sport

Schwartzel favourite in Joburg

Charl Schwartzel finds himself a red-hot favourite for his first tournament of 2013 this week after an amazing end to last year.

The former US Masters champion finished last year in staggering fashion, winning the Thailand Championship by 11 shots and then the Alfred Dunhill Championship on home soil by 12.

That was the 28-year-old South African's second victory at Leopard Creek and now he tries for his third in four years in the Joburg Open at Royal Johannesburg and Kensington.

"I'm feeling really nice and refreshed after a long (seven-week) break and looking forward to competing again," Schwartzel said on his website.

"My game feels good. I've being practising and trying to get my game as sharp as it was at the end of last year.

"It's a course I played lots as a junior and amateur and I've had a lot of success there as a pro. It's always nice to play a European Tour event at a golf course where you feel so comfortable and in front of your home crowd."

Given he is 49 under par for his last tournament rounds - and that after coming fifth, third and second in his three previous events - it would be easy for the world number 18 to set his sights on more majors and a place in the game's top five for the first time.

But he said: "I try not to set goals as such. That might sound strange, but creating expectations puts unnecessary pressure on you.

"You already know what you want at the back of your mind, but you can't force the issue.

"I can only control the present - try to hit every shot the best I can, try to hit every fairway, try to hit the greens, try to make every putt.

"Just by playing well, winning takes care of itself."

Compatriots Branden Grace, George Coetzee and Richard Sterne are closest to Schwartzel in the betting.

Grace is the defending champion, his victory just a few weeks after surviving the Tour qualifying school being the first of five during 2012.

Coetzee is still seeking his first title on the circuit, but two weeks ago looked all set for a play-off in Qatar until Chris Wood eagled the final hole, while Sterne was pushed into second place by Stephen Gallacher in Dubai.

The event also sees the first European Tour appearance since last June of England's Nick Dougherty, a three-time winner whose career went into an horrendous slump two years ago.

Good enough to have led the US Open in 2007, the 30-year-old made only one halfway cut in 34 starts and found himself 1,021st in the world.

Three top-five finishes on the Challenge Tour last season have helped Dougherty climb back to 636th - not where he wants to be, but enough to make him accept an invitation to play this week.

Compatriots Robert Rock and Steve Webster, who lost a play-off in Durban before Christmas, are among others to have made the trip.