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Schwartzel heads strong home challenge in Joburg Open

South Africa has long had an immensely strong worldwide golf presence – in particular think Gary Player, Bobby Locke, Ernie Els and now Charl Schwartzel – and one place they seem especially eager to show their class is on home soil.

There’s a large English entry for the Joburg Open, which tees off tomorrow on the East and West Courses of the Royal Johannesburg and Kensington Golf Club, but the betting market is dominated by South Africans.

Schwartzel himself, winner of the event in 2010 and 2011 and runner-up last year, is Coral’s 4/1 favourite ahead of compatriots George Coetzee (10/1), Richard Sterne (18/1) and Thomas Aiken (20/1) with Danny Willett (28/1) the first Englishman, indeed the first European, to get a look in.

The locally-born 2011 US Masters Champion hasn’t played competitively for a month, but is the class act in the field and if he’s on his game or close to it, he is probably going to lift the title for a third time.

Sterne has also won this event twice, the first time in a play-off in 2008 and then 12 months ago when he played sublimely throughout the week to trounce Schwartzel by seven shots.

Several Europeans had good weekends in the Dubai Desert Classic, notably the Argentine Emiliano Grillo and Italian Edoardo Molinari (both 50/1).

Molinari has been overshadowed by his brother Francesco in recent seasons, but we should remember that the elder brother was a Ryder Cup player and ranked 14th in the world before being knocked back by injuries and is by no means a spent force yet.

Willett also played well in Dubai and has a good record at this venue, having finished fourth in both 2009 and 2010, while Steve Webster and Robert Rock (both 40/1) are others who played themselves into contention last weekend.

Coral are running a top England player market and Willett is 13/2 favourite ahead of Ross Fisher (15/2), Webster (8/1) and Rock (9/1).

But the odds are that it will be South African lifting the trophy on Sunday and if it isn’t one of the favourites, it might be Darren Fichardt (40/1).

In good form, having played his last three tournaments in a total of 28 under, Fichardt has been plying his trade on the circuit for a long time now, but showed that he still had what it takes to push his head in front when winning the Africa Open last February, his fourth European Tour victory.

A sub-plot here is that the first three qualify for the Open at Royal Liverpool in July so expect to see those in contention trying even harder than usual if they are anywhere in contention on Sunday.