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JC Ritchie: ‘All those dreams as a youngster are what keep driving me’

JC Ritchie during Day 1 of the 2021 Limpopo Championship at Euphoria Golf & Lifestyle Estate on 22 April 2021. (Photo: Carl Fourie / Gallo Images)

Shutting out the voices of doubt, Juan Carlo Ritchie had his eye on one prize: to be the best professional golfer he can be.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

This is a lesson. It’s a lesson in chasing your dream. It’s a lesson that the dream is the easy part. How badly you want it, though, that’s where it gets much harder.

It’s a lesson a teenage boy can teach you, as he lives in the garage of his golf coach, attending his sixth high school, all the while trying to shut out the voices telling him that his dream to become a professional golfer is a silly dream.

It won’t happen, they told Juan Carlo (JC) Ritchie.

And yet, a man who was named after the Formula 1 racing driver Giancarlo Fisichella (he doesn’t know how his father came up with the different version of his name), had no amateur golf career to speak of, and who, midway through high school, discovered his eyesight was bad enough that he couldn’t see a cricket ball being bowled at him, has played in a US Open and a World Golf Championship event, has won seven times on the Sunshine Tour and joined some of the greats of South African golf to have won the Sunshine Tour Order of Merit.

JC Ritchie’s blue eyes and warm smile give no indication whatsoever of the deep well of guts and character under the surface.

“Sometimes it’s tough chasing your dream because there are lots of influences and important people in your life you need to go against. Sometimes you have to swim upstream, and you upset a lot of people,” Ritchie says. “At the end of the day, when things work out, they all understand. But it’s tricky. It’s not easy getting to the top of any sport in the world. Some difficult decisions will need to be made at some point in your career.

“When I was younger I always felt like there were a lot of critics. People who said it was a silly dream and it wouldn’t work out. I was a decent junior golfer, but I was nothing but an average amateur. I didn’t get picked for any big amateur teams. I didn’t really achieve anything in amateur golf.

“I didn’t really have much going for me to tell myself that I’m good enough to play on Tour. At the start of my career there was a lot of grinding to prove people wrong. After my second win I felt I’d proved my point, and now it’s about chasing my dream the way I want it and not worrying about proving people wrong.”

The bug biting

Somewhere between the time before he could walk, when he remembers watching his father hit golf balls on the driving range, and that critical point after school when he had to make a life-changing choice, Ritchie believed he would play professional golf at the highest level. And be good at it.

“My dad was a pretty good golfer. Slowly but surely the game started biting me and I just found a love for the game,” Ritchie says.

“I played rugby in primary school. Then I realised I wanted to take golf a bit more seriously and I felt I needed to look after my body more. That didn’t go down well in my family, with the Afrikaans rugby culture.

“I also loved playing cricket. I just couldn’t bat because my eyesight was pretty bad. I only realised that halfway through high school. I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t see the cricket ball, and then I got contact lenses… I was a brilliant bowler, though.

“But I think my dad always wanted me to become a golfer… He wanted to become a professional, but had a bad motorbike accident and that ended his dream. I then took over the dream and made it a reality.”

That is a very brief “highlights version” of a dream that was years in the making and took a whole lot more sweat and tears than many people realise. And it required a teenager to make the kind of decisions most adults would shy away from.

“I went to a few high schools. I did two months in Standerton High School, then moved to Pretoria Boys’ High and finished Grade 8 and 9 there. Then Retief Goosen opened up a sports academy and I did Grade 10 there. Then the school closed and I ended up moving to Southdowns College and finished Grade 10 there. Halfway through Grade 11, I moved back to Standerton and lived with my dad.

“But then he had to move down to Richards Bay for work, and I didn’t have a place to stay. I went back to Pretoria and spent matric and the year after matric living with my golf coach, Graeme Francis.

“He converted his double garage for me and built me a room. My parents didn’t have the money to send me to boarding school, so he made a plan for me. I lived with him for two years. He looked after me like his own child. There were so many small things that got me to where I am today.”

After high school, Ritchie had to decide whether to go and study or continue pursuing his dream.

“There wasn’t enough money to do both. I made the decision after school to not play amateur golf and put all my eggs in one basket and turn professional. I took all the finances I had – every cent – and played the IGT Tour [a feeder to the Sunshine Tour] for a year and managed to get my card.

“It took every cent I had, every ounce of energy and sleep to make it. Then one of my dad’s good friends gave me a sponsorship and funded my career for 10 years. I don’t have words to describe how grateful I am for that support from him.” 

Patience leads to success

After turning professional in 2014, Ritchie made his breakthrough in 2017 and won his first Sunshine Tour event – the Zimbabwe Open. He won again in 2018, three times in 2019 and twice in 2020. He also won the Sunshine Tour Order of Merit for the 2019-20 season.

And it’s all convinced Ritchie of a few truths about dreams – and what it takes to achieve them.

“There’s more than one way to do things around here. Even once I got my card, it took three years for me to win my first tournament. That’s the learning process.

“I think a lot of young golfers want to push too hard and want it too quickly. Some of the special kids around will win quickly and they will go far but, for the rest of us, it’s a grind. The harder you work, the more you’re able to accept it takes time.

“I see a lot of brilliant young amateurs turn pro and come out on the Sunshine Tour and struggle. I think there is a lot of pressure on them. They try to force it and make everything happen too quickly.

“This is a process. There is a lot of learning that needs to happen out here. The faster you realise that it’s a process and give yourself five years instead of one year to do something, that’s when you find progress. And failure will always be the best way to learn,” Ritchie says.

Even now, well established on the Sunshine Tour and looking to take the next step on the European Challenge Tour this year, Ritchie keeps learning.

“I felt like my game was starting to move to a new level towards the end of the 2019 season and then, through lockdown, something happened. I spent the entire 2020 just grinding and trying to find my game again, and to teach myself how to score and shoot under par again.

“Somehow, something happened in lockdown and I just lost my game. Last year was a big struggle and a big learning curve for me. I’m just happy I’ve worked through that and that my game now is close to where it needs to be again.”

Sweat and tears

“I was going to play a full season on the Challenge Tour last year but Covid-19 had other ideas. It gave me a year of grinding and learning and sweat and tears, and now it feels like a fresh start again and I’ve got the opportunity to run with some momentum into the new year.

“Of course my expectations are high, but I know I’m playing golf courses I’ve never seen before and travelling to countries I’ve never been to before. So there’s a lot to learn. I’ll accept whatever the game gives me.”

Ritchie speaks of the game of golf with a kind of realism that is often missed in the romance and glory of what some perceive to be the life of a professional golfer.

His talk of dreams is never devoid of the hard work and sacrifice that accompanies them. Even when he speaks about his inherent love of the game, it’s a love he knows comes paired with plenty of heartache.

“This game can make you tear your hair out one day and make you feel on top of the world the next. But I suppose what keeps driving me is all those dreams as a youngster. It’s those dreams that make me want to tee it up every day and keep working. It’s a combination of a lot of years of dreaming and goals that I’ve set.

“It doesn’t get easier. No matter how many times you win, no matter how well or badly you think you’re playing, it never gets easier. It’s always difficult.

“There’s always a grind, and getting over that is the key to eventually having success. Fighting through the struggles. It’s a never-ending rollercoaster.

“Every week is pretty much a restart. You never really know what you’re going to get at the end of the week. But the harder you work when you are younger, the longer your peaks will be when you get older.” DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.

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