About time Ernie reminded us he’s still up there with the best

2009-05-10 00:00

AS the golfing world heads to the west coast of Scotland for the 138th Open Championship, to be contested over the beautiful Ailsa course at Turnberry, this seems an appropriate moment to assess chances of South African hands clutching the old silver claret jug next Sunday evening.

Don’t hold your breath.

There is no question this is a country particularly well-served by its professional golfers, a succession of talented, dedicated, successful and, almost without exception, exemplary ambassadors pacing the fairways of the world, following in the noble footsteps of Bobby Locke and Gary Player.

They have collectively sustained SA’s status in and around the top half-dozen golfing countries in the world, their names appearing week in, week out on leaderboards in Europe, Asia and the United States, and, often enough in the current decade, an individual has emerged from the pack and claimed a Major title: Trevor Immelman won the U.S. Masters in 2008, Retief Goosen triumphed at the U.S. Open first in 2001 and again in 2004 and Ernie Els, the standard-bearer of his generation, won the Open in 2002.

Five Majors in a decade is a respectable haul and it is only matched in the 1990s if, beside Els’ brace of U.S. Open victories in 1994 and 1997, you can count Nick Price’s hat-trick of Major titles, at the U.S. PGA championship in 1992 and 1994, and at the Open in 1994 — no problem here, because it is universally understood that as soon as a Zimbabwean wins anything, he or she becomes an honorary South African.

Further back in time, the 1980s were barren and the 1970s were illuminated only by Player’s indefatigable triumphs at the U.S. PGA in 1972, the Open and the U.S. Masters in 1974 and the U.S. Masters again in 1978. Where the Black Knight often competed alone, now a veritable cohort fly the flag.

On July 11, 2009, however, it has to be noted they are not flying the technicolour Y right at the very top of the flagpole of international golf. Indeed, the most recent world rankings, released every Monday morning, lists no South Africans in the top ten and, in fact, none in the top 20.

Els is now ranked at No. 23, Goosen at No. 25, Tim Clark at No. 32, Rory Sabbatini at No. 34 and Immelman at No. 48; all still on the stage, but in danger of melting into the chorus.

What are the chances that one of this quintet will burst into the global headlines later this week, wreathed in triumphant smiles? Not much, if the bookmakers are to be believed.

The ubiquitous Tiger Woods has been installed as the 15/8 favourite, followed by Sergio Garcia, still labelled the finest current golfer yet to win a Major priced at 16/1. Els and Goosen are the most favoured South Africans, with both posted at 33/1. Clark and Sabbatini are each pegged at 80/1.

It is a safe bet that Immelman won’t win this year’s Open because he has withdrawn with an ongoing wrist injury.

Els always has a Major chance, simply because form is temporary, but class permanent; Goosen signalled a return to form with his eight-under-par first round 64 at the BMW Invitational in Munich two weeks ago; on their “day”, Clark and Sabbatini can compete with anybody — they’ll need four “days”.

Together with the rest of a stellar field, they will arrive in Scotland and discover a supreme test of golf.

The Ailsa course has been closed to members and the public since last November, enhanced by 19 new bunkers and extended to 7 211 yards, compared to the 6 957 yards conquered by Price in 1994.

It has been described by no lesser authority than Colin Montgomerie, the ultimate Surrey Highlander, as “the finest Links course in the world”, and will once again be represented in countless photographs of the view from the ninth tee, looking across the bay towards the Turnberry lighthouse.

It was here on a scorching Sunday in 1977 where Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson produced the Duel in the Sun, as thrilling a last round as any in golfing history: two great players competing for the greatest prize over a great course.

Surprise them, Ernie.

 

Edward Griffiths is a journalist, author, former CEO of SA Rugby and general manager of SABC sport, and has been involved in various SA bid campaigns.

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