BY DANIEL NHAKANISO
A total of 23 Zimbabwean professional golfers and seven qualifying amateurs will be part of the 156-man field set to battle it out for the title which has been dominated by South African golfers since the flagship tournament’s return to the Sunshine Tour schedule in 2010.
Three-time Zimbabwe Open winner Mark McNulty, who became an Irish citizen in 2003, was the last Zimbabwean to win on home soil following his record 19-underpar 269 total at Royal Harare back in 2000.
The closest any other Zimbabwean has come to bagging the title was in 2010 when Marc Cayeux finished third in 2010, while Scott Vincent then finished fifth in 2016, four shots behind eventual winner Lyle Rowe of South Africa.
Heading into this year’s tournament Williams will be one of the favourites among the locals, even if the South Africa-based didn’t have the best of seasons on the recently concluded Sunshine Tour wraparound season
The 33-year-old Bulawayo-born professional, who claimed his maiden Sunshine Tour win at the Vodacom Origins of Golf Final in November, 2016, has been one of Zimbabwe’s most consistent players on the Sunshine Tour over the last three seasons.
Williams was the second highest placed Zimbabwean on the Sunshine Tour Order of Merit Standings in 37th position after earning R451 700,09 in 24 events.
Vincent, who will miss this year’s tournament due to commitments on the Asian Tour, finished eighth on the Sunshine Tour Order of Merit after earning R1 177 975 from six tournaments.
In Vincent’s absence Williams automatically takes up the mantle and will be keen to put on a solid performance on home soil.
This year he heads into the Old Mutual Zimbabwe Open on the back of a solid outing at the Zanaco Masters Golf Tournament in Lusaka, Zambia where he finished in a tie for 35th position to get his new season off to a positive start.
Another local player, who is likely to enjoy large galleries following him around the challenging Royal Harare layout, is the affable Ryan Cairns.
Cairns is always one to watch on his home course, and it’s even more of a home to him now that he has moved back to Zimbabwe, works out of the club.
His recent form is encouraging, with a 12th place finish last week in Zambia while he also boost of two top 10 finishes in the Zimbabwe Open achieved in 2010 (8th) and 2013 (7th).
The duo of Cairns and Williams will be joined by a host of other local professionals such as TC Charamba, Marc Cayeux, Bruce McDonald and Benjamin Follett-Smith who will be keen to make their presence felt on home soil.
While it may be anybody’s game, there’s no doubt that local golfers will face an uphill task to wrest the Zimbabwe Open title from the South African contingent which will include six former winners, Jean Hugo (1999), Theunis Spangenberg (2011), Chris Swanepoel (2012), Jake Roos (2013), Lyle Rowe (2016) and J.C. Ritchie (2017).
Another South African golfer Jaco Ahlers is the inform player heading into the tournament after losing out in a four-man play-off won by JJ Senekal in last week’s Zanaco Masters in Lusaka.
Ahlers finished fourth in last year’s Zimbabwe Open and will carry recent memories of his big win at the Dimension Data Pro-Am in this week tournament.