Former world number one Rory McIlroy posted a short video clip of a huge male lion while on safari at the weekend‚ a perfect metaphor for his own presence at this week’s SA Open at Glendower Golf Club in Johannesburg.
With four major titles‚ McIlroy is the biggest drawcard in the sport and his presence in Ekurhuleni has elevated the status of this grand old golf tournament to another level. He might be the big cat in the field, but there are plenty of young lions hoping to take him down this week — and there are a few older warriors, such as Ernie Els, who are also not ready to simply roll over.
The Northern Irishman‚ who is currently ranked two in the world after winning the US PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup last season‚ is here because he is honouring a commitment he made to Els at the 2014 Irish Open.
Els‚ who is the official SA Open host‚ encouraged McIlroy to play in the world’s second oldest golf tournament (after The Open Championship) when he was a guest of McIlroy’s charitable foundation.
"Rory was very serious about coming to SA when I told him he ‘owed me one’ at the Irish Open‚" Els said. "I’m glad that he made the commitment so soon. His presence will help the growth of the SA Open, which has been doing so well over the last few years."
The field boasts five major winners — Els‚ McIlroy‚ Nick Faldo‚ Retief Goosen and Darren Clarke — and three former world number ones in Els‚ Faldo and McIlroy.
"I couldn’t think of a better way to start the new season‚" Els said. "As you can imagine‚ my focus is very much on trying to win my sixth SA Open title and I’m working hard to try to make sure that I come out of the blocks fast in 2017 and generate some early momentum. Those first few tournaments can often set the tone for your season.
"In the field this week is plenty of great homegrown talent‚ including defending champion (and Olympian) Brandon Stone," he said on his website. "All of them will get to match their skills against many of the game’s top international players‚ such as Rory‚ and a few other legends including Sir Nick Faldo‚ Retief Goosen and Darren Clarke."
Els also paid tribute to Wayne Westner‚ who took his own life last week. "There’ll undoubtedly be a touch of sadness this week‚ though‚ as we mourn the untimely passing of a two-time SA Open champion Wayne Westner‚" Els said. "He was some player and probably one of the best ball-strikers that I ever saw; Wayne crushing a one-iron was truly a sight to behold!"
"We played a lot of golf together and of course‚ we won the World Cup of Golf together at Erinvale in 1996. Such great memories‚ thank you my friend. Obviously our thoughts and prayers go to Wayne’s family."
Among the best young talent in the field are 2016 champion‚ Stone‚ who also clinched the Alfred Dunhill Championship a month ago, and Joburg Open champion Haydn Porteous. Established players such as Andy Sullivan‚ Keith Horne‚ Goosen and veteran James Kingston will also compete in the tournament.