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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Hadwin returns to site of last year's 59

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 11:04 pm

Adam Hadwin had a career season last year, one that included shooting a 59 and winning a PGA Tour event. But those two achievements didn't occur in the same week.

While Hadwin's breakthrough victory came at the Valspar Championship in March, it was at the CareerBuilder Challenge in January when he first made headlines with a third-round 59 at La Quinta Country Club. Hadwin took a lead into the final round as a result, but he ultimately couldn't keep pace with Hudson Swafford.

He went on to earn a spot at the Tour Championship, and Hadwin made his first career Presidents Cup appearance in October. Now the Canadian returns to Palm Springs, eager to improve on last year's result and hoping to earn a spot in the final group for a third straight year after a T-6 finish in 2016.

"A lot of good memories here in the desert," Hadwin told reporters. "I feel very comfortable here, very at home. Lots of Canadians, so it's always fun to play well in front of those crowds and hopefully looking forward to another good week."

Hadwin's 59 last year was somewhat overshadowed, both by the fact that he didn't win the event and that it came just one week after Justin Thomas shot a 59 en route to victory at the Sony Open. But he's still among an exclusive club of just eight players to have broken 60 in competition on Tour and he's eager to get another crack at La Quinta on Saturday.

"If I'm in the same position on 18, I'm gunning for 58 this year," Hadwin said, "not playing safe for 59."

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Rahm: If I thought like Phil, I could not hit a shot

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 10:39 pm

When it comes to Jon Rahm and Phil Mickelson, there are plenty of common bonds. Both starred at Arizona State, both are now repped by the same agency and Rahm's former college coach and agent, Tim Mickelson, now serves full-time as his brother's caddie.

Those commonalities mean the two men have played plenty of practice rounds together, but the roads quickly diverge when it comes to on-course behavior. Rahm is quick, fiery and decisive; Mickelson is one of the most analytical players on Tour. And as Rahm told reporters Wednesday at the CareerBuilder Challenge, those differences won't end anytime soon.

"I don't need much. 'OK, it's like 120 (yards), this shot, right," Rahm said. "And then you have Phil, it's like, 'Oh, this shot, the moisture, this going on, this is like one mile an hour wind sideways, it's going to affect it one yard. This green is soft, this trajectory. They're thinking, and I'm like, 'I'm lost.' I'm like, 'God if I do that thought process, I could not hit a golf shot.'"

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The tactics may be more simplified, but Rahm can't argue with the results. While Mickelson is in the midst of a winless drought that is approaching five years, Rahm won three times around the world last year and will defend a PGA Tour title for the first time next week at Torrey Pines.

Both men are in the field this week in Palm Springs, where Mickelson will make his 2018 debut with what Rahm fully expects to be another dose of high-level analytics for the five-time major winner with his brother on the bag.

"It's funny, he gets to the green and then it's the same thing. He's very detail-oriented," Rahm said of Mickelson. "I'm there listening and I'm like, 'Man, I hope we're never paired together for anything because I can't think like this. I would not be able to play golf like that. But for me to listen to all that is really fun."

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DJ changes tune on golf ball distance debate

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 9:16 pm

World No. 1 Dustin Johnson is already one of the longest hitters in golf, so he's not looking for any changes to be made to golf ball technology - despite comments from him that hinted at just such a notion two months ago.

Johnson is in the Middle East this week for the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, and he told BBC Sport Wednesday that he wouldn't be in favor of making changes to the golf ball in order to remedy some of the eye-popping distances players are hitting the ball with ever-increasing frequency.

"It's not like we are dominating golf courses," Johnson said. "When was the last time you saw someone make the game too easy? I don't really understand what all the debate is about because it doesn't matter how far it goes; it is about getting it in the hole."

Johnson's rhetorical question might be answered simply by looking back at his performance at the Sentry Tournament of Champions earlier this month, an eight-shot romp that featured a tee shot on the 433-yard 12th hole that bounded down a slope to within inches of the hole.

Johnson appeared much more willing to consider a reduced-distance ball option at the Hero World Challenge in November, when he sat next to tournament host Tiger Woods and supported Woods' notion that the ball should be addressed.

"I don't mind seeing every other professional sport, they play with one ball. All the pros play with the same ball," Johnson said. "In baseball, the guys that are bigger and stronger, they can hit a baseball a lot further than the smaller guys. ... I think there should be some kind of an advantage for guys who work on hitting it far and getting that speed that's needed, so having a ball, like the same ball that everyone plays, there's going to be, you're going to have more of an advantage."

Speaking Wednesday in Abu Dhabi, Johnson stood by the notion that regardless of whether the rules change or stay the same, he plans to have a leg up on the competition.

"If the ball is limited then it is going to limit everyone," he said. "I'm still going to hit it that much further than I guess the average Tour player."

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LPGA lists April date for new LA event

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 17, 2018, 8:18 pm

The LPGA’s return to Los Angeles will come with the new Hugel-JTBC Open being played at Wilshire Country Club April 19-22, the tour announced Wednesday.

When the LPGA originally released its schedule, it listed the Los Angeles event with the site to be announced at a later date.

The Hugel-JTBC Open will feature a 144-player field and a $1.5 million purse. It expands the tour’s West Coast swing, which will now be made up of four events in California in March and April.

The LPGA last played in Los Angeles in 2005. Wilshire Country Club hosted The Office Depot in 2001, with Annika Sorenstam winning there.