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Golf | SA

Pablo Larrazabal © Gallo Images

Pablo back where it all began

A lot of eyes at the Alfred Dunhill Championship at Leopard Creek this week will be on Charl Schwartzel as the 28 year-old returns home after an emphatic 11-stroke victory at the Thailand Golf Championships on Sunday. But for Pablo Larrazabal, this week represents a special homecoming of sorts too as he returns to the venue where he made his European Tour debut five years ago and the Spaniard has very fond memories of that special occasion.

“Back in 2007 this was my first tournament on tour after earning my European Tour card through Q-School. To be back is special. It’s been a long time since then,” Larrazabal said.

“In those days I had a lot of pressure coming to the first tee, but I started 70, 70 and was top-10 going into the weekend. I struggled at the weekend, but it was a good week for me and I made top-30. To start the year like that was a good thing.”

That week was the catalyst for one of the finest rookie seasons in European Tour history, as the 29 year-old finished in an impressive 18th place in the Race to Dubai for 2008, and even picked up his maiden Tour win at the Open de France Alstom for good measure.

Two quiet years followed, but he retained his card, and a win at the 2011 BMW International Open re-ignited the form he’d exhibited in 2008. A 17th place finish in the Race that year marked a fine season, and Larrazabal has now established himself as one of the major forces to be reckoned with in Europe.

“It’s a different story now. I’m not playing to make the cut any more. I play to be up there and to try to win golf tournaments, and that’s why I came. I love the course, I love the track. It’s an amazing venue and it’s great to be back,” he said.

Another European golfer excited about the week ahead is Robert Rock, who is making his second successive appearance at Leopard Creek. The Englishman could only manage a 38th place finish last year, but it is nonetheless a course he enjoys and it has served up some good times for Rock.

“I think this is just a great course. There’s a lot of interesting shots that need to be played. It’s a good layout with some holes that can be attacked a little bit. It’s nice to have a short par-four on a course and some really well designed par-fives.

“All of the shots seemed to have appealed to me in the past, and I’ve got decent memories of how well I’ve played the course. I’ve probably had one of my best rounds at this course, even though it was only in practice. That was two or three years ago, and I shot 61,” Rock said.

The golf course is situated on the border of the Kruger National Park, and is synonymous with some of the most glorious wildlife in the world. Elephants, giraffes, crocodiles and a variety of other animals have made the estate their home, and the Alfred Dunhill Championship thus offers an experience no other tournament can match. Of course, there are also certain types of fauna which are not always welcomed by the players, and Rock is somebody who leans towards civilisation as a preference when it comes to his choice of accommodation.

“I played in a pro-am one year with Paul Harris, and he kindly offered to put me up for the week. I stayed in his house, but I wasn’t convinced that there weren’t a lot of things crawling around close by me,” Rock said. “It’s a beautiful house, but I couldn’t stay there, so I moved to a normal hotel. The word got around and Johan Rupert has embarrassed me on a few occasions with that story. Johan insisted that I stay with him this week to try and overcome the fear. I think I’ve got there now.”

Having conquered one fear already this week, Rock will be looking to take it a step further and conquer 155 other golfers in the quest to claim the R2.6 million first prize in the Sunshine Tour’s richest event. His form hasn’t quite been what he would have hoped for since his win in Abu Dhabi in January, but a handy tied-21st finish in the DP World Tour Championship Final was a sign that he may have turned the corner and victory this week would be a perfect way to kick off his 2013 European Tour season.

While the co-sanctioned event is the second of the 2013 European Tour season, it is also the last of the 2012 season for the Sunshine Tour, and local guns Branden Grace, George Coetzee and Trevor Fisher Jnr will be battling it out for the coveted Order of Merit title. The first ball will be struck tomorrow at 06:20, with coverage getting underway on Supersport from 13:30.


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