South African Open player/host Ernie Els says world number two Rory McIlroy will be the man to beat at this week’s event starting at Glendower Golf Club on Thursday.
Els, 47, was instrumental in bringing his fellow four-time Major winner McIlroy to tee it up in the 2017 edition of the event. The Northern Irishman is the only player in the top 45 in the world rankings in the field and will be the heavy favourite according to the Big Easy.
“Rory is by far the class player in the field in terms of world rankings. He’s going to be the guy everybody will be looking up at, or to beat, or to see how he’s doing,” said Els. “I cannot tell you how excited I am, the field and the spectators probably to have Rory playing. He’s done such great things the last couple of years.”
McIlroy, 27, will be making his third appearance at the SA Open this week which is the second oldest golf event in the world after the Open Championship. He also appeared in the 2008 and 2009 season’s staging of the SA Open.
McIlroy missed the cut but in his first appearance, but finished tied third in 2009 alongside Els. Els, however, warned that defending champion Brandon Stone could not be overlooked. Stone followed up his maiden European Tour success in his home Open with his second victory at the Alfred Dunhill Championship at Leopard Creek in December.
“Those are the two guys – Rory and Brandon. Brandon has great success in South Africa and I’m sure he’s got unbelievable confidence after Leopard Creek. Then you have George Coetzee and Richard Sterne, so we’ll see. Golf is a funny game. There will be a lot of rust that has to come off a lot of guys’ golf games. It will be a tough one to call.”
Despite McIlroy boosting the quality of the field substantially, glaring absentees from the field are the top three-ranked South Africans with Branden Grace (world number 17), Charl Schwartzel (world number 24) and Louis Oosthuizen (world number 26).
Grace is already busy competing on the 2017 PGA Tour, but with Schwartzel and Oosthuizen both not playing anywhere at the moment Els was left disappointed the pair could not turn out in their national Open.
“We are all disappointed. I can understand Gracie (playing in America at the moment). Charl… I’m not sure why some of the guys aren’t playing, it’s unfortunate. I know they have family commitments, it would be great to see them play the SA Open. “The public loves them and would love to see them. Especially in their home Open. I know they play Sun City, but that’s a [big] money event.
“But this is our Open, so hopefully the guys will get this into their schedules in the future. “I spoke to them. Louis is on a 4×4 trip in the South West. I think Charl is here and taking some time off. You have to respect their decisions, but naturally we’re disappointed.”