South Africa has a long history of producing golfers with pure swings, from Ernie Els to Louis Oosthuizen, but one of the country’s latest prodigies doesn’t fit that mould.
Danie van Tonder is a burly 25-year-old who overpowers golf courses with his muscular swing and aggressive playing style. He believes talent and hard work make a professional. Golf swings and mental fortitude are byproducts of persistence, in his book.
Van Tonder plays two rounds every day, a routine he picked up after leaving school in Grade 10 to pursue a career in golf.
‘I still practice 36 holes a day, same thing from the beginning. I find that playing more teaches you how to score. You can stand on a range forever and swing at balls, but it’s completely different,’ says Van Tonder, who gyms to keep his body strong and reckons it ‘must be him’, to win a weightlifting contest with Rory McIlroy.
In a pre-tournament interview at the Africa Open in 2013 he was asked about the tricky layout of East London Golf Club, which finds its defence in the coastal winds of the city. ‘I don’t mind what the weather does, I’ll take a Tiger line wherever I can. You have to hit low, punchy shots here, which doesn’t suit my game, but I’m happy with it anyway.’
It was a bold claim from the 2012 Sunshine Tour Rookie of the Year, who tied for 15th at the Alfred Dunhill Championship one month before, but the statement epitomised his unique, go-for-it attitude.
An unorthodox swing completes the Van Tonder package. It begins with a stiff takeaway to a backswing that stops just short of having the club perpendicular to the ground. With a whoosh of breath he brings the club to bear, packing power through the right side of his body. His follow through is equally strange – the club finishes nearly vertical once again and he stares the ball down as it flies. The whistling noise that accompanies his swing is a breathing technique he learned while boxing as a teenager.
In his youth, stories of a demanding father filtered through the cracks, but it was Van Tonder’s indomitable work ethic that made him an outsider in the junior and amateur ranks. He had his own swing, his own way of going about business, and no one was going to tell him otherwise. It was hard to argue with the results – he topped the South African Golf Association rankings and capped off his amateur career in January 2011 at 23rd in the World Amateur Rankings. He turned pro one month later and proceeded to win 10 of 18 IGT Tour events that year.
At the 2012 Qualifying School, Ruan de Smidt outclassed him by four strokes, but when asked about his rival’s ability he said: ‘As an amateur … unbeatable.’
In March that year Doug McGuigan, a six-time winner on the local tour, tied for second place with Van Tonder at the Selborne Vodacom Origins of Golf tournament. ‘He just oozes confidence,’ the veteran said in an interview five months later. ‘What I like about him is that, apart from being very strong off the tee and good with the putter, he does things his own way. Too many young pros worry about what other people think. Danie is his own master, and that’s a breath of fresh air on tour.’
Van Tonder finished the season with two runner-up results and four more top-10s, ranked 20th on the Order of Merit, and won Rookie of the Year.
In 2013 he hunted for a win, but was unable to break through and settled for two runner-up results, 17 cuts made, and 26th place on the Order of Merit. That season he also put his hand up on the European Tour, with top-20s at the Alfred Dunhill Championship and the Joburg Open.
The year 2014 was the one he had been waiting for. He came second at the co-sanctioned Tshwane Open in February and reached the winner’s circle three months later at the Investec Royal Swazi Open after closing with four consecutive birdies. He won again a month later, at the Euphoria Vodacom Origins of Golf tournament, on his way to leading the Sunshine Tour Order of Merit by R220 000 with one event to play. He also met his fiancee Abby that year. All was going well.
At the SA Open in January his dream was undone when Thomas Aiken sank a 10-foot putt at the 72nd hole to snatch away the Order of Merit title, but Van Tonder remained unrelenting in his will to succeed.
‘Not just anyone can win the Order of Merit,’ he said. ‘You have to play well the whole year and consistently perform in tournaments, so it’s definitely still one of my goals. I have specific things I want to achieve, that’s what I work for.’
Coming second in the season’s earnings gave him spots at the 2015 WGC-HSBC Champions and WGC-Cadillac Championship. He had forgettable results at both events (tied-72nd and tied 66th respectively) but came away determined to win a European Tour event in South Africa.
‘I want to win a co-sanctioned tournament as soon as possible. At the moment I’m playing better and my whole game is good. The only thing left is time. I played in those WGCs and thought it would happen soon after that, but it’s taken a while. Maybe I wasn’t used to the travel, but this time I know what to do,’ said the 1.8m professional.
His determination is almost palpable as he chats over the phone, busy rustling through his golf bag, the sound of zips filtering through the receiver. Golf never stops for Van Tonder.
‘I’m the same Danie from a couple of years ago. I work hard on my game and don’t just change things. I keep on doing the same thing over and over again. It will come right and stay right for a while, and then after that you struggle again,’ he said.
At Humewood Golf Club in 2014 a startled rules official came into the tournament office. Van Tonder had urged him to open the range at 5am before the Sun Boardwalk Challenge and when the go-ahead was given, Van Tonder took out his driver and began hitting balls off the deck. ‘What are you doing?’ the rules official asked. ‘Warming up,’ he said with a surprised look. He tied for ninth place that week.
Van Tonder’s personal life has changed since he met his fiancee, who tours with him as a caddie. It’s helped a young and excited player settle into life on tour.
‘If you see a relationship and you’re with someone it’s different. It keeps you on the ground and it’s much nicer traveling with someone you love. We work together. I’m playing for two people, it’s a family thing now. It’s not just for myself any more.’
That family unit will not be growing any time soon, because Van Tonder has goals to achieve.
‘Me and my Abby are strong as always. She’s on the bag and keeps me smiling out there. We’ve got two cats at home, but no plans for kids,’ he said.
His aim is to win on the European Tour and has learned a thing or two from Haydn Porteous and Brandon Stone, who cut their teeth on the Challenge Tour last year and won big tournaments at the start of 2016. Van Tonder started the year with missed cuts at all three co-sanctioned events, but posted top-25s in his next four starts.
‘Haydn and them played overseas for most of last year and they got used to it quickly, but every person peaks at a different time,’ he said. ‘I’m going to the Challenge Tour in June and playing the final stretch until November. After that I come back this side.’
‘The courses everywhere are the same, it’s just different yardage books. The only difference is the layouts, so I’m looking forward to it,’ he added.
Van Tonder has a work ethic reminiscent of Vijay Singh or Gary Player, but makes his own rules. It’s a unique way to approach the game of golf, but he makes it work through force of will. He had a goal to play the Nedbank Golf Challenge within five years of turning professional and made it in three. He wanted to win the Order of Merit and came up just short in his third year on tour. This season he wants to break onto the European Tour and his determination makes it a real probability.
‘You have to do your own thing. Keep practising, because everything takes blood, sweat and tears. You need natural talent and hard work. But hard work is more important,’ he concluded.