The man nicknamed ‘Rambo’ at the age of two proved just as combative during his rookie season in 2016. By Mike Taylor.
There was an aura around Jordan Spieth in 2015 that everybody wanted to breathe in and savour. Far away in the town of Delmas, Christiaan Bezuidenhout watched closely while preparing for his own golf career. Like Spieth, his game was built around the short stuff – putting like a demon, chipping it stiff from everywhere. There is a similar air about him, but few people know of his incredible journey into the professional ranks.
Bezuidenhout went largely unnoticed at the Cape Town Open in November as he chatted with Compleat Golfer. Spectators were interested in Brandon Stone, Hennie Otto or Jbe Kruger, but not so much in the 20-year-old, enjoying a rookie season better than that of Louis Oosthuizen or Charl Schwartzel. He’s now starting to get the hang of media attention and stutters far less than he did a year ago at the Big Easy Tour Championship, but the speech impediment remains. He used to take beta blockers to help the condition, but at the Amateur Championship in 2014 he discovered it was a prohibited substance and was banned for two years.
The teenager was distraught, losing his status as SA’s top-ranked amateur, but later had the sentence reduced to nine months, and was allowed to compete again from March 2015. In the following 20 months he went from playing by invitation to winning Sunshine Tour Rookie of the Year and earning over R1.8 million, a feat he achieved through a combination of determination and hard work.
‘The past three years have been tough, with lots of ups and downs. Struggles and good times. That’s how sport is, especially golf. It’s not always going to be good times. There are going to be some tough patches, but luckily I’ve got a very supportive family and good system behind me, which really helps,’ he says.
There’s a wonderful irony in the way Bezuidenhout flies under the radar – an unknown prodigy who’s clearly a cut above. His goals, such as winning the Big Easy Tour Order of Merit, coming first at Qualifying School or winning in his rookie season, have all come to fruition. The history books will remember Brandon Stone winning the SA Open in 2016, but Ernie Els wrapped his arms around Stone and runner-up Bezuidenhout when he claimed ‘This is the future of South African golf!’
‘Ernie is one of my role models,’ says Bezuidenhout. ‘I was in his foundation for six years and it was really nice to hear that from someone like him, a four-time Major winner.’
The young star backed up his second-place finish at Glendower Golf Club with a tie for 22nd at the Joburg Open a week later and began a rookie stint unseen since the Big Easy arrived on Tour. Over the course of 2016 he missed only three cuts, won the Sun Fish River Challenge, and was fifth on the Order of Merit by the end of the year.
‘I didn’t expect that at the SA Open. After my Q-School win I got an invitation and just tried to play without any expectation, so I played with so much confidence. Everything went my way, I had a couple of chip-ins, some breaks. I couldn’t have dreamt of a better start to start my rookie year on Tour,’ he says.
His trumpeted entrance to the professional scene contrasts his quiet personality. The well-mannered youngster goes out of his way to greet every person he knows, occasionally leaving the practice green to dish out handshakes. He’s tall, quiet and steely, similar to the bow-wielding action hero after whom he’s nicknamed. The trend is becoming clear – when Bezuidenhout puts his mind to something, it gets done.
‘I’ve always been quite a laid-back guy. I like to do my own things, I don’t have to be around people to entertain myself. I like to practise on my own, do things on my own,’ he says. But does he have expectations? ‘Absolutely, absolutely. Securing my European Tour card in 2017 is my main goal. My long-term goal is to win The Open Championship, I’d say that’s the ultimate Major to win. I like links golf and to play creatively.’
Bezuidenhout comes from a golfing family, with his father and two uncles all playing off low handicaps. He learned under their guidance, but the bug bit when he was four years old and tried to make up and downs from 100 metres at Delmas Golf Club, which bordered his childhood home. In Grade 1 his father took him on to the golf course and the rest is history.
He became a member of the Ernie Els & Fancourt Foundation during his teenage years and trained under Dougie Wood, who’s based at Serengeti Golf Estate. From Grade 8 he stopped playing other sports and focused on golf, already certain it would be his career. At 17 years old he was spending up to five hours a day working on his short game.
There was plenty of interest in his ability and he achieved the Western Province double at Strand Golf Club in 2013. Bezuidenhout first trumped Haydn Porteous, at that stage the country’s No 1 amateur, to win the WP strokeplay title, and then took a 2 & 1 win over NJ Arnoldi at the WP matchplay, becoming the fifth player to win both titles in one showing.
By June 2014 Bezuidenhout was No 1 on the South African Golf Association Open rankings and qualified to play at the Amateur Championship, where he tested positive for using the beta blockers. It was a crushing blow and cast a shadow over his reputation, but he appealed the ban at an International Golf Federation hearing, which found that he had not used the medication for competitive advantage.
The reduction of his sentence was a victory tinged with sadness, because he had missed qualifying school and had no Tour status. ‘I told my father that I can’t just sit at home on the couch, I have to keep working,’ he says.
The Sunshine Big Easy Tour, which began in 2012 as a nursing ground for struggling young professionals, proved to be his salvation. Bezuidenhout was invited to play a 36-hole tournament at Irene Country Club and finished seventh, a result which secured his spot at the following event, the King’s Cup in Swaziland. There he shot consecutive rounds of 67 to win on 10 under par, and a fortnight later he won again at Glendower Golf Club with a grinding final round of 75 in windy conditions.
The Tour Championship at Copperleaf was his last stop on the circuit and he arrived as No 1 on the money list. He lost a playoff in the season finale, but won the Order of Merit and the first of five Sunshine Tour cards on offer. ‘I know I can compete there. I have the chance to do that now,’ he said afterwards.
Bezuidenhout wanted to improve his player category and three months later he made the trip to Bloemfontein for Sunshine Tour Qualifying School, where he shot 65, 66, 66 in the final three rounds and made an eagle at the final hole to win the tournament. He hasn’t looked back since, but the attention he’s getting remains a novelty.
‘It’s always nice to get support. When people see your name there every week and start to recognise you, it’s special. On the Sunshine Tour we don’t get as much press or television time, so getting support from outside people is a huge boost,’ he says.
The youngster has encountered a few speed bumps in his career, but he’s simply moving too fast to be stopped. He watched Brandon Stone achieve great things on the back of his SA Open victory and wants the same for himself.
‘You must just go at the right time for you,’ said Bezuidenhout. ‘Unfortunately at the beginning of 2016 I didn’t pay my membership fee for the European Tour, so my money didn’t count for the Race to Dubai. That put me back a bit, but I’ve had some nice finishes in European Tour events, so the next goal is to get there.’
ROOKIE WINNERS IN THE PAST FIVE YEARS
YEAR NAME PLAYED EARNED
2016 Christiaan Bezuidenhout 18 R2 292 506
2015 Rourke van der Spuy 21 R354 387
2014 Haydn Porteous 19 R711 197
2013 Dylan Frittelli 9 R564 960
2012 Danie van Tonder 25 R654 552
2011 Allan Versfeld 20 R595 071
2002 Louis Oosthuizen 20 R233 682
2002 Charl Schwartzel 15 R352 402
1991 Ernie Els 8 R21 470
Consecutive cuts made 7
low round score 65
stroke average 71.02
Ave birdies per round 3.94