The Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro may end up known more for the athletes who are not there than the ones who are, but South Africa’s top women’s golfers are determined to fly the flag where the country’s top-ranked men were reluctant to go.
For Reto, the Olympic Games poses a first opportunity for the Cape Town native to represent the country in a team event.
‘I came into golf by default, really, after my family left for the United States in 2005,’ she says. ‘I couldn’t find a local hockey team, so I took up golf and it was a perfect fit. I always played under the South African flag, but my biggest regret was that I was never considered for South African.’
Reto earned a golf scholarship to Purdue University and graduated in 2013 with a degree in law and society, and All-American honours. For the past two years, she has represented South Africa with honour on the LPGA Tour.
Being part of the first South African golf team at the Olympics is a dream come true for the 26-year-old Cape Town native.
‘It’s going to be a lot of fun to talk in Afrikaans to the rest of the team,’ says Reto. ‘I believe Mr Player and Jaco [van Zyl] are fluent, and Ash and Brandon [Stone] are happy to have a go. I am so incredibly excited to play at the Olympics and, as the time gets closer I am thinking more and more about it.
‘We still have a couple more events on the LPGA circuit and the Ricoh Women’s British Open coming up, so I am trying my best to focus on one week at a time, but I am already starting to prepare myself for all aspects of the Olympics.
‘I am sure I will be in awe of everything when we arrive, so I’m thankful that the format is 72 holes stroke play. At least that is something we are used to. That part, at least, should be easy to go through since we don’t have to change much of our routine.
‘I am really looking forward to meeting a lot of the other athletes. I think that is one of the best things about staying in the Olympic Village. There are so many athletes I admire and it’s going to be great to watch some of them in action as we wait for the golf to start.
‘Actually, I’ve just heard that the Olympic Village is an awesome place for all of us to get together, but you don’t really know what to expect, so that is yet another aspect I’m looking forward to. For me, not knowing what’s coming or how things will be just raises my adrenalin, because I love the adventure of the unknown and going to new places.
‘On top of everything, it will be the first Olympic Games I attend. I never expected to earn my South African colours, and to compete under the South African flag is an absolute dream come true. My only goal is to keep working on my game, one day at a time. In my heart of hearts, I want to be in peak condition when we arrive in Rio so that Ashleigh and I can do South Africa proud in golf’s debut at the Olympics.’
Lee-Anne Pace’s unexpected withdrawal opened the door for Simon, whose career will come full circle when she walks into the Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro on 5 August with Team RSA.
‘I get goose pumps when I picture myself, Paula, Gary, Jaco and Brandon walking into the stadium with the rest of the team behind the South African flag for the opening ceremony,’ Simon says.
‘I have to pinch myself, because I keep thinking about that moment and what it would mean to me to be surrounded by athletes from all over the world. I want to absorb every moment and take mental snapshots of everything because this opportunity is simply tremendous.
‘The status, the prestige and the vibe of the Olympic Games rubs off on you when you’re watching it on television, so the walk into the stadium with Team RSA is guaranteed to be the most unbelievable experience of my life.’
Golf’s debut at the Olympic Games comes a decade after Simon steered South Africa to the country’s first – and only – victory in the prestigious World Amateur Team Championships in 2006.
Before the tournament, golfing powerhouses like the United States and Sweden gave a country from Africa little chance of winning the Espirito Santo Trophy. But they misjudged the rich skills and fighting qualities of three young South Africans in Ashleigh Simon, then 17, Kelli Shean (19) and Stacy Bregman (20).
The trio clinched victory on a tiebreaker from defending champions Sweden in a dramatic final round at De Zalze Golf Club. It was South Africa’s first victory in their 17 appearances in the 42-year history of this biennial event often referred to as the Olympics of golf.
The 2006 gold medallist feels anything is possible at the Olympics.
‘After we won the Espirito Santo Trophy, I never would have believed that I would have another chance to represent South Africa as a professional,’ Simon says. ‘There is no Presidents Cup in women’s golf, no World Cup any more and I thought those days were long gone.
‘I loved my days of amateur golf and it was the greatest thrill to represent South Africa every year at an international team event. Now I have the chance to be one of the first two women to do so at the Olympics. It’s a massive, massive honour.
‘Oh my gosh, what a treat! It’s going to be the coolest experience of my life and I’m over the moon that my fiance and caddie Dave [Buhai] is going to experience it all with me. As far as our chances go, I think Paula and I will be in the same boat Stacy, Kelli and I were in 2006 and that’s a good thing.
‘Let the media focus on Lydia [Ko], the Americans and the South Koreans, and leave us alone to do our own thing. The Olympics often throws up surprise winners and how many times have you seen an underdog win … that could be us, you never know.
‘Golf has afforded me the opportunity to tick off many things on my bucket list, but this is the biggest tick of my life.’
In terms of South African golf, Simon seems to have been around for ages, yet the truth is she’s still only 27 with a potentially long and lucrative career ahead of her, especially now that she has established herself on the multimillion dollar LPGA Tour circuit.
Whiz kid ‘Ash’ won the WPGA South African Women’s Open as a precocious 14-year-old – the only amateur to have done so and by far the youngest.
She set numerous records she set as a teen and earned the nickname ‘Miss Can’t Miss’ after she won the Sanlam South African Women’s Strokeplay Championship for the third straight year as a 16-year-old, a feat that had not been accomplished in 101 years and has never been repeated.
At 19, the teenage prodigy from Royal Johannesburg and Kensington was to women’s South African golf what Player was to the man’s game at the same age and it was inevitable she would have to test her considerable talents against her professional peers.
A day after her 18th birthday she duly converted to the paid ranks. Three tournaments later she was on the podium receiving the trophy after being crowned the Catalonia Ladies Masters champion.
Although Simon also claimed the 2011 ISPS Handa Portugal Ladies Open, she was ill-prepared to deal with the rigours of the professional circuit and it seemed that each time she started to find her feet, injuries derailed her once promising career.
‘I had recurring back injuries for several years and eventually went under the knife for hip surgery in 2012,’ says Simon. “It’s tough to come back from injuries but all the setbacks just made me more determined to succeed. But each time you have to start at the bottom and work your way back.
‘I had my fiance Dave in my corner, incredible support from my parents and endless patience from my coach Doug Wood. You have to keep pushing when so many people believe in you.’
After a handful of failures, Simon secured her LPGA Tour card in 2014, kept her playing privileges on the US circuit and has made great strides this season.
‘When Lee-Anne first asked me if I would go to the Olympics if she withdrew, I thought she had to be joking, but she kept on asking and I said yes,’ says Simon. ‘We had planned for Doug to come to the US Women’s Open, but once I knew I made the team, it was even more important to have him come to the States. We’ve worked hard on a few niggling issues in the past three weeks and I feel my confidence is growing. I’m still gunning for a spot in the Women’s British Open and then we fly to Rio.
‘I am trying to stay in the moment and to focus on the job at hand, but boy, it’s tough not to think about the Olympics. It really is a dream come true for Paula and me.’