James Kingston turned 50 in November and signed up for the 2016 European Senior Tour. Four events into his maiden season and the Rustenburg-born golfer is ranked 33rd on the Order of Merit. Adapting to life on the veteran’s circuit had come naturally.
‘After an 18-month break it feels strange to be back, but I’m slowly getting into the swing of things. Hopefully we’ll get to where we left off when I stopped playing, but there’s a more relaxed feeling about the tournaments. It’s not as pressurised and fast-paced as the regular tour,’ he says a week before the Senior Open Championship at Carnoustie.
The 50-year-old got his maiden season rolling at the SSE Wales Senior Open, shooting three rounds of 70 or better at The Celtic Manor Resort to share 11th place on one under par. A week later he crossed the English Channel to play at the Acorn Jersey Open in France, where he tied for 45th place. In a fortnight he had settled into life on the senior circuit.
‘I used to play golf with a lot of these guys over the years. I haven’t seen some of them for five, six, 10 years, so it’s nice to meet up again. There are great players out here and people sometimes forget who they are and what they’ve done in their careers. You see a lot of the legends of yesterday. Look at what Tom Watson and Bernhard Langer have done over the past few years. Montgomerie, and a lot of the Americans, are guys who were playing on regular tours even recently. It’s good to be in that kind of company,’ Kingston says.
There are no cuts at Senior Tour events, which changes the competition dynamic. Regular tournaments (Majors excluded) are three rounds long, so keeping tabs on the leaders is first priority. Kingston won seven 54-hole tournaments while competing on the Sunshine Tour and is familiar with the set-up.
‘In any event and no matter who you are, the first hurdle is to make the cut. You can’t win on Sunday if you’re not there on Saturday … but we only play three rounds. It’s tough, because you have one less round to overcome during the week. If you want to chase, there is less chance to catch up and get back in there, so it’s a different approach to tournament golf,’ he says.
At the start of July he travelled to Golf Club Bad Ragaz for the Swiss Senior Open and shot a final round of 66 to tie for 12th place on six under par, four shots behind winner Tom Thelen. A week later he tied for 21st place at the Winstongolf Senior Open to claim 33rd on the Order of Merit before heading for Carnoustie.
‘I’ve always enjoyed links golf and the conditions. It’s so much more fun in the sense that you have to hit so many different shots. It’s not point A to point B, there are so many ways to get to the hole,’ says Kingston, who reached a career-high of 65th in the world in 2008.
The Rustenburg-born player began his professional career in 1988 and made the top 40 on the Sunshine Tour Order of Merit. He repeated the feat for another 19 consecutive years, with his best local triumph coming at the South African Airways Open at Pearl Valley in 2007.
‘If you listen to a lot of players they will say every win is a great win and a memorable one, but the South African Open will probably always be the most special,’ says Kingston, who triumphed by one stroke on four-under-par 284. ‘I had been knocking on the door for quite some time and I lost two tournaments in the years before. To any player, winning your open, your national open, is a fantastic achievement. The opportunity came my way, so it will always have a special place in my heart.’
A year later he claimed an elusive European victory at the Mercedes-Benz Championship, picking up his biggest cheque to date after a playoff win over Anders Hansen at Golf Club Gut Larchenhof in Germany.
‘Having won a few tournaments on the summer tour in South Africa and eventually winning on European soil at the Mercedes Championship was special. You can always feel like you’ve maybe left some behind, but you need to accept what you have achieved. You’ve got to look back and feel satisfied,’ he says.
In spite of his 17 professional victories worldwide, Kingston is often remembered for making a hole-in-one at the 15th of Houghton Golf Club during Alfred Dunhill Championship in 2002. He tugged a 4-iron at the 206m par three and the ball clipped a tree above and left of the green, but it kicked towards the hole and promptly sank. His prize was an Audi TT, at that time worth R330 000.
‘We all have those moments. If you ask players to name the shots where they got done in by the game of golf, we all tend to remember them. Sometimes we don’t want to remember the ones where we got lucky. That shot has probably done more for me than a lot of others,’ says Kingston.
‘People tend to remember you for a lucky hole-in-one and forget that you’ve won other tournaments. Such is the nature of the game. I’ve had nine holes-in-one, but people always remember the one that came off a tree for a car. Got a pat on the back for the other eight and they were all decent shots. The one that was a fluke won me a car and was on CNN, so from that point it definitely stands out,’ he adds.
Getting back on tour has enabled Kingston to reminisce over those moments and catch up with old pals, specifically nine-time Sunshine Tour winner Chris Williams, who won the 2011 Aberdeen Brunei Senior Masters. The two golfers keep each other company on the circuit.
‘It’s been nice for me to spend some time with my good friend Chris, who I used to play a lot of golf with. It’s encouraging to meet up again and spend time together with familiar faces. You rebuild relationships with people you spent a lot of time with in the past,’ Kingston said.
He might not see himself as a hero or figurehead, but when he spoke after winning the 2013 Investec Royal Swazi Open the entire room was silent, listening. Kingston can look back on a great professional career that shone a light for future South African golfers.
‘I don’t know how much I’ve led the young guys. What I do know is that South African golf is healthier than it has been in a long time. We can go back to what Gary Player, Ernie Els, Retief Goosen, Charl Schwartzel and Louis Oosthuizen have done. How Branden Grace is poised to take the world by storm, and Brandon Stone has the world at his feet. I can’t imagine South African golf has been healthier than where it is now,’ he said.
Kingston was quick to laud his countrymen, nine of whom were busy competing at The Open Championship at Royal Troon. His best result at the oldest Major was a tie for 27th at Turnberry in 2009, where he shot 67 in the first round.
From Carnoustie he could look back and appreciate the healthy state of golf in his home country, due in part to his contribution. It came as no surprise that his final words offered advice to the next generation.
‘It’s a very exciting time for local golf and there are numerous good players back home too If I can say one thing to them it’s that they must get out here. Take the next step and start playing international golf,’ says Kingston, who throughout his career was smartly dressed, well mannered, and exemplified professional golf.