By Lance Ringler
Back home in South Africa, he is known as “Little Ernie,” after compatriot Ernie Els. In Beaumont, Texas, on the campus of Lamar University, they call him the “Big S.A.” And as this year’s college season gets under way, he could be called the best player in the country you are not familiar with.
Dawie Van Der Walt, who stands 6-foot-5 and weighs 250 pounds, was under par in 21 of the 30 rounds he played as a freshman. He won three times and finished outside the top 15 only once. He was an honorable mention All-American, but unless you paid close attention to Lamar golf or the Southland Conference, odds are, you are left scratching your head if his name is mentioned.
That soon may change.
Van Der Walt, 22, finished his freshman season with a tie for 14th at the NCAA Central Regional. This summer at the U.S. Amateur at Merion, he finished stroke-play qualifying tied for 13th and advanced to the quarterfinals in match play.
Both were good showings, but according to Lamar head coach Brad McMakin, it likely is just the start of a promising career.
“Day in and day out, Dawie (pronounced DAH-vi) is consistently one of the best ball strikers I have ever seen,” McMakin said. “He has the type of game that fits the PGA Tour. He hits a high, soft shot and is one of the best long-iron players I have ever seen.”
If Van Der Walt has a weakness, it is on the greens, but he has few problems getting there.
In the Cardinals’ season-opening event at the Mid Pines Intercollegiate in Southern Pines, N.C., Van Der Walt missed only three greens in regulation in the tournament’s 54 holes. He finished second with a score of 9-under-par 207 (70-69-68), one shot off the winning score.
Van Der Walt said he realizes the opportunity he has been given and hopes to make the most of it.
“I am just happy to have a chance to play college golf in America and the chance my coach gave me,” said Van Der Walt, who played rugby and cricket in his home country. “Playing here in America, now I know I can go to the next level.”
An e-mail to McMakin from a stranger in South Africa got the ball rolling and opened the door for Van Der Walt to come to Lamar.
“We are pretty lucky to have gotten him,” said McMakin, who had to offer Van Der Walt a full scholarship so the South African could afford to come to the United States.
“If I didn’t get a full scholarship, I would not have come over here,” Van Der Walt said. “I don’t know what I would have done. Who knows? I might have been working a regular job and might not have even played golf. This is the opportunity of my life.”
So far, he is making the most of it.