Rory McIlory and the European Tour simultaneously kick off their 2017 at this weekend’s BMW South African Open.
McIlroy makes his first start since his tied ninth finish at the DP World Tour Championship in November, whilst the European Tour ends a month hiatus since the UBS Hong Kong Open early December.
Four-time major winner McIlroy won three events in 2016, including the Tour Championship, and took the PGA Tour’s FedExCup crown. But the world-number-two will be hoping to better his best five wins in 2012 and add to his tally of four major titles in 2017.
The 27-year-old hasn’t performed in this event since his tied third finish in the 2009 season, and only has one missed cut the season prior to show. However, McIlroy keeps good on a promise made to player-host Ernie Els after the 2015 Irish Open that he would return.
Els is the tournament score record-holder with an aggregate score of 25-under-par in 2010 and, since it’s inauguration on the European Tour, is the most successful player with three titles. That, however, falls 10 short of the all-time record winner, Els’ countryman Gary Player.
Els isn’t the only high-profile veteran taking to the tee in Johannesburg this week. 59-year-old Sir Nick Faldo makes his first appearance in a European Tour event since 2014’s Alfred Dunhill Links Championship.
Having run since 1893, the South African Open is the second oldest, after The Open Championship, national Open championship in the world, although it’s only making its 21st appearance as a European Tour event.
Of the 20 tournaments since joining Europe’s biggest tour 13 have been won by South Africans, most recently Brandon Stone who will return this year as defending champion. Despite nearly losing a five shot lead, Stone held on last year to beat fellow South African Christiaan Bezuidenhout by two to become the youngest winner of the event since gaining European Tour status.
To retain his title, Stone will need to toy with the record books again by becoming only the second player, since Trevor Immelman in 2004, to successfully defend the South African Open.
2015’s champion Andy Sullivan will also return to the event in a field divided 50/50 by professionals from the European Tour and the co-sanctioning Sunshine Tour.
The event is being hosted by the Glendower Golf Club in Johannesburg for the seventh time since its debut in 1989. The course, redesigned to USGA standards in 1985, is a lengthy 7594 yard, par 72, parkland course featuring over 60 bunkers. History suggests that scoring low here isn’t too easy, as scores in the high 270s has been enough for victory on three occasions.
The field in South Africa is far from full strength, and after over six weeks rest and recuperation, Rory McIlroy will be eager to begin his 2017 in the manner in which he means to go on.