ANYONE’S GAME: Darren Clarke is among the main attractions in a wide-open field at the inaugural Tshwane Open on the Ernie Els-designed Copperleaf course, starting on Thursday. Picture: ©Daily Dispatch
ANYONE’S GAME: Darren Clarke is among the main attractions in a wide-open field at the inaugural Tshwane Open on the Ernie Els-designed Copperleaf course, starting on Thursday. Picture: ©Daily Dispatch

MAJOR champions Jose Maria Olazabal, Darren Clarke and Michael Campbell are the leading drawcards at the maiden Tshwane Open golf championship near Pretoria, which starts on Thursday.

The European Tour-Sunshine Tour co-sanctioned event will be played over the 7,124m Copperleaf Golf and Country Estate, a par-72 course designed by Ernie Els.

It is the last of six 2013 European Tour season tournaments to be staged in South Africa, and the race for the €237,750 first prize appears open, with many big names absent.

With the Accenture World Match Play Championship just completed and the Cadillac Championship coming next week, South African and European stars like Els have opted to remain in the US.

That offers seasoned professionals like 1994 and 1999 US Masters winner Olazabal, 2011 British Open champion Clarke and 2005 US Open title-holder Campbell a chance of victory, along with rising local and overseas stars.

Although the 1,750m altitude will see shots fly further and take some sting off one of the longest layouts on the European circuit, Olazabal was struck by the distance of some holes. "It is a great course and very, very long," said the 23-time champion on the European circuit, "even though we are not playing off the back tees all the time.

"The front nine is particularly long and I’m struggling with my driving. It is a course you need to drive well and, hopefully, I can find something over the four rounds," Olazabal said.

The 47-year-old Spaniard, skipper of the 2012 European Ryder Cup-winning team in the US, last triumphed when he finished five strokes clear of the 2005 Mallorca Open field.

That year was also memorable for New Zealander Campbell as he lifted the US Open and defeated Paul McGinley of Ireland 2-1 to capture the HSBC World Match Play Championship.

Northern Irishman Clarke enjoyed his moment of Major glory more recently, winning the 2011 British Open, and is a regular visitor to South Africa for co-sanctioned and Sunshine Tour events.

South African Jaco van Zyl starts 14/1 favourite and another strong local contender should be recent Africa Open winner Darren Fichardt, while six-time European Tour winner Simon Dyson of England is also in the 156-strong field.

"I have been improving each week," said Pretoria-born Van Zyl as he seeks a maiden European Tour victory, "and winning on the Sunshine Tour last week has greatly boosted my confidence."

Laid out in a figure of eight, the Copperleaf course is built on land where Els’s late grandfather grew up. While the length may be intimidating, the fairways are considered generous.

Sapa-AFP