Rolling Stone ea­ger to de­fend home Open ti­tle

The Star Early Edition - - SPORT -

AS DE­FEND­ING cham­pion and win­ner of last month’s Al­fred Dun­hill Cham­pi­onship at Leop­ard Creek, he would have been one of the favourites for this week’s SA Open at Glen­dower, but just to ham­mer home the point that it’s not all about Rory McIl­roy, Bran­don Stone fired a stun­ning 11 un­der-par 61 in prac­tice on Mon­day.

Yes, Stone, win­ner at Glen­dower a year ago, is in hot form and he’s des­per­ate to de­fend his ti­tle come Sun­day. The fact that world No 2 McIl­roy is in the field mo­ti­vates him even more.

“Out­side of the four Ma­jors, this is the one you want to win ... your home Open,” said a con­fi­dent Stone yes­ter­day.

“I get goose flesh think­ing about them call­ing me out as the de­fend­ing cham­pion when I step onto the first tee on Thurs­day (to­mor­row).

“Know­ing I can come here and play for the rest of my life, that’s why this tour­na­ment will now be so spe­cial to me and close to my heart.

“This is my fifth Ma­jor; it’s just so spe­cial hav­ing my name on that tro­phy, but I don’t want it to be there only once – I want to see it there again and again.”

The self-pro­claimed “whip­per snap­per” en­joyed a re­mark­able 2016 sea­son, win­ning the SA Open and the Al­fred Dun­hill at Leop­ard Creek – both com­ing af­ter he cap­tured the Cape Town Open for his first big win.

But there were other ma­jor high­lights last year, too.

“Two Euro­pean Tour wins, one Sun­shine Tour ti­tle, two Ma­jor ap­pear­ances and the Rio OIympics , and fin­ish­ing the year in the top 50 in the Race to Dubai stand­ings – if you’d given me that on Jan­uary 1 last year, I would have said, ‘okay, cool, where do I sign and for how long?’

“It was a spe­cial year. Sure, I didn’t play as well as I would have liked in con­ti­nen­tal Europe – in fact I strug­gled – but I en­joyed last year and ex­pe­ri­enced some in­cred­i­ble things.

“I’m still a whip­per snap­per, just with a fancy park­ing (at Glen­dower) this year. I’m the same per­son, love play­ing golf.

“Walk­ing up the 18th on Mon­day in prac­tice, I got the same but­ter­flies I had last year; the emo­tions kept com­ing back. It’s a spe­cial place for me.”

Stone is now hop­ing to go back-to-back and will fancy his chances af­ter fin­ish­ing 2016 in style and with the likes of Bran­den Grace, Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel ab­sent.

“I had a great (prac­tice) round yes­ter­day (Mon­day),” said Stone.

“I was able to get the rust off af­ter not play­ing much in De­cem­ber and wasn’t plan­ning on fir­ing on all cylin­ders. But it felt good ... sup­pose a 61 doesn’t hurt the con­fi­dence.”

Stone knows there will be new and dif­fer­ent chal­lenges this week – among them the pres­ence of McIl­roy – but go­ing for him is that he knows the course and what it takes to win at Glen­dower. And let’s not for­get he’s a man full of con­fi­dence.

“It’s now 2017 and I have to re­set my goals. The bar has been raised and I have to try to live up to that now. The course is play­ing sim­i­lar to last year; again it’s in su­perb con­di­tion, more so con­sid­er­ing we had 92mm of rain on Sun­day night. If that 61 is (my) worst round of the week I’d be very chuffed.” BRAN­DON STONE

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