Maui Musings: The long and successful road from South Africa
KAPALUA, Hawaii (AP) — The road from South Africa to anywhere is long, one reason Gary Player takes such pride in being the ultimate global player, providing a blueprint for the likes of Ernie Els and now a new crop in his wake.
Getting to Maui proved particularly stressful for Erik van Rooyen.
He was home for the holidays, at first worried the omicron variant of the coronavirus — first detected in South Africa in November — might keep him there. Instead, he needed a negative test 24 hours before leaving.
No problem. He was at his parents’ beach house along the Garden Route with his American wife and young daughter, and they decided to drive to Cape Town about four hours away, take a test and be on their way.
“We realized on the way there it’s a public holiday and everything closes at noon, and we were going to get there at 10 past noon,” he said. “So I had to put the pedal down.”
They barely made it, got back to Florida, on to Maui. And then he started the new year at the Sentry Tournament of Champions with six birdies, no mistakes and a 67 to trail by two shots going into the second round Friday.
Then again, just being on Maui is a mild surprise.
Go back five months to find van Rooyen, who played college golf at Minnesota, at No. 139 in the FedEx Cup and No. 110 on the money list.
“I was at a point where I wasn’t playing well, I was a bit down in the dumps, I was going to lose my card,” van Rooyen said. “That meant that going back to the European tour, which is fine. But I want to play here.”
Life can change quickly in golf. He won the Barracuda Championship to secure his card for the next two years and book a spot in paradise at Kapalua. Only the ride was just starting.
With a 62 in the third round at Liberty National, he finished seventh in The Northern Trust to advance to the next round of FedEx Cup postseason. And then he closed with a 65 at the BMW Championship to finish fifth, sending him to the Tour Championship.
That sends him to the Masters (his first one in April) and the other three majors.
“Getting the win right after giving birth to our baby daughter, that was definitely a pinnacle,” van Rooyen said. “And the Tour Championship was sort of the cherry on the cake. You’re going into the playoffs with the attitude of we had nothing two weeks ago, might as well just cruise. And I did.”
While he turns 32 next month, van Rooyen is part of the burgeoning group of South Africans. At the younger end is 22-year-old Garrick Higgo, who opened with a 68 a Kapalua, and Wilco Nienaber, the 21-year-old who might hit it harder and farther than anyone in golf. Nienaber is still polishing his game, though he is must-see golf the few times he gets to America.
South Africa has three players at Kapalua, eight in the top 100 in the world.
There were 11 South Africans in the field at the PGA Championship last May at Kiawah Island, including the current elder statesman, Louis Oosthuizen.
That’s where Higgo made his major championship debut, and he knows a thing or two about getting places in a hurry. The powerful left-handed golfer won twice in three starts on the European tour, and three times in his first 26 tries.
No one had won so often so quickly in Europe dating to 1990.
And then he added another title, his biggest yet, by winning on the PGA Tour a week before the U.S. Open at Congaree in South Carolina.
All of this is a great source of pride for Player.
“I tell people, you take a small country like South Africa ... this is not exact, but it must be either 35 major (championship) wins and seconds,” Player said last month.
He was including Nick Price and others from Zimbabwe, he wasn’t even close. Southern African nations have 25 major championship and 29 runner-up finishes. Player, of course, leads the way with nine majors and six runner-up finishes.
“It’s more than any country in the world other than the United States,” he said. “It’s amazing, isn’t it?”
He attributes it to gorgeous weather, good coaching, great golf courses and stellar junior programs. Els started a foundation that helped develop Oosthuizen years ago.
“It’s also a country that has a lot of adversity. Think about that,” Player said. “Kids grow up with a lot of adversity, which golf gives you left, right and center. So there is a reason why South Africa has done so well.”
Higgo was 9 when he was traveling with his parents, an older brother and younger sister. They were struck by another car, killing his father. He has vague memories of the crash except that “it changed me for the better” and that Player stayed in constant touch with the family with letters of support.
It can be one big family in South African golf. Three are in Kapalua, all of them wanting to add to the legacy and proud of what got them here — winning — no matter how tough the journey.