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European Tour starts again in South Africa

The European Tour is so much in demand these days that it had to stage the opening tournaments of its 2005 season in 2004. It was either that or extend this year to about 56 weeks.

But now at last, after all the waiting, we're off and running again. And it's a pretty long-distance trot, too, all the way to South Africa for the South African Airways Open at the Durban Country Club, which starts on Thursday.

It will be good for the young fellows who qualified for the Tour through the q-school or the Challenge Tour rankings to open their shoulders in anger and try to win some precious cash, but lest anybody should envy them, don't.

This tournament says much about the position in which the young would-bes find themselves in this early part of any season. They want desperately to test the waters of the European Tour, but more than that, for more than one reason, they absolutely need to get some competitive play under their belts.

Quite right, too, but think of the dangers implied in making such a long-haul trip. It will be an expensive operation, what with flights, caddie costs, accommodation and food to be paid for.

Young and hopeful professionals all over the world are to be admired for the faith they have in their own ability, but all they really have right now is the sure and certain knowledge that they have to find something approaching $50,000 to finance a season. Think of it -- all that work and all you've achieved is a whopping great overdraft.

But go they will and, what's more, they will go in hope. To go in expectation would be the height of folly.

What they will find when they get there will be arguably the best and most exclusive club in South Africa. It is a private club with more than a hint of old British Empire about its ambience. We wouldn't call its members snooty, for they are the friendliest folk you could wish to meet, but they undoubtedly know their place in the upper echelons of South African golf.

That is not to decry them in the slightest -- if you have something special, you might as well flaunt it. It will, though, be unlike pretty much anything the young fellows will have encountered before. As though playing the course will not be challenging enough.

They will encounter some hugely idiosyncratic fairways, which have the undulations more typical of some of the great links course of Scotland.

They will see breathtakingly beautiful foliage and will not be able to avoid the heady scent of the flowers as they pass on their way. And all this within 3 miles of the city centre of Durban in the state of KwaZulu Natal.

But still don't envy them.

True, there won't be a full parade of the big boys of the Tour waiting for them. They are still safely tucked away in their redoubts of the United Kingdom -- it will be a few weeks before they will be tempted out of their winter hibernation.

Not many of the Tour's leading players are making the trip, then, but Darren Clarke is, thank goodness, one of them. Clarke's wife, Heather, is making such blessedly good progress following the sad diagnosis that she had cancer that her husband has been able to make the long journey.

It goes without saying that everybody's sympathy goes out in abundance to the Clarkes. The great Tours of the world are like extended families and when calamity strikes, they close ranks in sympathy.

However, there will be no time for any of that when the action starts. Clarke, who has always had strong commercial relationships with South Africa, is attached to Pinnacle Point, a new complex situated midway between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth, and his proud sponsors will be out there cheering their man on.

Clarke will undoubtedly be the man to beat and there will be plenty who will be busting their stays to do so.

None, however, has more to play for than Trevor Immelman. The young South African has won the tournament, effectively the South African Open, which makes it the second-oldest national Open in world golf, for the last two years. If he wins it again this time, he will be the first man since 1967 to 1969 to have done so three years on the spin.

And who did it then? A small, intense person by the name of Gary Player.


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