South Africans producing major talent like never before

By Damon HackOctober 9, 2012, 8:37 pm

Johann Rupert was somewhere in the Greek Isles when I heard his voice for the first time.

I’d sent him an email after Louis Oosthuizen’s runner-up finish at the Masters, looking for context in what has become a renaissance in South African golf.

Rupert is the chairman of the South Africa-based Sunshine Tour. He has known Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel since they were teenagers. When Ernie Els was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame last year, Rupert presented him.

Rupert picked up his phone. I could tell instantly that he appreciated my interest in his homeland.

“I really think you should come down and have a look at how people can produce kids that are hungry enough to win major championships,” Rupert said. “Unless you visit with us, you wouldn’t understand.”

Then, after a brief discussion of Louis and all the rest, Rupert said something else: “There are more guys coming.”

I thought about Rupert on Sunday when 24-year-old South African Branden Grace was walking the Old Course at St. Andrews on the way to his fourth victory on the European Tour in the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship. “Look at that swing,” I thought. “Great balance.”

What was it that Rupert had said?

“There are more guys coming.”

It has been a remarkable run for South African golf and it is poised to continue. The United States has deeper talent and Northern Ireland has the best player in golf (plus its own spate of major winners) but South Africa’s pipeline is humming with sweet-swinging, long-hitting prodigies.

But why South Africa?

“One thing about South Africa is their amateurs play a full year in great weather,” said Pete Cowen, who teaches Oosthuizen. “In Europe, amateur golf is six months.”

But weather is only one factor. Why do Ernie, Louis and Charl, for example, have swings that are the envy of golf?

“Mr. Hogan said you dig it out of the dirt,” Rupert explained.

Asked about the aesthetics of his swing, Oosthuizen said he really didn’t know, though he offered that growing up and playing all over South Africa made him confident that his game could travel.

“Obviously, Louis has talent that allows him to do what you see there,” Cowen said. “He has put in a lot of hard work in it, getting more stability in his lower body and stability at the top of the swing. He is the complete picture of piecing a swing together. It’s taken him a long time to get to that.”

Even beyond technique and instruction one of the country’s greatest assets could be its mentoring. The kinship between generations of South African players is as strong as it is in anywhere and it comes in forms both large and small.

On the Saturday evening of the 2008 Masters, Trevor Immelman received a voicemail message from South African legend Gary Player, telling Immelman that he believed in him and that he needed to believe in himself to win a green jacket.

“And he told me I’ve got to keep my head a little quieter when I putt,” Immelman said back then with a chuckle. “He said I’m just peeking too soon.”

After winning the Masters the next day, Immelman told the story of meeting Player when he was 5 years old. He remembered Player picking him and placing him on his shoulders.

In recent years, Els has picked up Player’s mantle, serving as a mentor and inspiration to the generation following him. His Ernie Els & Fancourt Foundation has become a conveyer belt for South African golfing talent.

Els remembers hearing about Oosthuizen when he was a teenager, a kid “playing in a dust bowl of a golf course and shooting low.”

Oosthuizen applied and was accepted to the foundation, removing a large financial burden from his parents and setting into motion a career that has an Open Championship and Masters runner-up already. (Grace also came through Els’ foundation).

Els takes great pride in his foundation and the players who come through, so much so that he can be tough on his protégés when necessary.

When Els and Oosthuizen were in the field at the Byron Nelson Championship, Els freely shared what kind of advice he gives to Oosthuizen, including the occasional kick in the pants. “I’d like to see him get a little more fire,” Els said. “He has to be mentally strong and have a purpose.”

Two months later, Els won his fourth major championship at Lytham. Last weekend, Grace won his fourth European Tour title. There are more guys coming.

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McCoy earns medalist honors at Q-School

By Will GrayDecember 11, 2017, 12:30 am

One year after his budding career was derailed by a car accident, Lee McCoy got back on track by earning medalist honors at the final stage of Tour Q-School.

McCoy shot a final-round 65 at Whirlwind Golf Club in Chandler, Ariz., to finish the 72-hole event at 28 under. That total left him two shots ahead of Sung-Jae Im and guaranteed him fully-exempt status on the developmental circuit in 2018.

It's an impressive turnaround for the former University of Georgia standout who finished fourth at the 2016 Valspar Championship as an amateur while playing alongside Jordan Spieth in the final round. But he broke his wrist in a car accident the day before second stage of Q-School last year, leaving him without status on any major tour to begin the year.

McCoy was not the only player who left Arizona smiling. Everyone in the top 10 and ties will be exempt through the first 12 events of the new Tour season, a group that includes former amateur standouts Curtis Luck (T-3), Sam Burns (T-10) and Maverick McNealy (T-10).

Players who finished outside the top 10 but inside the top 45 and ties earned exemptions into the first eight events of 2018. That group includes Cameron Champ (T-16), who led the field in driving at this year's U.S. Open as an amateur, and Wyndham Clark (T-23).

Everyone who advanced to the final stage of Q-School will have at least conditional Tour status in 2018. Among those who failed to secure guaranteed starts this week were Robby Shelton, Rico Hoey, Jordan Niebrugge, Joaquin Niemann and Kevin Hall.

Els honored with Heisman Humanitarian Award

By Golf Channel DigitalDecember 10, 2017, 11:41 pm

The annual Heisman Trophy award ceremony is one of the biggest moments in any football season, but there was a touching non-football moment as well on Saturday night as Ernie Els received the Heisman Humanitarian Award.

The award, which had been announced in August, recognized Els' ongoing efforts on behalf of his Els for Autism foundation. Els received the award at Manhattan's PlayStation Theater, where Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield won the Heisman Trophy.

Els, 47, founded Els for Autism in 2009 with his wife after their son, Ben, was diagnosed with autism. Their efforts have since flourished into a 26-acre campus in Jupiter, Fla., and the creation of the Els Center for Excellence in 2015.

The Heisman Humanitarian Award has been given out since 2006. Past recipients include NBA center David Robinson, NFL running back Warrick Dunn, soccer star Mia Hamm and NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon.

A native of South Africa, Els won the U.S. Open in 1994 and 1997 and The Open in 2002 and 2012. He has won 19 times on the PGA Tour and was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2011.

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Monday finish for Joburg Open; Sharma leads by 4

By Golf Channel DigitalDecember 10, 2017, 8:57 pm

Rain, lightning and hail pushed the Joburg Open to a Monday finish, with India’s Shubhankar Sharma holding a four-stroke lead with 11 holes to play in Johannesburg.

Play is scheduled to resume at 7:30 a.m. local time.

South Africa’s Erik van Rooyen will have a 3-foot putt for birdie to move within three shots of Sharma wen play resumes at the Randpark Golf Club. Sarma is at 22 under par.

Tapio Pulkkanen of Finland and James Morrison of England are tied for third at 14 under. Pulkkanen has 10 holes remaining, Morrison 11.

The top three finishers who are not already exempt, will get spots in next year’s Open Championship at Carnoustie.



Stricker, O'Hair team to win QBE Shootout

By Will GrayDecember 10, 2017, 8:55 pm

It may not count in the official tally, but Steve Stricker is once again in the winner's circle on the PGA Tour.

Stricker teamed with Sean O'Hair to win the two-person QBE Shootout, as the duo combined for a better-ball 64 in the final round to finish two shots clear of Graeme McDowell and Shane Lowry. It's the second win in this event for both men; Stricker won with Jerry Kelly back in 2009 while O'Hair lifted the trophy with Kenny Perry in 2012.

Stricker and O'Hair led wire-to-wire in the 54-hole, unofficial event after posting a 15-under 57 during the opening-round scramble.

"We just really gelled well together," Stricker said. "With his length the first day, getting some clubs into the greens, some short irons for me, we just fed off that first day quite a bit. We felt comfortable with one another."

Full-field scores from the QBE Shootout

Stricker won 12 times during his PGA Tour career, most recently at the 2012 Tournament of Champions. More recently the 50-year-old has been splitting his time on the PGA Tour Champions and captained the U.S. to a victory at the Presidents Cup in October. O'Hair has four official Tour wins, most recently at the 2011 RBC Canadian Open.

Pat Perez and Brian Harman finished alone in third, four shots behind Stricker and O'Hair. Lexi Thompson and Tony Finau, the lone co-ed pairing in the 12-team event, finished among a tie for fourth.