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.

Luke List, Justin Thomas, Tommy Fleetwood and Tiger Woods at the 2018 Honda Classic Getty Images

Honda leaders face daunting final day

By Randall MellFebruary 25, 2018, 12:46 am

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – The winner may need a cut man in his corner more than he needs a caddie on his bag in Sunday’s finish to the Honda Classic.

Smelling salts might come in handy, too.

“It just feels like you are getting punched in the face every single hole here,” Daniel Berger said of the test PGA National’s Champion Course offers. “Every single shot is so hard.”

Final rounds have been especially rough and tumble since the Honda Classic moved to PGA National in 2007.

That usually makes Sundays here as much about who can figuratively take a punch as who can throw one.

Luke List will have his jaw tested after taking sole possession of the lead Saturday with a second consecutive round of 4-under-par 66, but he can take comfort in the fact that punishment is doled plentifully around here.

“Just realizing that everyone is facing the same obstacles out there is huge,” List said. “You're not alone out there, if you make a bogey or a bad swing here or there.”

At 7-under 203, List is one shot ahead of a pair of major championship winners, Justin Thomas (65) and Webb Simpson (66). He is two ahead of Tommy Fleetwood (67), the reigning European Tour Player of the Year, and Jamie Lovemark (68).

List, 33, is seeking his first PGA Tour title in his 104th start. He will have to hold off some heavyweights, including Tiger Woods (69), who is seven shots back but feeling like he has a chance again. Woods closed with a 62 here six years ago when he finished second to Rory McIlroy.

“You never know what can happen the last few holes here,” Woods said. “A lot of things can happen and have happened in the past.”


Full-field scores from the Honda Classic

Honda Classic: Articles, photos and videos

Crazy things have happened here.

Three years ago, Padraig Harrington was five shots down with eight holes to play and won. He made two double bogeys in the final round but ended up beating Berger in a playoff.

Berger, by the way, was nine shots back entering the final round.

That was the year Ian Poulter took a share of lead into Sunday, hit five balls in the water and still finished just a shot out of the playoff.

Last year, Rickie Fowler made four bogeys and a double bogey in the final round and still won by four shots.

List will have a heavyweight playing alongside him in the final pairing, with 24-year-old Justin Thomas looking to claim his eighth PGA Tour title. Thomas was last season’s PGA Tour Player of the Year.

List has never held a 54-hole lead in a PGA Tour event.

“You guys build up certain players,” List said. “I know I'll be an underdog going against Justin Thomas and guys like that, which is fine.”

There is some inspiration for List in what Ted Potter Jr. did two weeks at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. Potter, largely unknown even though he already had a PGA Tour title to his credit, held off stars Dustin Johnson, Phil Mickelson and Jason Day in the final round to win. 

Thomas earned the right to play alongside List in the final pairing Sunday with his 65, which equaled the low round of the tournament.

Thomas makes his home in nearby Jupiter and knows the punishment the Champion Course can dish out.

“It's a difficult course,” Thomas said. “If you let it get to you, it can be frustrating, but if you go into it understanding and realizing it's difficult, you just kind of embrace it and deal with it.”

Thomas played the Bear Trap’s trio of daunting holes (Nos. 15-17) in 2 under on Saturday. He birdied the 15th and 17th holes.

Fleetwood got in contention Saturday with a pair of eagles. He’s a four-time European Tour winner.

“I would love to get my first win on the PGA Tour this week,” he said. “It’s just great to be out here. It's great to be playing on courses like this that are such a test of every part of your game.”

Alex Noren, a nine-time European Tour winner, is also seeking his first PGA Tour title. He is three shots back. He lost in a playoff to Day at the Farmers Insurance Open last month.

Though this is just Noren’s second start at the Honda Classic, he knows how wildly momentum can swing on the Champion Course. He shot 65 Saturday after shooting 75 on Friday.

“I’m a few back, but anything can happen,” Noren said.

That’s the theme around here.

Getty Images

Thomas: Winning hometown Honda would 'mean a lot'

By Ryan LavnerFebruary 24, 2018, 11:53 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Justin Thomas is trying to join Rickie Fowler as a winner of his hometown event.

Thomas will play in the final group alongside Luke List on Sunday at the Honda Classic after matching the low round of the week with a 5-under 65. He is at 6-under 204, one shot back of List.

The reigning PGA Tour Player of the Year is one of several residents of nearby Jupiter. After Fowler won last year, Thomas (who missed the cut) returned to the course to congratulate his neighbor on his fourth Tour title.

“I hope I give him the opportunity or the choice to come back,” Thomas said. “But I’ve got a lot of golf in front of me before I worry about him coming here.”

Full-field scores from the Honda Classic

Honda Classic: Articles, photos and videos

More important to Thomas, however, is winning this event, which is played at PGA National, one of the most difficult non-major courses on Tour.

“It would mean a lot,” he said. “It means a lot to win any golf tournament, but it would mean more because of how prestigious this golf tournament is and the list of winners that have won this event, how strong of a field it is, how difficult of a golf course.

“A decent number of my wins have been on easier golf courses, so it would be cool to get it done at a place like this.”

Getty Images

Woods paired with hotshot rookie Burns at Honda

By Ryan LavnerFebruary 24, 2018, 11:38 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Rookie Sam Burns will be in the biggest spot of his career Sunday – playing alongside Tiger Woods.

Burns, the reigning Nicklaus Award winner who turned pro after two standout years at LSU, will go off with Woods at 12:45 p.m. at the Honda Classic.

Burns, 20, who earned his Tour card via Q-School, is playing this week on a sponsor exemption, his fourth of the season. He is 13th on the money list this year, after a tie for second two weeks ago in Colombia.

Full-field scores from the Honda Classic

Honda Classic: Articles, photos and videos

Burns and Woods are tied for 11th, at even-par 210.

Sunday is an important round for Burns, who can earn a spot into the Valspar Championship with a top-10 finish here.

Getty Images

List leads Honda; Thomas one back

By Golf Channel DigitalFebruary 24, 2018, 11:25 pm

Luke List, one of a legion of PGA Tour players who live in Jupiter, just two exits up I-95 from PGA National, shot a 4-under 66 on Saturday to take a one-shot lead after three rounds of the Honda Classic. Here's how things stand going into the final round at PGA National:

Leaderboard: Luke List (-7), Justin Thomas (-6), Webb Simpson (-6), Tommy Fleetwood (-5), Jamie Lovemark (-5), Alex Noren (-4) 

What it means: Leader List has played well this season, with no finish lower than T-26 in six starts. Thomas, of course, is the reigning Player of the Year. The next best pedigree among the leaders belongs to Simpson, winner of the 2012 U.S. Open and three other PGA Tour titles.

Round of the day: Thomas and Noren both shot 5-under 65s. Thomas made two of his six birdies in the Bear Trap (at the par 3s, Nos. holes 15 and17), while Noren played that stretch (15-17) in 1 over. Noren made his hay elsewhere, including an eagle at the last that canceled out his two bogeys.

Full-field scores from the Honda Classic

Honda Classic: Articles, photos and videos

Best of the rest: List, Simpson and Kelly Kraft all shot 66.

Biggest disappointment: After an opening 76, Jimmy Walker probably thought he was back on track with a 68 that allowed him to make the cut. Alas, the improvement was temporary, as he ballooned back to a 74 on Saturday.

Shot of the day: Tommy Fleetwood hit a fairway wood from 282 yards to within 8 feet of the cup on the 18th hole. He then made the putt for his second eagle of the day.

Quote of the day: "The course played a fair bit easier with not as much wind." - Thomas

Biggest storyline going into Sunday: List may be in the lead, but most eyes will be on Thomas, a five-time winner last year who has yet to lift a trophy in 2018. And of course, more than a few people will be keeping tabs on Tiger Woods. He'll begin the day seven shots back, trying to channel Tiger of 2012 - when he posted a 62 on Sunday at PGA National (which was good only for a runner-up finish to Rory McIlroy).