SA’s best

The Star Early Edition - - SPORT -

WITH nine South Africans in the field for the Open Cham­pi­onship, start­ing at Royal Birk­dale this morn­ing, the hopes of the Rain­bow Na­tion will be led by a cou­ple of ex­pe­ri­enced com­peti­tors and one rank out­sider.

That out­sider is 417th in the world and deemed to be well past his prime. That man is four-time Ma­jor-win­ner Ernie Els, and he cer­tainly be­lieves he can con­tend when he tees it up in the oldest cham­pi­onship in golf. The Big Easy is play­ing in his 99th Ma­jor.

“This is the big­gest week in golf, no ques­tion,” said Els.

“Even though this is my 27th Open, trust me the buzz, the nerves, and the ex­cite­ment, are still strong. I wouldn’t want it any other way.”

The former world No 1 has no form to speak of this year, with a host of missed cuts and a best fin­ish of 35th on the PGA Tour but on the test­ing, but fair, lay­out at Royal Birk­dale, the ex­pe­ri­enced links golfer is at a def­i­nite ad­van­tage.

It has also been five long years since a South African won a Ma­jor, and if that drought were to con­tinue it would not be a sur­prise. Ex­cept for one thing, golf, and Ma­jor cham­pi­onships in par­tic­u­lar tend to pro­duce sur­prises. One of the big­gest sur­prises was in 2012 when Els, then aged 42, won his sec­ond Open Cham­pi­onship at Royal Lytham and St Anne’s.

“I re­mem­ber when I holed that birdie putt on 18 at Royal Lytham to win in 2012, the hairs were stand­ing up on my arms. That’s what you dream about, that’s what you play for. If I can get my game to­gether this week and the draw is kind to me … who knows, maybe we can make some noise again.

One South African, who to date has only dis­played glim­mers of his mas­sive po­ten­tial, is Bran­den Grace. The 29-year-old al­ready has seven wins on the Euro­pean Tour to his credit. In 2015 and last year, Grace had four top­five fin­ishes in the Ma­jors, and came ago­nis­ingly close to a break­through at the 2015 US Open.

With­out a win this year and solid, yet un­re­mark­able form this sea­son, Grace has a low ball-flight which is best-suited to links-style golf in high winds. Aided with a streaky put­ter he could well pro­duce an­other chal­lenge for a Ma­jor ti­tle.

Charl Schwartzel and Louis Oosthuizen both tend to pro­duce their best golf in the Ma­jors. Schwartzel, 2011 Mas­ters Cham­pion, fin­ished third at Au­gusta this year. ]

Oosthuizen, who won the Open in 2010, fin­ished sec­ond in the Player’s Cham­pi­onship in May.

Bran­don Stone, 24, is al­ready a two-time win­ner on the Euro­pean Tour and while he may not be ready to win a Ma­jor just yet – steady pro­gres­sion is ex­pected of this prodi­gious tal­ent.

The other South Africans in the field are Dar­ren Fichardt, Dy­lan Frit­telli, Shaun Nor­ris and Jbe Kruger. – ANA MEL­BOURNE: Eng­land’s ab­ject dis­play against South Africa in the sec­ond Test shows they are a side strug­gling for con­sis­tency and Aus­tralia should be­able to ex­ploit their lack of co­he­sion in the up­com­ing Ashes se­ries, former pace­man Mitchell John­son has said.

South Africa thrashed Eng­land by 340 runs in Not­ting­ham on Mon­day, lev­el­ling the four-match se­ries and con­sign­ing Joe Root’s men to a sev­enth loss in 10 Tests.

With the first Ashes Test

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