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Michael Taylor 6th Apr 2010 - 14:55

Expect a strong South African challenge at Augusta

Ernie Els had been written off, Retief Goosen had won just one PGA Tour event since 2005 and Trevor Immelman had failed to push on since his brilliant 2008 Masters, that was South African golf's outlook heading into the new decade.

It seemed little was set to improve as well, at least in the short term, with The Big Easy and Goose getting no younger.

How wrong we all were though and at this year's Masters at Augusta, South Africa perhaps send their strongest contingent ever with three men playing right at the top of their game and a few others more than capable of crashing Tiger Woods' return party.

Top of the tree has to be big Ernie Els who has made a storming start to the season landing both the WGC-CA Championship and Arnold Palmer Invitational in March.

A disappointing mid-field finish in last week's Shell Houston Open wasn't ideal preparation, especially considering most would have been content to take a week off but Els is a frightening prospect when he gets in the winning groove.

In equal parts he's very easy and very hard to back at 12/1.

He's easy to back because of his form but hard to back because he has never really achieved on the greens, either way though he deserves some serious consideration.

Next in the Proteas pecking order is the PGA Tour's most consistent pro this year Retief Goosen, a double runner up in the most glamorous major of the year.

The Goose has been as close to perfect as is humanly possible this year without managing to register a win but there's growing feeling that it's only a matter of time before he ends his 2010 duck.

In seven starts in '10 he has managed no fewer than five top sixes including fourth place finishes in both the Sony Open in Hawaii and the Arnold Palmer Invitational, while he was also a star for the winning side in the Tavistock Cup.

The question has to be whether he can kick on this week and finally register an overdue win. Personally I think he'll struggle but I doubt anyone would disagree that he represents great value each way shout at 22/1.

The final South African, and the one I most fancy to shine is relative newcomer Charl Schwartzel, who is coming off a fantastic weekend at the Shell Houston and has also registered two top threes on the PGA Tour and two wins on the European Tour already this year.

He may only be 25-years-old but he has been playing with the maturity of someone far more experienced as his brilliant third at the tough as nails Doral showed.

If his performance there is anything to go by then he should be absolutely fine around Augusta because, as we all know, if you don't keep your ball on the fairway then you have no chance of claiming the famous green jacket.

The best news is Schwartzel, due to his inexperience and lack of big titles still comes along with a price virtually incomparable to his talent at 45/1 to win outright and an even more attractive at 13/2 to finish as the top South African player (in a field of just seven).

Obviously it's not going to be an all African affair, especially if Tiger Woods (9/2 favourite) instantly gets back into the swing of things but if one nation stands out as having the potential to take the title away from the states then I feel South Africa is the one - Rest of the World (excluding the USA and Europe) as the winning nationality at 11/4.



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