Tait: Healthy Sterne shows talent in Joburg victory

Richard Sterne celebrates after winning the Joburg Open at Royal Johannesburg and Kensington Golf Club.

Richard Sterne has some catching up to do. Actually, he has a lot of catching up to do.

He began making up ground by winning the Joburg Open.

The diminutive South African earned his first victory in four years with a seven-shot win over Charl Schwartzel on Sunday. It helps make up for years of injury that threatened to end his career.

Sterne is the forgotten man of South African golf. He is part of a South African triumvirate that includes Schwartzel and Louis Oosthuizen. It’s not too long ago that Sterne’s name was included along with Schwartzel and Oosthuizen’s in discussions of future South African major winners. Yet while Schwartzel and Oosthuizen have gone on to major glory, Sterne has spent the last few years wondering if he can ever fulfil his potential.

Sterne reached 28th in the world in 2008. He racked up five European Tour wins between 2004 and 2009, and then discovered he was suffering from a form of arthritis in his back that threatened his career.

The 31-year-old spent most of the 2010 and 2011 seasons on his couch at his home in Stellenbosch. He made only 10 starts in two years. During that time he watched Oosthuizen win the 2010 Open Championship and Schwartzel birdie the last four holes to win the 2011 Masters.

“It was nice to watch Louis (Oosthuizen) win the Open championship, and Charl winning the Masters,” Oosthuizen told Golfweek when he made his comeback in 2012.

“It was a bit frustrating because I wanted to be out there with them. They’ve kind of left me behind. I want to get back to full fitness as soon as possible and start joining them.”

Sterne started feeling pain in his back in late 2009. At first he tried to play through it, but soon realized that wasn’t possible.

“It just got really bad and I had to quit. At first it was nice to step back and take time off, but I was away a lot longer than I expected. I didn’t touch a club for about eight months. Rotation was a problem, so golf was out. I just did rehab and physio.”

After finishing 4th in the 2010 Joburg, he took most of the season off. He tried again at the end of 2010 and beginning of 2011. He played six times between December 2010 and February 2011. After a 59th in Dubai in February 2011 he sat out until January 2012.

Last season he played a full schedule, teeing it up in 24 events with five top-10 finishes, including second place in the Wales Open.

Proof that Sterne was getting back to his best came last week when he finished second in the Dubai Desert Classic. He might have won if not for Stephen Gallacher’s eagle on the 16th hole of the final round, one of five the Scot recorded during the week.

Sterne was not to be denied in Joburg. His flawless final-round 64 made sure of that. The fact he bettered Schwartzel should not be overlooked. Sterne at his best is every bit as good as the Masters winner.

Sterne drifted outside the top 1,000 in the world rankings during his dark days. His win in Joburg should get him into the top 60. He needs to get back inside the top 50 to play in the game’s biggest tournaments.

“I’d like to get back into all the majors. That’s where I want to be playing,” Sterne said.

“It’s a big year. I’ve got off to such a nice start so hopefully I can keep it going.”

He might just keep going to a major win. He has the game if he can stay healthy.

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