2006: South Africa stuns competition at home

To say it’s a new era in South African women’s golf isn’t saying enough. When the three women who represented the “Rainbow Nation” Oct. 18-21 in Stellenbosch were born, South Africa was banned from

the Women’s World Amateur Team Championship from 1984-1990. With the end of apartheid, the country returned to the biennial Espirito Santo Trophy, but its performances in recent years were nothing to write home about: 25th; tied for 20th; tied for 29th; and 17th.

But this time, they were home. And behind the confident swagger of 17-year-old Ashleigh Simon, the South Africans weren’t just looking to welcome the world. They were looking to be world-beaters.

“We wanted to prove ourselves as world-class players and I think that’s exactly what we did,” said 19-year-old Kelli Shean. “I don’t think anyone was expecting us to win this thing.”

The South Africans were tied for second behind Japan after Day 1 and didn’t go away. Heading into the final round at De Zalze Golf Club, South Africa held a four-stroke lead over defending champion Sweden. It was an up-and-down race to the finish Oct. 21, with Sweden and South Africa deadlocked at 10 under with two groups still on the course.

Pars all around sent the tournament into a tiebreaker. Because both teams had 75s as their noncounting scores in the three play, count two event, officials went back to Friday’s rounds. Sweden threw out Sofie Andersson’s 77, while South Africa threw out Simon’s 73.

South Africa won its first WWATC title the first time the event was contested on African soil. Home never looked so sweet.

“It is still amazing to me that we won,” said South African captain Sandra Winter. The nation’s previous best finish was a tie for second in 1974.

Shean and Simon posted 74s in the final round, and Stacy Bregman bogeyed the last to shoot 75. Shean, a student at the Ernie Els & Fancourt Foundation, was the only South African player to count all four rounds.

Sweden is the only country to finish in the top 10 in all 22 Espirito Santo championships. Florida State sophomore Caroline Westrup led the way for Sweden with a closing 3-under 69. Her 8-under 280 total topped the field individually. Andersson and Anna Nordqvist added 75s.

“If we get a few hours away from this, we will like the silver medal,” said Sweden coach Katarina Vangdal. “I was not surprised by South Africa after I saw them the first day. They had a great tournament. They were impressive.”

Only two other teams in the history of the Espirito Santo Trophy have won on home soil. France won the inaugural tournament in 1964 at St. Germain, and the U.S. won in 1980 at Pinehurst No. 2. South Africa’s and Sweden’s 566 total was the second-lowest in tournament history. The United States set the record of 558 in 1998.

Colombia made a final-round charge by posting the event’s lowest round, an 8-under 136. But the 9-under total left the Columbians one shot back at 567. The U.S. finished ninth at 2 under.

When photographers flooded the 18th green to snap pictures of the home team’s victory, Shean crossed her eyes and stuck out her tongue when prompted to make a funny face. It seemed to sum up the team’s relaxed attitude all week. They’d prepared better than ever for this championship and carried great expectations.

For the first time in team history, South Africa had five multiple-structured training sessions. Four of those camps were held in Stellenbosch and one featured a two-day tournament against Canada, which it won handily.

“I started playing five years ago and there was no one,” said Simon of the competitive landscape in South Africa. “Now you go into a tournament and it’s anyone’s race, really.”

Seems the Rainbow Nation has found its pot of gold.

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