COMPARED to the 70,000 people expected to attend the 101st anniversary celebrations of the African National Congress in Durban this weekend, a four-stong Scottish presence in the field for the Volvo Golf Champions starting today in the same city seems paltry, yet it is, in fact, an indication of the ever-improving state of the game in the home of golf.
Only South Africa, which is enjoying a golden spell in the game, can boast a bigger representation in the 33-strong field. And, in a rare feat for a European Tour event, the presence of Paul Lawrie, Colin Montgomerie, Richie Ramsay and Scott Jamieson sees Scotland with a stronger hand in the £1.6 million event than England.
“While you would still like to see a few more, I think it is getting there,” said Lawrie.
He was referring to the 2013 campaign, albeit in the calendar sense after two events were held in South Africa last month, teeing off with four Scots – himself, Ramsay, Martin Laird and Stephen Gallacher – inside the top 100 in the world. Jamieson, lying 101st, is also close to joining them.
With typical modesty, Aberdonian Lawrie played down his own part in the welcome upturn in fortunes for Scottish players at the highest level in the game. He did, though, concede that his own renaissance, having climbed into the top 30 on the back of a splendid 2012 campaign that produced two victories, had been influenced by one of his compatriots.
“I’m not sure what part, if any, I’ve had to play in things starting to pick up, but, when I was outside the top 100, I was certainly looking at Martin Laird and wanted to be ahead of him,” added Lawrie.
“So, if people have been looking at how I managed to climb up the rankings last year and felt they could do the same, then great.
“There’s a lot of talent among the Scottish boys out here. It just wasn’t happening for us for a while. Slowly but surely, though, I think it is getting much better again.”
Doing better this year than he did last is going to be a tough task for Lawrie, who finished tenth in the Race to Dubai and also marked a return to the Ryder Cup stage after a 13-year absence by producing the best figures as he recorded one of the crucial last-day singles wins for the Europeans over Brandt Snedeker.
However, refreshed from a family holiday in Abu Dhabi over the festive period, the 44-year-old is raring to go again.
And, starting here in the third staging of this select-field event, he is determined not to try to force things in a bid to enjoy the same level of success again.
“I’m not going to set any goals or look too far ahead as I think that would be a mistake,” he told The Scotsman. “It’s the first week of a new season and it will be good to get four rounds under my belt. But, if I don’t play as well as I would like to, then I won’t be paying too much attention to that. It will be a case of moving on to the next event.
“However, I’m looking forward to getting going again. I don’t feel 44 – I feel younger than that. The last couple of years have been brilliant. I’ve had a nice run and I’m looking forward to it hopefully continuing. I’m not a good enough player, though, to know exactly how things are going to go this season. So I’ll just need to take what I get over the coming weeks and months.
“I’ll keep working on the same stuff and, at the end of the day, it will come down to how my attitude is, which has always been the key for me. I know I’m swinging it nicely and I think the foot injury I had last year has actually helped me quite a lot in terms of feeling fresh for the start of a new season, as I didn’t practice as much as I would normally have done.”
Lawrie starts his title bid in the company of Montgomerie, who may have one eye on his over-50s debut in the Senior British Open at Royal Birkdale in July, but will set out in buoyant mood here after he was round in nine-under 63 in yesterday’s pro-am.
“I had two eagles, six birdies and a bogey,” reported Montgomerie, who is setting out at the start of his 26th campaign on the European Tour with Graeme Heinrich on his bag. “It shows there’s still something in there,” he added. “I’ve got a new putter, which seems to be working and, hopefully, I can do something similar when it matters.”