Tait: Major hopes expand for South Africans

Gary Player, center, shares a laugh with caddie Zack Rasego and Louis Oosthuizen.

Gary Player, center, shares a laugh with caddie Zack Rasego and Louis Oosthuizen.

DEAL, England - The windswept links of Royal Cinque Ports in Kent, England, and Royal Dublin in the Irish capital form unlikely spots to track the future of South African golf. Ten years ago, though, those were just the places to find the current generation of South African stars.

South Africa's major champions

Gary Player, 9 (1961, ’74, ’78 Masters; 1965 U.S. Open; 1959, ’68, ’74 Open Championships; 1962, ’72 PGAs)

Bobby Locke, 4 (1949, ’50, ’52, ’57 Open Championships)

Ernie Els, 3 (1994, ’97 U.S. Opens; 2002 Open Championship)

Retief Goosen, 2 (2001, ’04 U.S. Opens)

Trevor Immelman, 1 (2008 Masters)

Louis Oosthuizen, 1 (2010 Open Championship)

Charl Schwartzel, 1 (2011 Masters)

Few outside of South Africa had heard of Charl Schwartzel or Louis Oosthuizen when the teens visited the British Isles in May 2002. By the next month, fans of amateur golf certainly knew of them. Schwartzel won the English Men’s Open Amateur Stroke Play (the Brabazon Trophy) at Royal Cinque Ports, and Oosthuizen tamed Royal Dublin to win the Irish Open Amateur Stroke Play. They since have gained worldwide acclaim with major championships, Oosthuizen at the 2010 Open Championship and Schwartzel at the 2011 Masters.

Proving themselves on the best links of Ireland and Great Britain is nothing new for top young South Africans. Every South African major winner previously had taken the long trip north to match his game against the best in the British Isles. South Africa first sniffed major success in 1934, when Sid Brews finished runner-up to Henry Cotton at the Open Championship.

Bobby Locke broke through in the 1940s and ’50s, winning four Open Championships. Gary Player’s first port of call beyond South Africa, the British Isles in 1955, preceded his 1959 Open Championship victory, the first of his three Claret Jugs among nine major career titles.

Royal Liverpool Golf Club has a picture of a string-bean Ernie Els with the 1988 Tillman Trophy. Trevor Immelman finished runner-up in the 1997 British Amateur Championship at Royal St. George’s.

“It seemed natural to go to the UK first as a young South African,” Els said. “It was a bit of a culture shock, because I played places like Royal Liverpool and St. Andrews, and it was like traveling to the dark side of the moon. I’d never seen courses like that growing up in South Africa.”

Els, a well-rounded sportsman, could have played rugby, cricket or tennis, but he chose golf. That sporting culture, so prevalent among South African youth, helps explain why a nation of 50 million residents continues to churn out major champions.

“There is a real sporting-pride attitude in South Africa,” said Louis Martin, former commissioner of South Africa’s Sunshine Tour. “We love to compete. That has come from the team sports. Kids in South Africa are forced to play all the team sports, which I think gets them far stronger mentally and physically so that when they choose golf they are physically and mentally prepared. That’s important. The discipline of playing formal team sports helps when you cross over to an individual sport.”

Branden Grace, 23, won twice this year on the European Tour and attributes much of his success to the culture in his homeland.

“We love to compete, and we love our sports,” Grace said. “The typical South African is small, strong and hits the ball a mile. The Boers, the farmers, breed them strong. They are all powerful people.”

Player rates as South Africa’s premier golfer, but Els – through the Ernie Els & Fancourt Foundation – has influenced more of his homeland’s younger generation, Martin said.

“What Ernie did was open up a whole different attitude for poorer kids,” Martin said. “There wasn’t an avenue for average or poorer kids to play who couldn’t afford to join a club until Ernie’s foundation. If they had any promise, he took them under his wing. The Fancourt Foundation carried that on when it joined forces with Ernie’s foundation.”

Oosthuizen and Grace are among the foundation’s notable beneficiaries.

“Those systems do a lot for junior golf,” Oosthuizen said. “They showed us the ropes and gave us the grounding. They give the kids less worries so that they can go out and just play. For kids, it’s a big help.”

Watching Oosthuizen and Schwartzel win majors hasn’t hindered either. As Locke, Player, Els and Retief Goosen helped inspire the next generation of South Africans, that legacy now belongs to Oosthuizen and Schwartzel.

“I’ve been dragged along by their success,” Grace said. “What Louis and Charl did in the majors definitely helped me get over the hurdle to win my first and second tournaments.”

At 46, James Kingston has been around long enough to note the advance of South African golf. He competed against Els and Goosen in their halcyon days, and now plays against Oosthuizen and Schwartzel on the European and South African tours.

“We all used to follow Gary Player and then Ernie and Goose,” Kingston said. “Now it’s guys like Louis and Charl who will inspire the next generation of South Africans. Young South Africans will want to repeat what they’ve done. You couldn’t ask for two better guys to drive South African golf forward.”

Golf has been played in South Africa since 1882, when a six-hole course was set up near a British military camp in Wynberg, near Cape Town. The South African Open dates to 1903, and the Sunshine Tour to the early 1970s. For nearly

40 years, the Sunshine and European tours have enjoyed a cozy relationship, with European professionals playing the winter in South Africa and South Africans traveling to Europe in the summer. However, never has there been such a large contingent of talented South Africans as there is now.

“This is the most South Africans we’ve ever had on the main tours of the world,” Martin said. “There was always two or three, but not to the extent there are now.”

Last year, 10 South Africans finished inside the top 115 on the European money list. Ten years ago, there were six. Moreover, there are nine South Africans in the top 100 of the Official World Golf Ranking.

Ten years ago, there were four.

“There are a lot of good young South Africans who are going to come along who are going to win majors and big tournaments, and there will be more to come,” Grace said.

Four South African victories in the first eight tournaments on this year’s European Tour support Grace’s prediction. It’s a good idea to pay attention to this year’s Brabazon Trophy and Irish Amateur Stroke Play. They might provide insight into the future of South African golf.

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