He gave the belly of the sculpture of a young leopard about to make a kill a tickle as he passed it on the 16th tee on Sunday, and it was as if Brandon Stone recognised the golfing predator in himself as he won the Alfred Dunhill Championship at Leopard Creek by seven strokes.
In fact, Stone was more prey than hunter at the start of the day with a three-stroke lead over his nearest pursuers, but he skipped away from them with a final round of four-under-par 68 to be in another league with his winning score of 22-under-par from second-placed Richard Sterne, and Belgian Thomas Detry was a further two strokes back in third.
Despite that gap, Stone said afterwards that he wasn’t really sure of victory until he walked over the bridge to the island green on the par-five 18th. “I’ve seen many a player hit it into the water in the lake surrounding this green,” he said.
And to make absolutely sure he didn’t add his name to that list of players who came to grief there, he had to play what he probably thinks is the least brave golf shot he’s ever played. “It’s not often you have to hit a little 85-yard lay-up on a par-five,” he laughed. “When I hit the tee shot, I really wanted it to go in the rough. I hit it so well, and I didn’t want it to get close, I didn’t want to have a shot in so I had to lay up.”
As he and caddie Chris Simmons walked to the ball, Stone mooted the idea of going for the green. His caddie handed him his 58 degree wedge and pointed to the left side of the fairway. So dialled in were Stone’s wedges during the week, that he nearly holed his pitch and was left with a virtual tap-in for the victory.
“Any time you get a victory on home soil, it’s massive,” he said. “I won the SA Open at the start of the year and there was a little more fire in my belly at the beginning of this week to end the year strong. Leopard Creek is an incredible place and I’ve love coming here since I was a kid carrying my Dad’s bag. So to have my name on the trophy now is obviously very special, but it’s tough to sum up how the emotions are running right now.”
To get the job done, he had to see off the attentions of the four-time Leopard Creek champion Charl Schwartzel, and after the 2011 Masters champion had gone through six holes, he’d drawn level with Stone. But Schwartzel’s game was strangely off – especially through the homeward nine, on which he had scored so well all week – and when he dropped six shots in four holes from 13 to 16, the game was up.
Sterne, the 2008 champion at Leopard Creek, showed that he’s close to his best again as he closed with a 67, and Detry, a graduate from the Challenge Tour, capped a great start to his rookie season. “I would have taken a top 10 but now to be in the top five is just amazing,” said the Belgian. “Good start and just got to keep doing what I am doing.”
For the champion, the rest of the holiday season will be about savouring what he’s achieved in 2016. And then preparing to do more in 2017. “I’ll give myself maybe a week of rest and then I’m going to get back into preparation,” he said. “I’ve got a stern task ahead of me with Rory McIlroy coming out to the BMW SA Open.”