JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Charl Schwartzel finds himself a red-hot favorite for his first tournament of 2013 after an amazing end to 2012.
The former Masters champion finished last year in staggering fashion, winning the Thailand Golf Championship by 11 shots and then the Alfred Dunhill Championship in his native South Africa by 12 the very next week.
The Dunhill was the 28-year-old Schwartzel's second victory at Leopard Creek, and now he tries for his third in four years in the Joburg Open at Royal Johannesburg and Kensington.
"I'm feeling really nice and refreshed after a long (seven-week) break and looking forward to competing again," Schwartzel said. "My game feels good. I've being practicing and trying to get my game as sharp as it was at the end of last year.
"It's a course I played lots as a junior and amateur and I've had a lot of success there as a pro," he said of Royal Johannesburg. "It's always nice to play a European Tour event at a golf course where you feel so comfortable and in front of your home crowd."
Given that he is 49 under par for his last eight tournament rounds – and that after coming in fifth, third and second in his three previous events – it would be easy for the world No. 18 to set his sights on more majors and a place in the game's top five for the first time. But that isn't his focus for now.
"I try not to set goals as such. That might sound strange, but creating expectations puts unnecessary pressure on you," he explained. "You already know what you want at the back of your mind, but you can't force the issue.
"I can only control the present – try to hit every shot the best I can, try to hit every fairway, try to hit the greens, try to make every putt," he said. "Just by playing well, winning takes care of itself."
Compatriots Branden Grace, George Coetzee and Richard Sterne are closest to Schwartzel in the betting.
Grace is the defending Joburg Open champion, with his victory last year coming just a few weeks after he survived European Tour Q-School. It turned out to be the first of his five victories in 2012.
Coetzee is still seeking his first title on the European circuit, but two weeks ago he looked all set for a playoff in Qatar until Chris Wood eagled the final hole. Then last week in Dubai, Sterne was pushed into second place by winner Stephen Gallacher.
The Joburg Open also sees the first European Tour appearance since last June of England's Nick Dougherty, a three-time winner whose career went into an horrendous slump two years ago. Good enough to have led the U.S. Open in 2007, the 30-year-old Dougherty made only one halfway cut in 34 starts and found himself 1,021st in the world.
Three top-five finishes on the European Challenge Tour last season have helped Dougherty climb back to 636th – not where he wants to be, but enough to make him accept an invitation to play this week.
England’s Robert Rock and Steve Webster, who lost a playoff in Durban before Christmas, are among others to have made the trip.