If a South African wins his national tournament, there won’t be a dry eye in the house, writes GARY LEMKE.
It’s the one trophy that reduces grown men to tears. That’s what sport can do to people. As South Africans we have enjoyed sharing in the triumphs of our sports teams and individuals.
The Springboks winning the Rugby World Cup three times, Bafana Bafana’s 1996 Afcon success. Olympic gold medals from Penny Heyns, Josia Thugwane, Caster Semenya, Chad le Clos, Wayde van Niekerk and others. Boxing’s great nights featuring Brian Mitchell, ‘Baby Jake’ Matlala, Welcome Ncita, Vuyani Bungu, Corrie Sanders, among others. Even Brad Binder’s historic MotoGP win in Portugal.
But, golf somehow feels different. Maybe it’s because of the emotional rollercoaster that lasts four days. Like each time Ernie Els won his four Majors, Louis Oosthuizen took the 2010 Open Championship and Trevor Immelman and Charl Schwartzel won Masters Green Jackets.
When it comes to the Springboks there’s a level of expectancy, and there’s always a crowded room or gathering where the final is more celebrated with cheers and beers than tears. Golf is different. As an individual sport, you’re on your own. On the home nine on a Sunday, if you’re in contention the fairways narrow to little green slips laid out in front of you and the cup holes become the size of pinpricks. Little wonder there’s the outpouring of relief when you finally sink that winning putt.
Any golfer who has won a professional tournament – OK, perhaps someone like Tiger Woods is different – will vouch for the fact that you never know when your next win will come. Which makes the feats of Gary Player, with his 165 international victories, and Els, who has won 74 times around the world, extraordinary in a golfing context.
And it’s the South African Open which means the world to every golfer who has grown up in South Africa, rising through the amateur ranks, doing the hard yards as a professional and then finally hoisting the second-oldest Open trophy in the sport to the skies. Just as every ultra-distance South African road runner dreams of winning the Comrades Marathon. The SA Open is an iconic ‘proudly South African’ sporting event. Win it once and every young man’s dream has come true, but to win it five times, like Els has, or 13 times, like Player has, is something beyond belief. As Els told me back in 2018 when he was tournament player/host for the SA Open at Glendower.
‘I was this Afrikaans laaitie who couldn’t speak English properly and now I’m back to a sentimental venue where I broke through. I’ve won the SA Open five times, and legends like Bobby Locke and Gary Player have won it nine and 13 times respectively, so it’s mind-boggling to think I’m now host and ambassador.
‘I take great pride in that, as well as the fact it’s at Glendower and at a time in South Africa when the landscape is so different to what it was in 1989.’
For that particular tournament the spoils went to Chris Paisley, the Englishman who came from relatively nowhere to silence the home crowd and deny Branden Grace the Nedbank Golf Challenge-SA Open ‘double’. Paisley, an enthusiastic outdoor cook – ‘braaier?’ – dog lover and avid Newcastle United supporter, had arrived at Glendower ranked 281 in the world that week and with his wife Kerri on his bag. They held their nerve to claim the win, but did they really appreciate the reverence South African golfers have for their own national Open? Perhaps not.
A year earlier (2017) another Englishman, Graeme Storm, had again silenced the Glendower crowd when he saw off Rory McIlroy in a playoff. There’s one thing with local supporters – if your hero can’t win, rather have an adopted son for the week, like McIlroy was. But Storm? He, like Paisley, came in as a player seemingly to make up the numbers, ranked 251 in the world. That’s golf, though.
However, boom-boom, back-to-back, two Englishmen in Paisley and Storm – now ranked 358 and 1 343 respectively in the world – had scooped the most famous trophy in South African golf.
Chastened by the experience, the last three SA Opens have resulted in home wins. Oosthuizen triumphed in 2018 and then Grace and Christiaan Bezuidenhout did the business at the two SA Opens that were held in 2020.
The significance wasn’t lost on any of them. There were tears from the battle-hardened Oosthuizen when he sank his final putt for a six-stroke win over Romain Langasque at Randpark in 2018. ‘I knew today was either going to be very special or heartbreaking. I know there are only a few who have won the British Open and the SA Open, so I’m very chuffed to have my name on this. I wish the family were here. The crowd was great this whole week, it was nice to do it for them.’
Grace held off Oosthuizen by three shots to win at Randpark in January 2021. He too was overcome by emotion. ‘This is the one I really wanted. It was amazing. Winning on your own home soil means so much to any South African The guys get so behind you and it’s such an emotional feeling.’ He closed with one of the great rounds of the tournament’s long history, a 62. Incredible to think that a 66 on the Sunday would have seen him lose out to King Louis.
Bezuidenhout was enjoying a purple patch this time last year when he won the Alfred Dunhill Championship at Leopard Creek and the SA Open at Sun City in quick succession. In 2016 he’d lost out to Brandon Stone by two shots and at the time he said: ‘Everything was great this week. This Open is every South African’s dream to win and I’ve come close this year, so hopefully next year I’ll have another chance.’
Well, it took him four years but he got it right. ‘It’s a South African golfer’s dream to win a national tournament. It’s unreal,’ Bezuidenhout said.
Stone was just 22 when he won the SA Open at Glendower in 2016. He broke down in tears after his victory. ‘I don’t have the vocab to describe how I feel right now,’ he said. ‘That round was the most up-and-down one I’ve ever had in my life.
‘Walking up to the 18th made me think about how the past few years have been up and down and just to pull it through at the end there, I can’t describe it.’
And so it goes. Every South African golfer knows what this tournament means.
Ten years ago Hennie Otto held off Austria’s Bernd Wiesberger by one shot to win at Serengeti. ‘There are some great names on that trophy,’ he said. ‘I said it would be great if I could add mine, now today’s the day. The first win is always the nicest, but this one makes it special because it’s our national Open. You dream of these things … you must enjoy it. The names that are on the trophy. You can be proud of it.’
Dylan Frittelli finished third in December 2020 behind Bezuidenhout and Jamie Donaldson at Gary Player Country Club. ‘I’ve won on the European Tour and on the PGA Tour, and if I don’t win the South African Open, it’s definitely going to be something I’ll feel like I haven’t accomplished in my career,’ he said.
‘The South African Open is the one I want to win. I used to watch the tournament as a kid and I remember a bunch of them. I definitely remember the duel between Ernie Els and Retief Goosen at Fancourt in 2005.’
The Frittelli ambition is one that courses through the veins of every South African professional who picks up a golf club, especially those who get to tee up at Open week, this year again at the testing Gary Player Country Club.
Although golf is unpredictable – borne out by the wins by England’s Storm and Paisley and even Denmark’s Morten Orum Madsen in 2013 – some players realise that all the planets have to align for them to be in contention. Which doesn’t mean that simply qualifying and competing at the SA Open isn’t a big deal and something to cherish and be proud of.
At that 2018 South African Open won by Oosthuizen, Musiwalo Nethunzwi and playing partner Toto Thimba carried the country’s flag between them and were cheered all the way to the green. On the stage of South Africa’s most prestigious golf tournament and the second-oldest national Open in golf, both golfers made a powerful statement.
‘Things have come full circle for me and the SA Open,’ said Nethunzwi. ‘I was a bit emotional over that last putt. Toto and I had just hit our second shots when my caddie pulled out the flag and handed it to us. We were just so proud walking up 18 carrying that flag.
‘Proud of our country and proud to be playing at the South African Open, one of the greatest tournaments in world golf. I just kept pushing myself the whole week to play well, and I’m very happy with this performance. This is a big confidence boost for me.’
Proving yet again that you don’t need to win the tournament to be chopping onions. That’s the magic of the South African Open. Long may it continue.
– This article first appeared in the December 2021 issue of Compleat Golfer magazine. Subscribe here!
Photo: Warren Little/Getty Images
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