Dawie van der Walt held off the challenge of the in-form Darren Fichardt to win the inaugural Tshwane Open and claim the first major tour title of his career at the Els Club Copperleaf on Sunday.
The 6’5” Van der Walt shot a 67 in the final round to finish the co-sanctioned European/Sunshine tour event on 21-under-par, two strokes ahead of Fichardt, the new Order of Merit leader who won the Africa Open two weeks ago and finished in the top-10 last week at the Dimension Data Pro-Am.
Van der Walt began the final round in a four-way tie for the lead with compatriots Fichardt and Charl Coetzee and Chilean Mark Tullo. And the 30-year-old was under some early pressure as both Fichardt and Coetzee birdied the second and third holes.
But the Paarl product made his move on the par-five fourth hole, which began the tournament as the longest in European Tour history at 626m. With the tees moved forward on Sunday, a player of Van der Walt’s length was able to reach the green in two and he nailed the 15-foot putt for eagle.
Birdies followed on the sixth and seventh holes and, although there was a bit of a wobble around the turn, Van der Walt sealed the biggest victory of his career with further birdies at the par-four 12th and par-five 15th holes.
There is no secrecy when it comes to what made Van der Walt successful around Copperleaf. Hitting the ball long is always useful at the Centurion course, but the US-based golfer was impressively precise off the tee and especially with his irons.
“Lately I haven’t been hitting the ball so good, I’ve been playing terribly, but I found something in my swing at the Dimension Data and I felt something in my game coming here. I hit the ball really well and I missed just two fairways today and one green. It meant I hardly had to chip at all and that’s not my strength.
“It’s unbelievable to play well and win. Golf is a game where you don’t get many chances to win, some people never do, and often you play well and don’t win,” Van der Walt said.
The genial giant said his victory was all about goal-setting and not getting distracted by the bigger picture.
“I just wanted to play solid, I was aiming for five-under today and 10-under for the weekend, which worked out well. I’ve been in these situations a couple of times and if you think ahead you lose it. I just set a goal of being 10-under for the weekend and that would ensure I make a whole lot of money. I didn’t think it would be enough to win the tournament, but I would have taken second. I didn’t want to get ahead of myself,” Van der Walt admitted after shooting a pair of five-under-par 67s to finish the tournament on top.
It certainly did earn the six-year pro a whole lot of money – R2,781,675 to be precise, which translates into €237,750, considerably more than the €148,974 he had won in total on the European Tour before Sunday.
Van der Walt campaigns on the Web.com Tour in America, the level below the PGA Tour and formerly known as the Nationwide or Challenge Tour, and it presents the Kingwood, Texas resident with a conundrum in terms of where to play now that he has a two-year exemption on the lucrative European Tour.
“It definitely helps that the purses are a lot bigger in Europe! But I live in America now and I have full status on the Web.com Tour. My ultimate goal is to get on the PGA Tour but I can make my own schedule now and maybe I can go through the European Tour, that might be a lot easier,” Van der Walt said.
Van der Walt has four victories on satellite tours in the US, but a regular tour triumph had eluded him until Sunday. He admitted that there were times when he sat eating his cornflakes and wondering when the breakthrough would come.
“I’ve been a pro for six years and this is the first time I’ve won a big event. You see your friends doing it, you see other people winning, and you wonder when it will happen for you, whether it will ever happen for you, you wonder if you’re good enough.”
Fichardt finished at 19-under 269 and his third birdie, at the par-three fifth hole, gave him the lead on his own. But at that stage the putter went cold and 13 successive pars meant Van der Walt remained at arm’s length.
Louis de Jager shot a 69 on Sunday to finish third on 18-under, with former world number one amateur Peter Uihlein fourth on 17-under, the American also notching a three-under-par final round.
Sweden’s Bjorn Akesson, with a 65 on Sunday, Englishman Danny Willett (66) and Coetzee, who picked up a one-shot penalty for slow play at the 15th, were tied for fifth at 16-under.
Tullo, the other overnight leader, fell away badly with a 77 which included a double-bogey 6 at the 13th, where he twice hit into the water left of the green.
Van der Walt, meanwhile, tempered his attacking instincts with the sort of composure that turns the contenders into the champions. He showed this on the final hole when he took less club for his second shot to cater “for the adrenaline”.
The horrors of recent weeks – he said his father suggested he visit a sports psychologist, to which he replied “he’s not going to be able to tell me I’m hitting the ball straight when it’s going sideways” – are now a distant memory.
What is still fresh in Van der Walt’s mind though is the long, hard road he had to take to the podium at the Els Club Copperleaf.
“Playing on the mini-tours, where you have to pay your own fees, makes you hard. I have the instinct to win, every time I play, I’m trying to win,” the newest South African European Tour winner said. DM
Photo: Darren Fichardt of South Africa reacts on the 18th hole during the third round of the Qatar Masters golf tournament in Doha February 5, 2011. REUTERS/Fadi Al-Assaad
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Tigers cannot purr.