Shane Lowry can take a giant step towards his Ryder Cup debut if he ends a magnificent season with victory in the $6.5m Nedbank Golf Challenge in Sun City this week.
Quite apart from the winner's cheque for $1.25m, the world No 21 would win 44 world ranking points, catapulting him into the world's Top 15 and the automatic Ryder Cup qualifying places via the World Points List.
It's been a slightly disappointing month for Lowry, who failed to achieve the fast finish he wanted to the European Tour season that saw him clinch a career-changing victory in the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational in August
While he was tied 19th in the Alfred Dunhill Links, runner up in the British Masters at Woburn and eighth in the Turkish Airlines Open, Lowry completed the Final Series in China and Dubai by finishing T68-T56-T48.
A cold putter was to blame and from 17th in the world he fell to 21st as his rival for an Olympic Games place, Graeme McDowell, closed the gap with a PGA Tour win in Mexico and a third place finish at Sea Island.
Making the 2016 European Ryder Cup team is a big goal for Lowry and while he's targeting the world rankings as his route into Darren Clarke's side, the battle for those five places will be red hot as he concentrates on the PGA Tour early in the year.
Rory McIlroy, Justin Rose, Henrik Stenson and Sergio Garcia will also be seeking those spots while McDowell, now 54th in the world, is also likely to return to the world's Top 50 before long.
It's going to be challenging but Lowry can lay down a marker in South Africa this week in a 30-man event where he finished 11th behind Danny Willett 12 months ago.
The European Tour writes:
Willett intends to use the same aggressive approach that won him last year’s Nedbank Golf Challenge when he defends the title in Sun City this week.
The Englishman romped to victory at the Gary Player Country Club 12 months ago, producing a masterclass in driving for weekend rounds of 65-66 and an 18 under par total, four shots clear of compatriot Ross Fisher.
That bold performance provided the foundations for a brilliant season, and he ultimately took second place in the Race to Dubai after adding another victory and a further seven top ten finishes en route.
Once again, a world-class, 30-man field has assembled to contest the US$6.5million prize fund, including Fisher, who has finished no worse than tied fifth in three appearances, World Number Seven and 2008 champion Henrik Stenson and two-time Major winner and 2012 champion Martin Kaymer.
Lee Westwood, who won back-to-back titles here in 2010 and 2011, is also in the field, as are Frenchman Victor Dubuisson, home favourites Branden Grace, Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel, who captured last week’s Alfred Dunhill Championship at Leopard Creek, and exciting young talents Byeong Hun An and Matthew Fitzpatrick.
“It was the start of a pretty awesome year. The way I won gave me confidence in my own abilities and my own game, and it took me to a few places I’d not been before, like up there in the Race to Dubai all season and competing in golf tournaments all around the world. It was all set up from the win here. This is my sixth week on the road, but it’s alright. I had a few days off last week, my fitness levels feel pretty good and my back feels okay, so I’m looking forward to a good week.
“It’s always good to be in a smaller field with no cut for the first event of the season. It gives you a bit of a head start on the other guys. It’s somewhere we got to know quickly last year and we’re back with good memories on a course that suits me. If you look at the guys who’ve won here in recent years, they are all quite straight hitters and they’ve holed a few putts. Everything sets up for us nicely so I’m looking forward to getting under way.
“If you want to win you’ve got to take the golf course on. We’ll have the same strategy as last year and try to do something good again. The course sets up for people who hit it straight. If you can drive the ball well you’re giving yourself 9-irons into greens, which are a lot easier to control than a 6- or 7-iron when you’re hitting into small greens with the wind swirling round. So we’ll be trying to be aggressive off the tee at the right times and take it from there.”
“Coming back to the Nedbank as a South African is always very special. It was the first tournament that I came to watch as a junior. My dad brought me too, so it will always have a very special place for me. The win last week for me meant quite a lot because I had to find a way to win on the weekend. It wasn’t good golf like you’d expect, which just shows that there’s a different way of winning. There’s not just one way. That was quite pleasing. The course suits guys who hit draws. I hit fades, so I can’t really be that aggressive. I’ve got to keep the ball in play with a lot of irons, three-woods, and rely on good iron play from the fairway and good putting.”
“It feels great to be back. I’ve got a lot of fond memories from last year. I pushed Danny as much as I could but he was too good on the day. Any time you can play in this event you know you’ve had a decent year. This is my fourth time back and looking forward to it. It was a great way to start last season. It was a little bit disappointing in the middle of the year – I was playing well but not getting right results. I managed to have a really nice finish, and hopefully we can start the new season well again this year.”