The Alfred Dunhill Championship is one of my favourite weeks on TV. I missed it when it was cancelled on short notice in 2021.
The blissfully uninterrupted four days of coverage incorporates superlative wildlife visuals from the adjoining Kruger National Park, and with such a magnificent looking course this is a feast for the senses. It absorbs your attention for hours on end and the destination almost steals centre stage from the participants.
It appears to be the only local tournament capable of attracting all our great SA players, thanks to Johann Rupert’s influence and vision. What a treat to see Ernie Els and Louis Oosthuizen again together on home turf and wearing shorts, which is another pleasant innovation and fitting for this time of year. Two of our legends, yet only one victory between them here. Ernie claimed his Leopard Creek title in 2005, while Louis has surprisingly never been able to put his hand on the famous Leopard trophy.
The course itself, manicured as pristinely as Augusta National is for the Masters, brings to the viewer a stunning array of different holes, some which provide easy pickings, notably the short par-4s six and 11, and others daunting to even the most talented of tour pros who have to judge which pin positions to attack and those to be cautious about.
Having three par 5s on the back nine, in the final six holes, and each with water hazards, differentiates Leopard Creek from other great championship layouts and accentuates the risk-reward element. (Interesting that its rival for being considered the No 1 course in South Africa, The Links at Fancourt, also has three par 5s in the last six holes.)
Few other venues can conjure up such an abundance of eagles and birdies as Leopard Creek, yet also a high number of 7s, 8s and even 9s emanating from a careless swing. The stats from this year’s tournament show 42 triple bogeys, 14 quads, 4 quintuple bogeys, and a 9 on a par 3 by Deon Germishuys, a winner on the Sunshine Tour this year.
That hole, the 178-metre seventh (as far back as it can play), is arguably one of the scariest one-shot holes in golf yet it’s such a simple design. Water right, bunker and run-off area left. Its angle to the tee is ingenious though. A scoring average of 3.41 made it the toughest of the tournament (ahead of No 8 at 4.36) and easily the most difficult par-3 of the many courses hosting DP World Tour and Challenge events in SA this year.
The storyline at the Alfred Dunhill Championship is often an interesting one, and this year we saw the emergence of a veteran Sunshine Tour campaigner, Ockie Strydom, handling immense pressure with aplomb over the weekend when he scored 63-69. His only previous win had come in a low-profile Vodacom Origins event at Sishen in 2019. His 63 equalled the course record for the redesigned Leopard Creek layout – Thomas Aiken had a 61 before the 2017 upgrade – and it followed his course record 63 at Blair Atholl the previous week in the SA Open.
The Dunhill had its inception at Leopard Creek in 2004, and this was the first time a local player without a playing card on any foreign tour had triumphed. The pressure of knowing how career-changing that can be is intense for those who put themselves in that rarefied air.
There have been close calls in the past, none more so than from Ulrich van den Berg in 2005. He led Ernie Els by three shots going down the ninth hole on Sunday, but a bogey there unsettled him and he came home in 44. Strydom had a double bogey at 9 on Sunday, but bounced back with four birdies in the next five holes for a back nine of 33.