Far from a dog’s life for Rory McIlroy at South African Open

The world number two is playing as a thank you to Ernie Els – one of his childhood heroes

 

When Rory McIlroy got his first dog as a child he named it after one of his golfing heroes. No, it wasn’t called Tiger, but rather ‘Theo’ after Theodore Ernest Els. That’s Ernie Els, to you and me.

McIlroy now resides alongside the 47-year-old as a holder of four of golf’s biggest prizes and this week will tee it up alongside him in the opening European Tour event of the season.

The BMW South African Open is a tournament passed over by players of much less calibre than McIlroy with sights firmly set on the riches of the three tournament swing in the Middle East starting next week, but the four-time major winner has agreed to open his season at Glendower Golf Club this week as a favour to Els.

The Big Easy was one of many famous names to tee it up at the 2015 Irish Open at Royal County Down, thanks to the persuasion of host McIlroy, and the Northern Irishman will this week cover his part of the deal by playing in the tournament hosted by Els’ foundation and made up largely of players from the country’s domestic circuit, the Sunshine Tour.

It’s fair to say that when McIlroy last played in the second oldest open championship in the world – back in 2009 – the winner’s cheque of €158,500 would have meant a considerably bigger deal.

However the 13-time European Tour winner should be admired for starting his season a week earlier than usual and the fact that Els is a childhood hero of his only adds to the good feeling about the 27-year-old’s presence just outside Johannesburg.

Despite capturing the Irish Open and FedEx Cup titles last year, 2016 was seen in some quarters as a disappointment for McIlroy given the fact that he didn’t win a major.

If that’s to change this year it will have to be done with new equipment after Nike pulled out of the club-making business, leaving McIlroy in limbo.

While he wielded a Taylormade M2 driver and woods at the end of last year, he has since switched to using the new Callaway GBB Epic Sub Zero driver, Callaway Apex MB irons, Titleist wedges and, in an interesting move away from the tried and trusted Scotty Cameron putter, an Odyssey flatstick. He has also switched back to the Titleist ProV1x ball that he used prior to his move to Nike in 2013.

McIlroy has said that his equipment could change week-to-week as he has not signed a deal with any one company – a fact seen in his golf bag this week which simply has the logo of his charity ‘The Rory Foundation’ on the side.

His decision to go on safari and not touch a golf club for four days last weekend could point to him not taking this tournament quite as seriously as he would if there was a strong field but, as he reminded everyone at his press conference on Tuesday, he has finished in the top five in his first outing of the new year in the last eight years apart from 2013.

With the highest ranked player after McIlroy coming in at 45th in the world (Andy Sullivan) and Brandon Stone the only other member of the top 100, the world number two is the hot favourite to prevail at Glendower and, given his impressive record in his next two scheduled tournaments in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, a win in the land of the springbok could set up a big 2017.

BMW South African Open – The Lowdown

Course: Glendower Golf Club, Ekurhuleni, Gauteng, South Africa.

Prize money: €885,000 (€158,500 to the winner).

Length: 7,594 yards. Par: 72. Field: 156.

Course overview: Glendower recently underwent an extensive revamp but still retains the feel of a proper South African parkland course. The kikuyu fairways will be unfamiliar to those who rarely play in this part of the world, Rory McIlroy included, while the altitude (the course is 1,500m above sea level) could play havoc with distance control. The course is relatively short which, coupled with the altitude, means big hitters won’t gain a significant advantage. Accuracy is the key with water hazards on 11 of the 18 holes.

Weather forecast: There is a threat of thunderstorms on Friday as well as heavy rain on Sunday. Thursday and Saturday are due to be the most pleasant days with very little breeze throughout.

On TV: Sky Sports 4 from 8am on Thursday.

Irish in action: Rory McIlroy (tee time: 5.10am Irish time), Darren Clarke (tee time: 5.30am Irish time).

Tips: Brandon Stone 15-1 – The highest ranked South African in the field has lived in Gauteng all his life and knows Glendower inside out. He won this title last year and shot a 61 in practice on Monday. At 15s he looks like exceptional value.

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