SOUTH Africa-based Zimbabwean professional golfer Mark Williams, who finally ended his long wait for a maiden Sunshine Tour victory last year, will be targeting a home victory when he tees off in the R1,8 million Zimbabwe Open Championship at Royal Harare Golf Club on Thursday.
BY DANIEL NHAKANISO
Williams enjoyed by far his most memorable season since turning professional over a decade ago as he finally got the monkey off his back after cruising to a two-shot victory at the Vodacom Origins of Golf Final in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa in November last year.
Williams carded a two-under final round of 70 for an 11-under-par total of 205 to claim his maiden Sunshine Tour title after almost 14 years on the circuit.
The win set the 32-year-old Bulawayo-born golfer on course to an impressive career high 19th place finish on the prestigious Sunshine Order of Merit Standings, with earnings totaling R1 001 709,13.
Last season Williams managed seven top 10 finishes in addition to winning the Vodacom Origins of Golf Final at St Francis Links.
Naturally, Williams will be expected to carry Zimbabwe’s hopes of a local winner in the country’s premier golf tournament, which has been dominated by South African golfers since its return on the Sunshine Tour schedule in 2010.
The South Africa-based star told Standardsport in an interview that while winning the Zimbabwe Open would be a dream come true, his initial target would be to get off to a solid start first before thinking of challenging for the title.
“Being the first tournament of our new season, I’m just looking to make a solid start. I have done a lot of work in the off time and am feeling good about my game. Obviously, this is a huge tournament for me being my home Open and I love the course. Hopefully come Sunday I will have a chance and that’s all I can work towards,” he said.
Williams hopes last season’s success will be the springboard to more victories in 2017 and beyond.
“Having won on the Sunshine Tour does take a bit of pressure off but at the same time, you always hope to continue with the good form. I feel like if I stay patient and just play as well as I can, I will have more opportunities to win,” he said.
Williams said he was especially pleased with the work put in by the Zimbabwe Open Organising Committee to ensure the flagship golf tournament remains part of the Sunshine Tour schedule.
“I think it’s a huge accomplishment for everyone involved to have kept this event on the schedule. Firstly, I think it proves how passionate us Zimbos are about our golf. This event has had some world champion winners and I remember how it inspired me as a junior watching the likes of Nick Price, Mark McNutly and Tony Johnston play. Zimbabwe has always and continues to have a great junior golf programme and hopefully we will see some of the local young players featuring this year,” he said.
The action will start tomorrow with the pre-qualifying tournament at Royal Harare Golf Club, where at least 80 hopefuls will battle it out for eight available slots to qualify for the main field, which will be made up of 156 professionals and qualifying amateurs.
The pre-qualifying tournament will be followed by the traditional Pro-Am tournaments on Tuesday and Wednesday, culminating in the big tournament during the last four days of the week from next Thursday to Sunday.
South African professional golfer Lyle Rowe, who was crowned champion in the Zimbabwe Open by two strokes last year, will attempt to become the first golfer to defend the Golden Pilsener Zimbabwe Open title since its return on the Sunshine Tour schedule.
Not since Zimbabwean golf legend Nick Price won back-to-back Zimbabwe Open titles in 1997 and 1998 at Royal Harare Golf Club and Chapman Golf Club respectively has any other player managed to defend the national open.
Price and McNulty, now-naturalised Irishmen, are the most successful golfers in the history of the tournament, both men having recorded three victories.