JOHANNESBURG – The desert sand was barely settled following Henrik Stenson's season-ending victory in Dubai to top the European Tour money list when he withdrew from the first tournament of the new golf season.
While Stenson finally gets to rest a lingering right wrist injury, the unrelenting European Tour schedule rolls right on this week with the South African Open in Johannesburg, the first event on the 2014 calendar.
It's the first of 52 tournaments – surely the most constant schedule in sport – that will take the Race to Dubai back to Dubai in exactly 12 months.
After playing four consecutive tournaments with the niggling injury in China, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates in a successful attempt to hold on to his lead in the money race, Stenson decided to skip Johannesburg to recover.
Stenson won the South African Open last year but his absence when the season starts again on Thursday – as usual without any gap – leaves 2011 Masters champion Charl Schwartzel as the favorite to win a first title at his home open, which dates to 1893 and is the second oldest national championship after the British Open.
Stenson is golf's man of the moment and owes a little to this week's event.
He said he pulled out "with a heavy heart" after his victory 12 months ago delivered his first title in three years and launched the finest season of his career. It culminated with his double-double a year later on Sunday, when he claimed the DP World Tour Championship and European money title to go with his Tour Championship and FedExCup wins.
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So, Schwartzel is now the leading candidate at Glendower Golf Club, where a victory would end his lean streak. Schwartzel has won just once on the European Tour and twice anywhere since a pulsating finish of four straight birdies on only his second visit to Augusta National in April 2011 sent him to instant stardom.
Hailing from a city just south of Johannesburg, Schwartzel has been preparing rigorously for the season-opener at Glendower in the eastern suburbs of South Africa's biggest city to start his year right.
"I didn't know Glendower at all, so I started playing here two weeks ago for the first time in 15 years," Schwartzel said.
His compatriot Retief Goosen is also entered after a long battle with a back injury saw the two-time U.S. Open winner plummet to as low as No. 212. The Goose hasn't won a tournament since March 2009.
Other notables include Europe Ryder Cup Captain Paul McGinley and David Duval, the 2001 British Open champion. South African veteran David Frost returns having won the last of his two titles at the South African Open in 1999.
"I still like to measure myself against the young guys," said the 54-year-old Frost, still one of the country's favorite golfers.
Schwartzel's younger brother, Attie, a pro on the South African Sunshine Tour, is also playing.