It is with a sense of immense gratitude that Pablo Larrazabal has arrived at a Leopard Creek course he calls paradise to defend his Alfred Dunhill Championship title.
Last year, the Spaniard battled through a final round of intense heat and severe blisters on his way to victory in this European Tour and Sunshine Tour co-sanctioned tournament. This year, heâ€™s well aware of the greater challenge out there, and that to simply be able to play tournament golf in this spectacular setting is a victory in itself.
â€œWe are fortunate as golfers to be able to come to places such as this at the end of this year. We are so lucky. It doesnâ€™t matter how well we play this week, itâ€™s still the best week of the year. Itâ€™s a dream to come here and play the game of golf,â€ he said.
â€œIt was special the way everything happened last year in this place that I call paradise. Everything I love in life is here. The best in nature and the best golf course makes Leopard Creek a dream place for me.â€
Larrazabal is hoping to become the third back-to-back winner of this championship after fellow Spaniard Pablo Martin and South Africaâ€™s Charl Schwartzel.
But he faces a field equally in awe of this iconic golf course that shares this environment with the untamed wilderness of the Kruger National Park, and equally determined to make the most of it.
Denmarkâ€™s Lucas Bjerregaard is seeking a place in Alfred Dunhill golf history as only the second player after Branden Grace to possibly do the double of winning the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship and the Alfred Dunhill Championship.
â€œItâ€™s a privilege to be here. I think any golfer that has played here realises how special it is to be back. Iâ€™m very happy to be back and hopefully I can join Branden in that elite group,â€ he said.
The South African challenge is a strong one, including Joburg Open runner-up Wilco Nienaber, recent European Tour winners Garrick Higgo and George Coetzee, 2020 Masters debutant Christiaan Bezuidenhout, and former Alfred Dunhill Championship winner Brandon Stone.
â€œYou know, you drive through the gates here and arrive at what feels like the cradle of golf. Youâ€™re just filled with awe and inspiration for the week ahead,â€ said Stone.
The Leopard Creek course is certainly set to provide exactly the challenge many in the field are looking for.
â€œThe course is playing a lot different to what it did last year,â€ said Higgo. â€œItâ€™s a lot softer and the rough feels a bit shorter to me.â€
â€œThe golf course is in great condition and Iâ€™m looking forward to it,â€ added Scotlandâ€™s most recent European Tour champion, Robert MacIntyre.
â€œItâ€™s a tough test of golf. Thatâ€™s one of the reasons I travelled out here to play in this event. This is just a great golf course, and itâ€™s one of those weeks that if you knuckle down and if you play well youâ€™re going to be right in there.â€