Masters 2013: Getting to know George Coetzee

George Coetzee

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To get you ready for the 2013 Masters, we are breaking down the amateurs and first-timers that will play at Augusta National starting on Thursday, April 11.

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George Coetzee

Age: 26

Hometown: Pretoria, South Africa

How he qualified: Top 50 in the Official World Golf Ranking as of Dec. 31, 2012; top 50 in the Official World Golf Ranking as of April 1.

The skinny: This present tour of America is going much better than it did eight years ago for George Coetzee. Amazing, what maturity can do for a young man.

The South African just wasn’t prepared in 2005 when he entered the University of San Diego to play for coach Tim Mickelson. It seemed fitting that he would make San Diego his port of entry into the U.S., for he had become enamored with the area during visits in 2004 and 2003 to play in the Callaway Junior World Championship. The first year, Coetzee was fourth when Japan’s Yuta Ikeda won; he came back a year later and was eighth when Australia’s Jason Day prevailed.

Success having been achieved back home – Coetzee won the South African Amateur in match play and was runner-up in stroke-play – he returned to San Diego with dreams of collegiate success. Admittedly, though, his focus on golf was sidetracked by all the extracurricular options that a locale as flavorful as San Diego presented. By mid-season, Coetzee said he could barely break 80 and soon he was back home.

If he needed a wake-up call, it came when he was put into the field at the South African Open, paired with Retief Goosen and Tim Clark. Coetzee was humbled by how poorly his game stacked up against these two world-class talents and he figured he had a long way to go.

Now, on the eve of his first Masters appearance, Coetzee can smile and acknowledge a sense of pride. Indeed, he has traveled that long road he knew faced him.

“I’m new to this PGA Tour thing and I’m trying to make friends out here and just trying to play as much as possible,” said the affable South African, who first generated some attention when he got onto the leaderboard at the 2011 Open Championship (before settling for 15th).

In his PGA Tour media guide photo, Coetzee bears a resemblance to Matt Damon in “Invictus,” a movie about a South African rugby hero. But while he’s got rugby size – Coetzee is 5-foot-10, 210 pounds – the sport he seemed destined for was tennis. In fact, if not for that streak in him that rebelled against his father’s insistence that he play tennis, Coetzee may have pursued the sport. Instead, he came back from his failure at the University of San Diego and immersed himself in golf. By 2007 he turned pro and in 2009 he made it through the European PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament.

Again, failure entered the picture, but undaunted by his inability to keep his card in 2010, Coetzee in the fall once more advanced through Q-School. He’s been meandering forward in his career ever since.

“Golf is golf. Doesn’t matter where you play,” Coetzee said, when asked about his adjustments to extensive travel from South Africa, throughout Europe and Asia, now into the United States. “Everybody gets to the course and nobody knows what’s going to happen.”

What has happened for Coetzee is simple. Steady improvement, small steps forward, new doors opened. In 2011, his second year on the European Tour, the South African finished 26th in the Race to Dubai and he improved to 21st in 2012. Though he has yet to win on the European Tour, Coetzee in his first 79 tournaments had two seconds, four thirds, and 12 other top 10s. His consistently solid end to the 2012 season – in a seven-week stretch he was fifth, fifth, sixth, 14th and then second in the South African Open – vaulted him to 49th in the Official World Golf Rankings. When he held that position at year’s end, Coetzee had earned an invitation to his first Masters for being within the top 50.

For a 26-year-old, it would be easy to get ahead of himself, to bask in all the riches that have come his way, but Coetzee remains grounded.

“I just want to improve my game and that's not really a New Year's resolution; it’s just lifestyle, I guess,” he said back in January at the stop in Abu Dhabi. “I’m quite happy with the way things went the last two years and I'll take it. If I can play like that the rest of my life, I'll be quite happy. Just keep doing what I'm doing and hopefully I'll go through the door instead of keep knocking on it.”

It would be a stretch to say he’s been knocking at the door during the early part of 2013 in America, though Coetzee is seemingly adjusting well to the opportunities that have come his way. A first-round loss in the Accenture Match Play Championship was followed by three stroke-play chances in Florida, then another in Texas. Never within sight of the lead at the WGC Cadillac Championship (T-53), Arnold Palmer Invitational (T-57), or Shell Houston Open (T-70), Coetzee did play well at the Tampa Bay Championship (T-17), and if it is all taken and rolled into a big-picture mentality, he feels as if he has gained priceless experience in the last year.

That it has led him down Magnolia Lane for his first Masters is something that never seemed possible when he first tried golf in America.

But, oh, how things have changed.

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