Schwartzel favoured to win third Joburg Open title

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Charl Schwartzel of South Africa, pictured during the Thailand Golf Championship, on December 9, 2012

Charl Schwartzel of South Africa acknowledges the crowd after a putt during the Thailand Golf Championship, in Chonburi province, on December 9, 2012. Former US Masters champion starts as favourite to win a third Joburg Open title in four seasons this week

Former US Masters champion Charl Schwartzel of South Africa starts as favourite to win a third Joburg Open title in four seasons this week.

After victories in 2010 and 2011 at the two-course Royal Johannesburg and Kensington Golf Club, Schwartzel suffered in dreadful weather conditions last year and failed to make the cut.

And the weather could play a major role again with traditional South African summer storms drenching the financial hub this week and more predicted, especially during the latter stages of the final round.

Pencil slim and dark haired, 2011 Masters champion Schwartzel grew up playing the west and more challenging east courses where the Joburg Open will be staged, and has had more practice rounds than any rival.

"I am feeling really nice and refreshed after a long break," says the winner of eight European Tour events, "and I have been practising hard to get my game as sharp as it was at the end of last year."

Sharp, indeed. The South African had a combined winning margin of 23 shots as he finished first in the Thailand Championship in Bangkok and the Alfred Dunhill Championship in Leopards Creek bordering the famous Kruger National Park.

"It is enjoyable competing in the Joburg Open on courses I played many times as a junior and an amateur. I have also enjoyed a lot of success there as a professional.

"My game feels good and it is also nice to play a European Tour event at a golf course where you feel so comfortable and in front of your home crowd," added the 28-year-old.

Defending champion and fellow South African Branden Grace took advantage of the bad luck of Schwartzel last year to win the title soon after leaving qualifying school and went on to claim three more titles.

A week after his Joburg Open success, Pretoria-reared Grace won the Volvo Golf Champions at Fancourt in a play-off with famous compatriots Ernie Els and Retief Goosen.

Other victories followed in the China Open and the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship to propel the 24-year-old to sixth place on the Road to Dubai standings.

South African Richard Sterne, the 2008 Joburg Open champion, is another to watch having finished second to Scot Stephen Gallacher in the Dubai Desert Classic last weekend despite four final-round bogeys on the back nine.

A five-time European circuit champion, Sterne showed what he is capable of three days earlier with a 10-under first-round 62 around the Emirates Golf Club track.

The overseas challenge includes Chilean Felipe Aguilar, joint third at the Desert Classic, and English pair Robert Rock and Steve Webster and Portuguese Ricardo Santos, who shared seventh place in Dubai.

A larger-than-usual 210-man field tees off Thursday, playing one round each over the west and east courses and the final two rounds are scheduled for the par-72, 7,592-yard (6,942-metre) east course.

The 1,3 million-euro ($1,758 million) purse includes a 206,050-euro (S278,744) first prize in an event co-sanctioned by the European Tour and the South African Sunshine Tour.