Stone entered 2016 as the 249th best player in the world, some way off the radar of even the most loyal South African golf fans. After a promising university golf career, which included winning the 2013 NCAA Freshman of the Year award while representing the University of Texas, the young South African was like many other golfers his age – just part of the growing queue to join Branden Grace, Charl Schwartzel and Louis Oosthuizen as the next South African to join golf’s leading contenders on the global stage.
It would not be hyperbolic to suggest that his life was thrown upside down by his victory at the 105th edition of the South African Open in January. The win, which required him to see off the threats from Grace and veteran Retief Goosen down the stretch on Sunday, solidified in Stone’s mind what he has already known for many years. He belongs at the highest level.
‘Any time you are given the opportunity to compete against the best in the world it is special,’ the 23-year-old tells Compleat Golfer. ‘Having won my national open, when those guys were in the field, obviously adds to its value. Knowing I can compete on that stage has given me a major confidence boost, as I showed in the events that followed by having a few good results.’
The injection of self-belief sent Stone on a run which included top 10 finishes at the Tshwane Open, the Investec Cup, the Mauritius Open and a tie for second in China where he was thwarted in his stride to his return to the winner’s circle by South Korean Soomin Lee, despite Stone shooting 68 on the final day, three strokes better than Lee.
It may be the exuberance of youth but Stone can only see the positives of that runner-up finish and not as an opportunity gone abegging. ‘Obviously I would’ve loved to have won, but second is the next best thing.
‘Overall it was an incredible experience in Shenzhen. Travelling to Asia is never easy, from jet lag to the difference in cuisine, but having played well in spite of all those factors proved how strong I really am technically and mentally.’
By June, with South Africa’s leading trio making it public that they would be skipping Rio 2016, Stone’s steady climb up the rankings saw him on the brink of securing a place alongside Jaco van Zyl on the plane to Brazil. A feat that not even Stone saw coming. ‘At the start of the year I set myself some specific goals, some of which I have already achieved – winning on the European Tour – and some I haven’t just yet. The Olympics wasn’t on that list but as far as unexpected surprises go it doesn’t get any better.’
Two weeks before the 11 July cut-off for qualifying, the South African flag flew prominently on the first page of the leaderboard for all four days at the French Open as Stone secured his Olympic place when he finished in a tie for fifth.
‘As strange as it might sound, I am grateful to those players who have withdrawn as it has given me an opportunity of a lifetime. It’s not often a golfer can refer to himself as an Olympic athlete,’ Stone said after learning of his qualification for Team South Africa, something he insists he has never and will never take for granted. In the same breath, he can see the bigger picture for those who snubbed the chance to play in Brazil.
‘It is an honour and a privilege any time a professional athlete is given the opportunity to represent his country and those occasions do not get any bigger than the Olympics. In saying that I do understand certain players opting not to participate. I’m only 23, so any thoughts of children are very far away. For players like Charl and Branden who are trying to grow their families, I agree with not risking their families’ well-being.’
The battle for gold will be played out on a specially designed course next to the Reserva de Marapendi in the Barra da Tijuca district in Rio de Janeiro. The young South African admits he knows little about the par-71, 7,350-yard course, which is expected to play like Royal Melbourne but that is not a cause for any concern.
‘I’ve only seen pictures of the course on the internet. As far as preparation goes, I’ll be taking it like it’s just another week on tour. This year being my rookie season on the European Tour, I haven’t seen most of the courses before, so it’s not a major adjustment for me. I’m obviously planning on attending the opening ceremony which is almost a week before the event actually starts, leaving plenty of time to get ready to fight for the gold.’
Stone’s boyish enthusiasm comes through strongly when pressed for what he is looking forward to most at the Olympics. Competing for gold? Mingling with the world’s finest athletes? Taking part in the opening ceremony? ‘All of the above,’ says Stone with a beaming smile. ‘I need to keep reminding myself it’s the Olympics, the single biggest sporting event on the planet, it gives me goosebumps every time. Ever since I was 12 years old I’ve taken huge responsibility whenever I’ve worn the green and gold.
‘Like I’ve said before, there is no greater honour than representing your country. Obviously I’m ecstatic about the possibility of meeting some of sports greatest athletes, like Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps, and who knows, maybe I meet Usain on the ping pong table and show him a thing or two [laughs].’
One of his favourite questions from the media is how winning gold would compare to winning an ordinary European Tour event or even winning one of golf’s four Majors. ‘Many players rate a career differently, some by how consistently they have performed over many years, others by how many Majors they have. It’s a topic that crops up constantly between the pros during events,’ reveals Stone.
‘I feel that a career is not determined by how much prize money one has earned or how many top 10s a player has had. The reasons I started to play golf was 1) because I love this game and feel it’s the greatest game ever created and 2) to win Majors, and I feel the Olympics are the fifth major. So to win gold, or any medal, would be a career highlight regardless of what I do manage to accomplish in the years to come.’
When you look at Stone’s numbers it’s clear to see that he delivers under pressure, his weekend stroke average is a full 1.5 strokes better than his opening two rounds on the European Tour so far this season. ‘I’ve always looked at the weekend as my favorite time to perform. I’m typically a very slow starter to events, but I’ve come to terms with that. All I strive for in a week is to be in contention come the back nine on Sunday, if I do that I’m happy.’
As his year has gone, Stone could very well view the Olympics as the weekend of his rookie season and as he has already proved, he thrives when it matters most. To suggest that his boyish grin could yet be seen on the podium on 14 August may be viewed in the same light as those who dared to dream that he would be on the team in first place. He’s proved them wrong once, don’t bet against him doing it twice.