By Michael Todt
MALELANE, South Africa (Reuters) - Soft greens and creepy crawlies have failed to diminish Robert Rock's confidence as he goes into the Alfred Dunhill Championship looking for another good week at a course where he once shot a 61.
The Englishman has finished outside the top 20 just once in his last five appearances at Leopard Creek Golf Club, with the early weeks of the European Tour season seemingly to his liking.
"I feel like this is a place where, if I continue to play tournaments for the rest of my career, I like to think I'd win this at some point," Rock told Reuters ahead of Thursday's tee-off.
"I've had two seconds and I don't think I've finished far outside the top 20 here. It's always been a pretty good place to me. I've generally played well at the start of the year and I tend to always play OK in South Africa, so it all adds up to making this a place where I expect to do well at."
Hot conditions have been synonymous with the event and every year the course produces some of the fastest greens on the Tour.
However, the Mpumalanga province has had its share of rain in recent weeks and one of the talking points in the build-up has been the softness of the course.
"The greens were quite soft - they're normally a little firmer than that. There's a lot of slope on them and a general grain, which follows the slope. You have to keep an eye on that because it makes the six to 10 foot putts quite tricky, and you can have a lot of break on them," Rock said.
"The greens can be really, really quick but they don't look very quick at the moment. I'm not sure how quickly that can dry them out but we'll see."
ELEPHANTS AND GIRAFFES
Rock got off to a great start last season after victory at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship in January. His season rather fizzled out though and he was not able to finish in the top 10 again.
However, he still qualified for last month's season-ending DP World Tour Championship in Dubai and a tied-21st place finish suggested there were signs of a return to form for 2012/13, especially given his penchant for this week's course.
"All of the shots seemed to have appealed to me in the past and I've got decent memories of how well I've played the course. I've probably had one of my best rounds at this course, even though it was only in practice. That was two or three years ago, and I shot 61," the 35 year-old said.
The golf course is situated on the border of the Kruger National Park. Elephants, giraffes, crocodiles and a variety of other animals can often be spotted nearby, meaning the Alfred Dunhill Championship offers all involved an experience to remember.
Of course, there are certain types of fauna which are not always welcomed by the players and Rock is somebody who leans towards civilization when it comes to his choice of accommodation.
"I played in a pro-am one year with Paul Harris, and he kindly offered to put me up for the week. I stayed in his house, but I wasn't convinced that there weren't a lot of things crawling around close by me," Rock said.
"It's a beautiful house, but I couldn't stay there, so I moved to a normal hotel. The word got around and Johan Rupert has embarrassed me on a few occasions with that story. Johan insisted that I stay with him this week to try and overcome the fear. I think I've got there now."
Having conquered one fear already this week, Rock can rest easily knowing that if he can conquer the par-72 layout and 155 other golfers he will be on his way to the winner's share of the lucrative 1.5 million euro ($1.96 million)event.
Leopard Creek resident Charl Schwartzel could well be the man to beat after his blistering display to win in Thailand last week but it is a field littered with top talent. ($1 = 0.7669 euros)
(Editing by Mark Meadows; firstname.lastname@example.org; +44 20 7542 7933; Reuters Messaging:; email@example.com)