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SA Open: McIlroy's the man to beat


South Africa's celebrated Ernie Els will be gunning for his sixth national title when the BMW South African Open tees off at the Glendower Golf Club on Thursday.

And his 22-year-old fellow-countryman, Brandon Stone, will be looking to become only the second man after Trevor Immelman (2003 and 2004), to successfully defend the title at the SA Open, the World's second oldest Open after the Open Championship itself, became part of the European Tour in 1997.

Both men are unlikely ever to match or better the great Gary Player's incredible record of 13 SA Open victories, but even winning this week will not be easy. Not with the World No 2 Rory McIlroy standing in their way.

McIlroy, playing in the event for the third time, his previous best finish being his third place in 2009, is honouring a commitment extracted from him by Els when the 'Big Easy' played in the 2015 Irish Open.

McIlroy has had a tendency recently to look a little rusty and start slowly after long breaks and this could so easily be the case once again, nevertheless, it's a no-brainer, of course, that the hugely talented 27-year-old from Northern Ireland has been made the favourite by almost everyone, including the bookmakers who have set him atop their lists at 9/4 followed by Stone at 12/1, England's Andy Sullivan at 14/1, Thomas Aiken, one of the better-known locals, at 25/1 and two more Englishmen, Richard Bland at 33/1 and David Horsey at 40/1.

It's a clear sign of the times that, along with England's six-time major winner, Sir Nick Faldo, and Northern Ireland's one-time Open Champion Darren Clarke, Els and Retief Goosen, both multiple major and SA Open winners, don't feature among the top favourites this week.

Instead, it's the 20 and early 30 somethings like Stone and the ever-smiling Sullivan who could be McIlroy's greatest threats.

Both know how to win at Glendower and have SA Open titles to show for it, Sullivan have captured his in 2015 after reeling in and overtaking Green Jacket winner and local favourite Charl Schwartzel from five shots back.

Mind you, with South Africans having so far dominated the event - they have won 13 of the last 20 titles at stake - overseas winners have not been too plentiful.

For example Sullivan was England's first winner of the title since Tommy Horton in 1970, so even without home grown big guns like Schwartzel, Louis Oosthuizen and Braden Grace in the field, don't be too surprised if another local favourite like Stone, Aiken, Jaco van Zyl, George Coetzee or even someone like the lesser-known big bomber Dean Burmester pulls it off again.

Burmester, the local Sunshine Tour champion last year, could be especially effective on the par-72 Glendower course now stretched to 7 594 yards. And so too, of course, should McIlroy, one of world golf's recognised big hitters.

But with thunderstorms and wet weather forecast for the last three days of the event, he and all the other wannabe winners in the field will need to bring a wet-weather kit and matching skills if they hope to be competitive. 

Thinking about it; wet weather might also suit McIlroy best. He grew up in Northern Ireland and it is not for nothing that it is part of a land they call the Emerald Isle. 

(On Tuesday morning)

Rory McIlroy 9/4
Brandon Stone 12/1
Andy Sullivan 14/1
Thomas Aiken 25/11
Richard Bland 33/1
David Horsey 40/1
George Coetzee 40/1
Jaco van Zyl 40/1
Christiaan Bezuidenhout 50/1
Retief Goosen 60/1
Peter Uihlein 50/1
Romain Langasque 66/1
Thomas Detry 66/1
Dean Burmester 66/1
Ernie Els 66/1
Lucas Bjerregaard 66/1
Dylan Frittelli 66/1
Jaco Ahlers 80/1
Justin Walters 80/1
Paul Waring 80/1
Trevor Fisher Jnr 80/1.

Neville Leck

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