Coetzee getting his life, game turned around

South Africa's George Coetzee plays a shot off the 18th tee as Dustin Johnson of the US, left, looks on during the third day of the British Open Golf Championship at Royal St George's golf course Sandwich, England, Saturday, July 16, 2011.

SANDWICH, England – It wasn’t that long ago that George Coetzee was apologizing to his famous playing partners for struggling to break 90 in their presence at their national open. Now he’s in contention at THE Open.

This Open Championship leaderboard has its major champions, young stars in the making and heart-tugging storylines. Then there’s Coetzee. Who is this man who sits in seventh place with one round remaining at Royal St. George’s?

Coetzee, a 24-year-old South African, is five off Darren Clarke’s lead after rounds of 69-69-72. Coetzee, at No. 126 in the world, is the lowest-ranked player among those at even par or better. He’ll tee off Sunday with Anders Hansen, 40 minutes before the final pairing.

“I’m just here to compare my game to the rest of the world,” Coetzee said. So far, it’s holding up very well, validating his decision to switch to golf.

Coetzee’s father wanted his son to become a professional tennis player; George Coetzee played until he was 10 years old, quitting when his family moved to a house with a tennis court.

Coetzee won the 2005 South African Amateur. He came to the United States to play for the University of San Diego after an impressive showing at the Junior Worlds at nearby Torrey Pines, but stayed in the States for just one semester.

Tim Mickelson, who coached Coetzee at USD, said he was the most talented freshman he ever had. Coetzee didn’t have a car in the States, though, so he relied on teammates for rides to nearby courses. He spent a lot of time partying instead of practicing or going to class.

His game was a mess. By the end of the semester, he struggled to break 80. One problem. As South Africa’s amateur champion, he had a tee time with Tim Clark and Retief Goosen at the South African Open.

“I putted like a champion,” he said. All for rounds of 84-88. “I was playing the worst golf of my life.”

Coetzee decided to return home to focus on his game, another wise decision. This Open Championship is his first major. He holed a 20-foot birdie putt in the pitch black to advance out of a 5-for-1 playoff at International Final Qualifying at Sunningdale Golf Club.

Coetzee’s play this week culminates a recent good stretch. He’s finished in the top 12 in four of his past five European Tour starts, including two third-place showings.

He had to earn this year’s card at Q-School after finishing 126th in the Race to Dubai. He began this year ranked 412th in the world, though he’s jumped nearly 300 spots this year.

Stocky and baby-faced, he’ll never be confused with countryman Charl Schwartzel, but his play this week allowed him to do something Schwartzel never did. Schwartzel also played his first major at Royal St. George’s. He shot 78-77 to miss the cut.

“I knew Charl Schwartzel missed the cut at his first major, so I said that’s my goal,” Coetzee said.

He’s done even better than that.

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