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South Africa is land of opportunity for Stewart

'It is 35 degrees and there's a wind of about three miles per hour," Michael Stewart reports from a sun-soaked driving range in Johannesburg.

Michael Stewart will be based  in Johannesburg until March.  Picture: Warren Little/Getty Images
Michael Stewart will be based in Johannesburg until March. Picture: Warren Little/Getty Images

Just like his native Troon then . . . give or take a few degrees. He may be some 6000 miles away from there but the young Ayrshireman feels quite at home in this part of the world.

Stewart won the South African Amateur Championship in 2011 and went on to make his first European Tour appearance at the South African Open later that year. In this happy hunting ground, the 22-year-old now hopes to find the golfing pots of gold in the Rainbow Nation. Having coasted through the Sunshine Tour's qualifying school recently to earn a card for the circuit, Stewart is excited by the prospect of what could lie ahead.

The European Tour bandwagon will rumble back into South Africa next month for the co-sanctioned Joburg Open and the Africa Open. While the former Scottish Amateur champion will still be required to pre-qualify for both those events – a frantic 18-hole shoot-out will take place in the days before each tournament – the carrot on the stick that is being dangled in front of him is highly enticing.

Not so long ago, as 2012 drew to a close, Stewart was still wandering about in something of a golfing no-man's land. Now, he has found a patch of reasonably solid ground upon which he hopes to make some purposeful strides in his fledgling professional career. Just before Christmas, the Walker Cup winner earned a place on the Alps Tour in the third-tier circuit's qualifying school and, with a South African card also in his back pocket, his diary is starting to fill up.

"I needed to get a tour behind me, and that's why getting on to the Alps Tour was important, but my main priority now is to play well out here," said Stewart, who will base himself in Johannesburg until March and will attempt to qualify for The Open via the African leg of international final qualifying at the start of that month.

"The opportunities that could open up for me, particularly on the European Tour, make this quite an exciting time. I'm feeling quite upbeat. I'm in a much better place with my game, my mind is clear and I just need to get a run of tournaments because I haven't really had that since I turned pro."

The stop-start nature of his first season in the paid ranks did little for momentum and a succession of missed cuts on the PGA EuroPro Tour, and a failed assault on the European Tour's qualifying school, also delivered a fairly hefty dunt to morale.

"You do get down when things are not going well," added Stewart, who is enjoying the fresh coaching approach of the hard-working Largs-based Tartan Tour pro Eddie Thomson. "It's like any job I suppose. I felt like I was knocking my pan out and not getting anywhere.

"I was working so hard but it was just the same old, same old on the course. Because I wasn't getting many events, when one did come along I put way too much pressure on myself and was trying too hard."

There was an added element to this growing feeling of anxiousness. After such a stellar amateur career, the hype and predictions of great things inevitably flew in wild abandon. Stewart had caught the eye and when he signed up with Chubby Chandler's ISM management group he joined a star-studded stable that included golfing thoroughbreds of the calibre of Lee Westwood, Darren Clarke, Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel.

"The fact I was with ISM, one of the biggest management firms around, also added a wee bit extra pressure in my head," he admitted. "I wasn't relaxing and because I was not performing the whole thing got worse. But Chubby and everybody there have been great and have been right behind me all the way. Hopefully, I'm now ready to make them some money . . . and make some for myself, too."

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