“Yes, I am. I’m definitely playing. It’s a great honor and great privilege to represent your country in the Olympics,” laughed Jaco Van Zyl.
Reached Tuesday afternoon at his home in South Africa, the 37-year-old was still processing how his world had changed in the last 10 hours, but he certainly understood why he needed to be asked if he planned to play this year’s Olympics.
Van Zyl is likely headed to Brazil to represent South Africa at this year’s Games, an option he had never even considered before the eventful last few days.
“I really didn’t think I would [qualify for the Olympics],” Van Zyl admitted. “I was third on the [alternate] list, even if one player withdraws or doesn’t make it, the other two would go, right?”
Van Zyl’s unexpected Olympic climb began last Thursday when Louis Oosthuizen, who was a lock to represent South Africa at this year’s Games, announced he would not be making the trip to Rio later this year.
“I have always represented South Africa with pride so I didn’t make my decision without a great deal of thought,” Oosthuizen said in a statement.
On Monday, Charl Schwartzel, who would have replaced Oosthuizen in the Games, followed his fellow South African’s lead to the Olympic sidelines, citing a “tight schedule” this year.
The South African exodus left Branden Grace, who is 11th in the Official World Golf Ranking, and Van Zyl, at least that’s what his girlfriend told him early Tuesday.
“My girlfriend saw it on Twitter,” he laughed. “It shows you that social media has become more powerful than the regular media.”
At 59th in the world ranking Van Zyl will need to continue his solid play to secure his spot on the South African team – and at 85th in the world George Coetzee could certainly make things interesting – but just the idea of competing in Rio had created a mild state of shock for Van Zyl.
“I had no hope, to be honest,” said Van Zyl when asked if he’d considered the possibility of playing in the Olympics before Tuesday. “I had kind of been lingering around the last couple of years and after the start of this season where I managed to get into the top 50 in the world it had become an outside possibility.”
You see for Van Zyl this goes well beyond the rarest of chances to compete for medals, beyond an opportunity to play golf at the highest levels, beyond even his desire to play a game he loves for a living.
Two years ago this month as he lay in a recovery room following double knee surgery to replace both of his anterior cruciate ligaments, a procedure that involved removing ligaments from his hands for use in his knees, he came to terms with the fact that his golf career may be over.
Van Zyl didn’t hit a golf ball for almost a year, and when he did return to play in the WGC-HSBC Champions event in China his comeback was quickly cut short when he, “snapped a screw in my left knee,” he said.
That setback took another surgery and as his mind wandered during the recovery process he reached a personal and professional epiphany.
“The whole year I reflected on what life is really about and how fortunate you are to do what we do for a living. It’s a great privilege,” said Van Zyl, who added that he lost more than 40 pounds during his recovery. “It’s really made a difference.”
Whether it was his new perspective or his weight loss, 2015 turned out to be his best year on the European Tour with three top-3 finishes.
His breakthrough came earlier this year when he won the Eye of Africa PGA Championship and moved into the top 50 in the world ranking (No. 49) to secure a spot in the WGC-Dell Match Play.
Still, even with his improved fortunes on the course he never imagined there would be an Olympic bid afoot. Coming from a country with an embarrassment of golf riches he’s always been in the relative shadows of players like Oosthuizen, Schwartzel, Els and Grace.
He represented South Africa once in the Commonwealth Games, but that was years ago during his amateur days, and he’s never been anywhere close to Rio.
“But I’ve watched the animated movie,” he laughed before quickly adding, “I really do think it’s for the greater good and the chance to represent my country is really special.”
Oosthuizen and Schwartzel’s decision to skip the Games has drawn plenty of criticism. Selwyn Nathan, the executive director of the South Africa-based Sunshine Tour, said the duo would “regret” not playing, and South African icon Gary Player didn’t hide his disappointment in a statement: “I would have given anything to play in the Olympics. South Africa had a great team, but now obviously, it will not be as good. Players withdrawing hurt the game of golf.”
Van Zyl, however, was more understanding when asked about his fellow countryman’s decisions to skip the Olympics.
“I’m sure they’ve got their reasons,” Van Zyl said. “It’s a long process to go through to get there, they are both family people and from what I understand it’s basically an athletes’ camp for the week. And I’m sure that had a big impact.”
Of course, Van Zyl’s is not exactly an unbiased voice in the debate, because if Twitter and his girlfriend are correct, he’s going to the Olympics.