BRANDON Stone roared down the freeway from Centurion to Glendower Golf Club in his shiny new Ford Mustang (the fancy car is part of the fruits of his success as an extraordinarily gifted young professional) early yesterday morning, his Irish manager Jamie Farr beside him.
They were on their way to the course for Stone’s coveted 8.15am tee-time for a practice round with Sir Nick Faldo ahead of today’s first round in the BMW South African Open, in which the 23-year-old Brandon, is defending champion and is drawn with world No 2 Rory McIlroy and George Coetzee in the first round this morning (7.10am on the 10th).
“There wasn’t room in the back seat of the Mustang for ‘TBG’ (Sebastian Heisele – ‘The Big German’) and France’s Joel Salter, so we had to take two cars and they rode with me in my BMW,” explained Brandon’s father, Kevin. “The Mustang’s a great car, but it’s a sports car and the back seat is so small there’s only room for a couple of midgets and TBG is a really big guy!” Heisele, Salter and Stone first met when they were campaigning on the European Challenge Tour and they’ve remained close friends ever since, and now they’re all on the main tour. And, along with Farr, they’ve all been staying together in Centurion, as was also the case early in December when Brandon rented a house at Leopard Creek, where he won the Alfred Dunhill Championship by a mile to lift his second big trophy on the European Tour.
Stone cheekily tweeted his way into a game with Sir Nick: “My mom (Denise Stone) dug out from the storeroom an old Golf World picture of me when I was just two years old, with the magazine comparing my little swing to Nick Faldo who, of course, was in his prime then,” said Brandon.
“So I tweeted that pic to Sir Nick saying I’d waited 21 years for a game with him, and how about one this week before the SA Open starts. He tweeted back and said ‘fine, see you on the tee’, so how cool is that.”
Yesterday, TBG and Salter joined Faldo, 59, and Stone for the nine-hole practice round, watched by a number of spectators including Kevin and leading South African swing guru Llewellyn Leeuwen, who has been coaching Brandon ever since he was five years old.
“My family and the Stone family go back a long way to when we were neighbours in Centurion,” said Leeuwen. “My first contact with Pebbles (Brandon’s nickname) was as his babysitter when he was about 12 weeks old. Ever since was a laaitie, he’s been so into his golf and so dedicated, and Kevin, who knows the game so well, has been a fantastic mentor for him.”
Asked what he felt what the key was to Brandon’s successes, Leeuwen said: “Well, obviously the right technique is there and he’s strong mentally. But, what sets him apart is he loves people around him; he loves the buzz of a big gallery watching him from behind the ropes. He loves to give the fans an exhibition of his skills, and being drawn with McIlroy is really going to get his juices flowing.”
His father concurs: “When I’m playing a private game with Brandon and there’s no-one around, I feel I can still give him a little bit of a go. In a tournament with plenty of people watching he becomes a show-off and that’s when he produces his best golf.”
AT No2 in the world rankings, Rory McIlroy is by far the outright favourite to triumph at the South African Open to be played at Glendower from today, but if it’s got anything to do with Retief Goosen, he and fellow veteran Ernie Els will be up there pushing the Northern Irishman all the way come Sunday.
It’s been 10 years since two-time US Open champion Goosen triumphed at the SA Open, in 2005, with his first national Open title coming 10 years before that, in 1995, but the now 47-yearold feels he still has the game to challenge for a third title, especially because the tournament is at Glendower.
“I love this golf course. I’ve played here since I was a junior and I know every inch of the course,” said a fairly upbeat Goosen yesterday, ahead of today’s first round.
Goosen’s off at midday on the first tee, some five hours after McIlroy tees it up in his first round.
The smooth-swinging South African, who finished tied fourth last year, five shots behind winner Brandon Stone, feels McIlroy could find playing in Joburg a little tougher than he thinks.
“The course is right in front of you. There are no real blind shots, but there’s a little elevation on some holes and I don’t know how much Rory has actually played at altitude,” said Goosen. “If you’re not used to it, it’s difficult to judge sometimes how far the ball goes, and I’m sure we’ll probably see him over-clubbing on some holes.
“Also, the course is playing long and there are a lot of subtle breaks on the greens.” But, having said that, Goosen still feels the world No 2 will do well on the classic layout. “When you play well it doesn’t matter what course you play … you seem to find a way to make a good score. Rory is the guy to beat.”
Goosen, though, is hopeful of a good showing. “The course looks particularly good this year. The rough’s up and it’s tougher and I like playing tough and difficult courses.
“It would be nice come Sunday afternoon and I’m in contention. I’m hoping for consistency in my game, but it comes down to the putting and this year the driving, because of the thick rough. It’s growing daily by an inch.
“But this is a course that suits my eye and I believe a little experience will help one this week. Wouldn’t it be great if Rory’s up there on Sunday, and maybe myself and Ernie … and some youngsters too? I hope I have a chance.”
McIlroy spent no less than threeand-a-half hours practising yesterday morning, while the likes of Els opted to play a few holes in the hot highveld sun.
The “Big Easy”, like Goosen, is optimistic of a good showing but is uncertain of what kind of form he’s in, while fellow South Africans Jaco van Zyl, George Coetzee, Dean Burmester, Thomas Aiken, Justin Walters, Darren Fichardt and Hennie Otto will all be keen to beat McIlroy and lift the famous trophy.
And, of course, defending champion Stone is brimming with confidence fol- lowing his win at the Alfred Dunhill Championship in December and shooting a 61 in practice on Monday.
Former champion Andy Sullivan, who won here in 2015, and Morten Orum Madsen, winner in 2013, will also be keen to find some form again, while Darren Clarke, Jamie Donaldson and Lucas Bjerregaard will fly the flag with McIlroy for the visitors to Glendower. First round: 6.50am, 10th tee; Second round: 11.50am, 1st tee: Ernie Els, Andy Sullivan, Thomas Aiken First round: 7.00am, 10th tee; Second round: noon, 1st tee: Jamie Donaldson, Haydn Porteous, Matthew Southgate First round: 7.10am, 10th tee; Second round: 12.10pm, 1st tee: Brandon Stone, Rory McIlroy, George Coetzee First round: 11.50am, 1st tee; Second round: 6.50am, 10th tee: Richard Bland, Nick Faldo, Justin Walters First round: noon, 1st tee; Second round, 7.00am, 10th tee: Darren Fichardt, Retief Goosen, Hennie Otto First round: 12.10pm, 1st tee; Second round: 7.10am, 10th tee: James Morrison, Marcel Siem, Jaco van Zyl