SOUTH AFRICAN GOLF
SA has some golfing greats – but men’s golf lags behind the women’s game and needs to play catch-up
Despite being a sport played by less than 1% of the population, South Africa has a history of excellence in the game of golf. The likes of Gary Player and Sally Little paved the way for South African golfers on the world stage – many followed in their footsteps. However in 2023, while the women’s game thrives, men’s golf struggles.
It was the British summer of 2012. A 42-year-old Ernie Els had just completed a come-from-behind victory at the 2012 Open Championship at Royal Lytham & St Anne’s to claim his fourth major championship title.
The victory marked South Africa’s twenty-second major championship win in the men’s game – a statistic that even today ranks second only to the US since the end of World War 2.
Earlier in the year, Louis Oosthuizen, then a 30-year-old South African star, had lost in a playoff at the Masters thanks to American Bubba Watson’s miracle shot from the trees on the second playoff hole.
Oosthuizen had become a regular at the top end of world rankings after his triumphant seven-shot victory at the 2010 Open Championship, and in 2012 he had broken into the world’s top 10 for the first time.
Meanwhile, Oosthuizen’s childhood compatriot, Charl Schwartzel, had also etched his name into golfing lore by claiming the 2011 Masters title thanks to a finish of four consecutive birdies.
South African golf was flourishing, and the trophies were stacking up.
Next major championship winner
However, it took another 10 years for the country’s next major championship title. And it came in the form of an unlikely victor.
With the win, Buhai became just the second South African woman to win a major championship – 34 years on from the legendary Sally Little’s second and final major championship victory at the 1988 Du Maurier Classic.
During the 1970s and eighties, Little paved the way for women’s golf in South Africa, winning 15 times on the LPGA Tour. She later became the first female to be inducted into the South African Hall of Fame.
Pace for South African women
However, since Little’s glory days South African women had struggled to make it on women’s golf’s biggest stage. It took another 26 years for a South African woman to win on the LPGA Tour – with Lee-Anne Pace finally breaking the duck at the 2014 Blue Bay LPGA.
The win remains Pace’s sole victory on that tour. And despite emerging as the dominant force in SA women’s golf over the past decade, recording 11 wins on the Ladies European Tour and five SA Women’s Open titles, Pace has recorded just one top 10 in a major championship.
Read more in Daily Maverick: “Ashleigh Buhai cruises to Investec SA Women’s Open victory”
So, when Buhai shocked the world at Muirfield, it was a massive victory for not only her, but South African golf as a whole. And she has kept it going.
Buhai closed out 2022 with victory at the ISPS Handa Australian Open, and a string of good results this year, including a fourth title at the Investec SA Women’s Open, has seen her rise to a career high 16th in the world.
Just two weeks after Buhai’s Open triumph, South African Paula Reto, 32, got in on the act by claiming her first LPGA Tour title at the Canadian Women’s Open. Reto opened with a tournament-record 62 and followed it up with rounds of 69, 67 and 67 to defeat current world No 2 Nelly Korda and Choi Hye-Jin by one stroke. She currently sits at 53rd in world rankings.
In comparison, thanks largely to the rise of LIV Golf, Christiaan Bezuidenhout is the highest ranked South African in the men’s game at seventy-second in the world. With 11 years passing since Els’ Open triumph, it is unclear when (or whether) South Africa will have another male major champion.
The late, great Bobby Locke put South African golf on the map. Later inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame, Locke won 11 regular PGA Tour events and four Open Championships from 1947 to 1957. He famously won the 1948 Chicago Victory National Open by 16 shots – which remains a PGA Tour record for margin of victory.
Just two years after Locke’s final major championship victory, a 23-year-old Gary Player, who had won his first PGA Tour event the previous year, shot a final-round 68 to win the 1959 Open Championship at Muirfield Golf Club. And so began the career of a man regarded as South Africa’s greatest ever sportsman.
Greatest ever sportsman
When he won the 1965 US Open, aged 29, for his fourth major championship title, Player completed golf’s career grand slam – becoming just the third golfer in history to do so at the time, after Ben Hogan and Gene Sarazen.
Forming part of golf’s “Big Three” with Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer, Player won 159 professional titles, including nine major championships and 24 PGA Tour events. He remains the only golfer outside the US to win the career grand slam, and one of only five to ever do so.
Carrying the torch
A relatively unknown 24-year-old named Ernie Els shocked the golfing world when he defeated Colin Montgomerie and Loren Roberts in a playoff to win the 1994 US Open at Oakmont Country Club – a course regarded as the holy grail of US Open venues.
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Els soon added two PGA Tour victories to his tally, and just three years later he won his second major at the 1997 US Open – securing a one-stroke victory over Montgomerie. Following his victory, Els ascended to the top of the world rankings for the first time, overtaking another young star – Tiger Woods.
Els won regularly on both the PGA and European Tours, although a number of close calls meant a third major still eluded him.
But soon another South African burst onto the scene.
Retief Goosen, age 32, arrived at the 2001 US Open with four European Tour titles to his name, although he was still unknown in the US. However, that all changed after he defeated Mark Brooks in an 18-hole playoff to claim his first major championship title at Southern Hills Country Club.
South African golf was on the up.
‘The big five’
It soon got even better. Goosen’s US Open victory marked the beginning of golf’s so called “big five” from the early 2000s – which consisted of Woods, Vijay Singh, Phil Mickelson, Els and Goosen.
Els added a third major championship in a playoff at the 2002 Open Championship at Muirfield, while Goosen claimed a second US Open title at Shinnecock Hills in 2004, thanks to a miraculous putting performance in the final round.
Over the course of their careers, and particularly in that decade, both players won regularly in the US and Europe, with each being inducted into the Hall of Fame. Goosen spent a total of 274 weeks ranked in the world’s top 10, racking up seven PGA Tour and 14 European Tour wins during his career.
Els, meanwhile, put the exclamation mark on a career that included 23 top-five finishes in majors, with his fourth and final major championship title at the 2012 Open. The Big Easy ended his career with 19 PGA Tour and 28 European Tour victories.
Next generation of talent
While Els and Goosen were racking up victories during that decade, the next generation of South African talent was raring to go.
In 2008, Trevor Immelman, age 28, and with one PGA Tour victory to his name, shocked the world by winning the Masters Tournament – where he defeated Tiger Woods by three strokes. It was the first time a South African had won at the hallowed grounds of Augusta National since Gary Player’s third and final Masters title in 1978.
Although Immelman’s career ultimately stalled due to injury, more success was soon to come.
Entering the 2010 Open Championship, having made just one cut in eight major appearances, Oosthuizen, 27, put on a show around the famed St Andrews layout as he stormed to a historic seven-stroke victory and a first major championship title. That same year, Tim Clark secured a one-stroke victory at the Players Championship – the PGA Tour’s crown jewel, to claim his first PGA Tour title.
And just a year later – Schwartzel – who had competed against Oosthuizen in amateur golf, stole the headlines by winning the 2011 Masters Tournament. The Johannesburg native finished with a run of four birdies in a row, never achieved before in the tournament’s history, to seal a two-stroke victory over Adam Scott and Jason Day.
Els’ 2012 Open triumph made it three South African majors in three years. But the wins soon dried up.
The wins dried up
Unlike their predecessors and amid golf’s increasing competitiveness, the next generation of South African golfers has struggled to win on the PGA Tour.
From the turn of the century until the 2012 Open, South Africans had combined for 24 PGA Tour victories, which included seven majors and The Players Championship (the unofficial fifth major) from six different golfers.
In the nearly 11 years since, South Africans have combined for just seven wins on the PGA Tour – a statistic which includes no majors, World Golf Championships, or any event considered as “elevated” on the Tour.
Oosthuizen in particular has come close – racking up an almost unprecedented six runner-ups and a third place in major championships. However, despite spending 12 years ranked among the world’s top 50, Oosthuizen is yet to win on US soil, and since joining LIV Golf in 2022, he has subsequently slipped outside the world golf’s top 100.
Although South Africans continue to win regularly on the DP World Tour, the recent decline on the men’s side is clear to see.
When Oosthuizen slipped out of the world’s top 50 in the second week of January, it marked the first time since the end of September 1992 that there were no South Africans in the top 50 of world golf rankings.
At the beginning of 2022, there were eight South Africans inside the top 75. This week, beginning 19 March, just three were inside the world’s top 100: Bezuidenhout (ranked 72nd), Dean Burmester (74th), and Thriston Lawrence (86th). It should be noted that Burmester recently joined LIV Golf.
Where is men’s golf headed?
So, while South African women’s golf goes through its best period since the eighties, the men’s game is in a relative rut. However, the future looks promising.
Bezuidenhout, 28, continues to show promise during his second full season on the PGA Tour, while Garrick Higgo, 23, already has a title to his name.
On the amateur front, there are three South Africans in the top 50 of the world amateur golf rankings, headed up by Christo Lamprecht, in 18th. One of them – 19-year-old Aldrich Potgieter – won last year’s Amateur Championship to secure his place in the 2023 Masters Tournament and US Open. He also recently won the Junior Invitational at Sage Valley – a tournament regarded as the pinnacle of junior golf.
The 2023 first major championship is just two weeks away. DM