Young South Africans shine as US tour opens

The third Major of the year starts today (Thursday, June 17) at Torrey Pines in California, with an incredible nine South Africans flying the flag for Africa. Three are likely to attract significant attention.

Louis Oosthuizen, a perennial Major contender, will tee off very much aware of the two new young guns on the SA golf scene – Garrick Higgo who comes off his maiden PGA win last week, and Wilco Nienaber whose prodigious driving distance created a major stir at the same event – joining him as potential winners.

Three South African golfers share five US Open Victories between them: Gary Player in 1965; a 24-year-old Ernie Els in 1994 and again in 1997 when he became the first South African to win two Opens; and Retief Goosen who emulated Els by winning in 2001 and 2004.

For many years, South Africa punched way above its weight on the international golf circuit. Beginning with the generation of Bobby Locke then Gary Player, South Africa has consistently had golfers competing at the highest level. South Africa stands fourth among all countries in the number of Majors won, behind only the USA, Scotland and England. In the early 2000’s, South Africa had two players in the top four (Els and Goosen), and four
players inside the top 20.

More recently, however, those past glories had seemed to be fading. Els has moved on to the Senior’s tour, Goosen as well, Immelman has struggled with injury and declining form, and Schwartzel has not quite lived up to his promise, although he remains a perennial contender.

It has been left to Louis Oosthuizen, for the most part, to fly the SA flag on the US tour, although South Africans have performed consistently on the European tour, helped, in some part, by the South African leg of the tour, in which they always seem to do well on their home courses.

In the past few years, however, a new generation of South Africans has begun to show their mettle. Dylan Fritelli had one PGA tour victory in 2019 and was an outside contender in this year’s Masters. But the 31-year-old is still languishing at 89th in the Golf World Rankings, with Erik van Rooyen one ahead of him in 88th .

Christiaan Bezuidenhout, aged 27, has been performing more consistently, and is South Africa’s second highest ranked golfer, at 44th. At least he was, until now.

In a spectacular win on Sunday at the Palmetto Championship on the PGA tour, 22-year-old Garrick Higgo, playing on a last-minute invitation exemption, held his nerve while those around did not, securing the win in only his second start on the PGA tour, a feat not accomplished since 1988.

This win, on top of his three victories on the European Tour in the past year, has catapulted him to 39th on the world rankings, and has secured him an exemption card for the PGA tour for the next two years.

Erik van Rooyen had a top ten finish as well, but it was 21-year-old Wilco Nienaber, playing in his USA tour debut, who was the other South African to wow the crowds. Nienaber has dominated the European tour this year with his long driving stats.

Playing in the Joburg Open in 2020, Nienaber hit a 439-yard drive, by a long margin the longest in tour history. At the
Palmetto he outdrove the field consistently, and his clubhead speed was measured at 6mph quicker than Bryson deChambeau, whose speed in turn was 6mph faster than the third quickest. Nienaber, on debut, finished 14th .

This past weekend’s success comes after three South Africans were in the top five going into the weekend at the PGA Championship. Only Oosthuizen was able to maintain the pace, finishing third, while Grace and Bezuidenhout dropped off on the final day. Nevertheless, the leader-board at one stage had South Africans in three of the top four positions in a Major Championship, a sight not seen for many years.

With the arrival of the young guns, the future once more looks bright for South African golf. Do not be surprised to see a few of them contending on the final day on Sunday.

Story by Robin Peterson

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