Rory McIlroy will be looking to put his love of South Africa courses and fans to good use when he goes in search of the Nedbank Golf Challenge title at Sun City on Thursday.
The popular Northern Irishman hasn’t been to the Gary Player Country Club since 2009 – where he lasted two rounds before withdrawing through illness – so wasn’t quite sure what to expect of the tough layout ahead of his return.
‘Honestly I didn’t really remember much about the course or the place when we got in on Sunday night,’ he said. ‘I played a few holes on Monday. I couldn’t remember one hole. But then I went and just played the pro-am and on the back nine, I remembered a few of the holes. Obviously the finish over the water is quite memorable.’
The four-timeMajor champion renewed his acquaintance with South Africa and it’s one which pleases him as much as it pleases the nation’s fans who will flock to see him in action this weekend.
‘It’s nice to be back in Sun City,’ said McIlroy.
‘I didn’t have a chance to really contend the last time I was here, and the tournament’s changed a lot since then. I think that time, it was just a handful of guys and obviously now it’s 72. It’s much more competitive and it’s got a big place on the schedule.’
He played the South African Open Championship on his return to South Africa in 2017 and he drew thousands to Glendower Golf Club to watch him lose to Graeme Storm in a tense play-off.
‘I have very fond memories of the SA Open at Glendower,’ added the 13-time European Tour winner.
‘It was one of the coolest weeks I’ve had on tour with just the scenes and the play-off and the crowds coming up 18. I came very close to win that week and didn’t quite get it done. It would be nice to get a win down here finally.’
While McIlroy is the highest-ranked player in the field this week, he will be up against a determined title defence from last year’s champion, Branden Grace, as well as a phalanx of South African challengers, all of whom cherish boyhood memories of wanting to win the tournament dubbed ‘Africa’s Major’.
Amongst the other challengers is 2017 Masters champion Sergio Garcia, who is fresh off a victory in the Andalucia Valderrama Masters on October 21.
But McIlroy is happy with his game ahead of the challenge.
‘I’ve played good golf. I’ve played consistent golf. I probably let a few slip through my fingers in terms of tournaments won. There’s a few I feel like I could have challenged a bit more for. Overall it’s been a consistent year. I’ve improved my world ranking since the start of the year. I have a chance to get back into the top five this week and next week, and it would be a solid year.’
Now that he’s worked out that he remembers quite a bit about the course, he does have a plan for the week.
‘You have four par-fives, so you try to take advantage of those, and it’s actually a golf course where you have to play quite conservatively after that. You can’t be too aggressive. You’ve just got to get your ball on the fairway, and if that means leaving yourself longer second shots in, that’s what you have to do. It’s all about getting your ball in play this week.
‘I’m going to need some great golf over the next two weeks, but we’ll see what happens this week.’