-68-64 for as commanding a victory as you're ever likely to see.
He went on to win the Joburg Open early in his professional career - in effect, this event is the Joburg Open but with a more prestigious trophy up for grabs - and he has contended in both starts at Randpark since, latterly finishing seventh.
Although quiet throughout much of 2019, Porteous made a good start to the Portugal Masters, sitting fifth at halfway, and while disappointing at Leopard Creek he went on to finish 26th in Mauritius and 20th in Thailand, playing well in all eight of those rounds.
That's a nice platform for a return home, especially as his win in Prague in 2017 came on the back of similar form figures, and this class act is much more suited to the easier scoring conditions here at Randpark than he was previous SA Open venues.
At 80/1, he's preferred to old sparring partner Brandon Stone, arguably the pick of the youngsters at his best but just short enough at 28/1. It will be a surprise if there's a home winner beyond this lot unless it's Christiaan Bezuidenhout.
The biggest dangers to those mentioned come from further afield, with Sullivan, Thomas Detry and Eddie Pepperell chief among them, but I prefer to take a chance on the latter's friend LAURIE CANTER at 250/1.
Canter has bags of experience in South Africa and was 14th at Leopard Creek when last seen, his seventh top-25 in his last nine starts here. That's a serious impressive record and at some stage he's capable of putting four rounds together and contending for a title.
Having been sixth at Qualifying School before that performance in the Alfred Dunhill, he looks an each-way player here if returning in the same sort of form, and the fact he was 14th when starting his year in the SA Open at Glendower in 2017 bodes well.
On that occasion, Canter sat fifth at halfway before shooting an opening 64 in the Dimension Data Pro-Am a month later, further evidence that the altitude and the klikuyu and the climate and everything else seems to bring out the best in this one-time promising talent.
Having turned 30 in November, just before a definite upturn in form, perhaps Canter is focused on making more of this decade than the previous one, and this former winner of the South African Amateur Championship is well worth chancing.
Finally, while his compatriot Connor Syme is tempting, I'm taking a big chance on DAVID LAW at 500/1.
An impressive winner in Australia early last year, Law has shown he has what it takes to win a fairly low-key European Tour event and while his form tailed off during the summer months, the start of the new season saw him improve and make back-to-back cuts.
He'll have to take another big step forward, but Randpark might be a good place for that to happen as he absolutely dominated the Northern Amateur here in 2011, first winning the stroke play after a second-round 63 and then beating Porteous and Lombard en route to the match play trophy.
That form didn't count for much when he missed the cut in the 2017 Joburg Open here, but he was a struggling Challenge Tour player at the time and now arrives with a trophy in the cabinet and an exemption in his back pocket.
Law got married over Christmas, which might mean he lacks sharpness, but it might equally see him tee off with an excellent mindset and unlike Jon Rahm last week, we don't have to risk much without yet knowing how he'll respond.
At 500/1 and as a proven winner both at this level and on this course, albeit in calmer waters, he's the final addition to a staking plan which, just like the event may well be, is dominated by the pick of the South Africans.
Posted at 1800 GMT on 06/01/20.
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