Schwartzel has not played since finishing ninth in the Nedbank Golf Challenge on December 6, a week after winning the Alfred Dunhill Championship for the fourth time. South African players have won half of the six European Tour events played in Schwartzel’s absence, with Branden Grace defending his title in the Qatar Masters and 22-year-old Brandon Stone and 21-year-old Haydn Porteous winning the SA Open and Joburg Open respectively.
Speaking ahead of his debut in the Tshwane Open at Pretoria Country Club, Schwartzel told South African golf writer Michael Vlismas: “I’ve had a two-month break and I said to my wife that I’m actually itching to get my hands on my clubs again.
“I took my clubs out of the garage and hit balls because I wanted to. One of the best things I ever did is taking this break. I feel excited. It’s a very good time for South African golf. In fact, I think it’s a great time for world golf. People were so worried that if Tiger Woods leaves the scene it’s going to fall apart a bit, but there are so many exciting players in the world now and the game is very healthy.
“For South Africans, it’s so nice to see Brandon and Haydn pull through and see them putting up a new challenge. It’s running its natural course. Louis (Oosthuizen) and I were in the spotlight for quite a long time. Now the young guys are coming through. I like it. That gets me hyped up and makes me want to play even better.
“I’ve just got a great feeling for this year, whatever it brings. My game was good at the end of last year and the practising is going well. Right now I feel I can compete with the best players in the world.” Another South African player is the defending champion this week, with George Coetzee claiming victory 12 months ago at the venue where he learned to play the game and is still the touring professional.
“It’s where I grew up,” said Coetzee. “I played my first event there so to win last year was a dream come true. It’s my home course and I’ve got a lot of good memories, so I probably know the course better than anyone.
“But I still need to play very well to win. Knowing the course gives me a bit of a head start on some of the guys, but the standard on the tour is so high, just knowing the place well isn’t going to be enough. It is quite a thinker’s course though, so the guys who have played it before do have a bit of an advantage.
“I know I’m playing well. I’ve struck the ball very well the last three weeks, but mentally I haven’t been quite as sharp as I would’ve liked.”