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Time to fly the major flag again

When we think of glorious sporting achievements that marked the dawn of the post-Apartheid era, our minds are usually drawn to the '95 Rugby World Cup, or the Afcon triumph that followed in early 1996.

It is obviously understandable why Ernie Els's win at Oakmont in the 1994 US Open - many miles and time zones away - doesn't garner the same widespread levels of national acclaim and nostalgia, but that should not demean it either. The conveyor belt of great players this country produces has never relented, but the reality is that, despite many achievements in between, the fresh-faced Els's conquest in Pennsylvania - which required 92 holes of golf - ended a 16-year drought of South Africans winning a major.

Since then, we've been fairly spoiled. Including the Big Easy's win in 1994, and, up until he bookmarked it with a dramatic victory at the Open at Lytham in 2012, we enjoyed a total of nine South African major titles. An average of one every other year for that period, and with a maximum gap in between any two triumphs of four years.

Most importantly, when we weren't winning, we were there or thereabouts. But for Tiger Woods, Els's personal haul would have surely been much higher, and even as the likes of his and Retief Goosen's powers began to wane, it seemed the next generation was more than ready to be handed the mantle. They say winning your first major is the hardest of all - well, Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel made a mockery of that at the Open (2010) and Masters (2011) respectively, and with Woods by then already a fading force, the golfing world looked to be South Africa's oyster; especially with the extraordinary rise of Branden Grace in 2012 to boot.

But it just hasn't quite worked out that way. It's now been nearly five years since Els snaffled a second Claret Jug from under Adam Scott's nose, the longest lean spell of majors during our democratic era as a country. Most alarmingly of all though, there has been precious little in the way of close shaves in that time, and, looking ahead, the possibility of glory has never seemed so distant.

Oosthuizen would perhaps take exception to the above, as he led a strong South African charge at Chambers Bay in the 2015 US Open, before missing out in a playoff at the Open a month later in heart-breaking circumstances. Grace has also acquitted himself very well in the last two US Opens and PGAs.

But those were impressively consistent performances from the 28-year old, rather than near misses, and as we look ahead to the Masters - the first of 2017's major rush - the argument for a South African triumph appears to be a thin one.

Five players in the field will be flying the flag, but two of them are long-shot outsiders. Trevor Immelman's decline remains a sad one, but only those who thought Leicester City winning the Premiership in 2015/16 was a good bet would wager money on him repeating his 2008 heroics.

And then there is Els: the 47-year old veteran who may well be about to make his final April commute down Magnolia Lane. His form is poor, having slipped to 409th in the world rankings, and 2017 may well be the year we look back on what might have been in a tournament he has threatened to win on numerous occasions.

So to Messrs Schwartzel, Oosthuizen and Grace then. All of whom failed to advance beyond the preliminary stages of what was a very enjoyable WGC-Dell Match Play this past weekend, and all of whom have gone more than a year without winning a professional tournament.

Thin criteria with which to go on, sure. And Grace in particular has been steady in recent weeks and months. But to talk of our principal trio in the same conversation as the likes of the red-hot Johnson, McIlroy, Matsuyama, Stenson, Thomas or the remarkable Jon Rahm, feels more like hope than it does expectation.

But therein lies the beauty of major golf, and, specifically, the Masters. Not one of those aforementioned leading lights has ever donned the green jacket; so hard is it to win. No one owns that hallowed turf. Even Tiger Woods would probably admit that, despite the barnstorming thrashing of his compatriots at Augusta in 1997, the Masters never got any easier to win. The added pressure of having the ‘favourite' spotlight shone in your eye only intensifies that.

Perhaps in a perverse way, our best of hope of a South African winner is the fact that there isn't very much of it. But let's not do a disservice to these fine players either, who boast 39 professional victories between them. Their quality has never been dispute, nor considered fleeting. Form has been patchy for Oosthuizen and Schwartzel, but they've been there before. As for Grace, his progress has been inexorable, and while fireworks have been limited since a glorious 2012, you can't help but feel that it is a case of 'when', rather than 'if' his big week arrives.

Whoever it is that steps up, what is not in doubt is that an expectant country awaits. The time has come to deliver, and what better, more enthralling place to do it than Masters 2017. Here's hoping...

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