Five years after making his Open Championship debut, Jbe Kruger is back at golf’s oldest Major, writes MIKE TODT in Compleat Golfer.
It’s safe to say that the rise of James Barry Kruger – fondly known as Jbe – has been atypical in many ways. Cutting his teeth on a nine-hole course in the Northern Cape with oil and sand greens will resonate with precious few Tour players. By the time he moved to his comparatively urbanised new home of Kathu, aged 15, he was playing off a nine-handicap, and seemingly a long way from forging a career as a professional golfer.
But the upward curve has been a steep one, as he flew down to scratch within a matter of months on his newfound greener pastures. The accolades flowed from there as an amateur too, and his transition to the paid ranks in 2007 was smooth. Indeed, he very much held his own on the Sunshine Tour in his first few seasons.
My first close-up experience of watching Kruger in action was at the 2010 Africa Open, where he pushed Thomas Aiken and eventual winner Charl Schwartzel all the way, with his now trademark smile ever-present that day. It was clear then that, despite his unorthodox swing, this was a player with ample X factor.
Kruger went on to record a second Sunshine Tour victory in Zimbabwe later that year, but it was in 2012 when he really struck gold, closing out a two-stroke victory at the European Tour-sanctioned Avantha Masters in India. It was a triumph that was cause for much celebration, but also one that confirmed his sense of belonging among the game’s elite. And among the many perks of hitting this €300 000 jackpot was a ticket to his first Major: The Open Championship at Royal Lytham & St Annes.
It’s a week South Africans remember fondly, as Ernie Els pulled off an unlikely victory. Kruger, alas, missed the cut narrowly, although he more than held his own, and was all the better for the experience.
‘Obviously it was an amazing week and one I’ll never forget,’ the 30-year-old tells Compleat Golfer.
‘I was on form, and actually played well. I’d never really played links golf before that, and it showed on the second day.
‘I was a couple under par after the first day, which was almost leading. Unfortunately, in the second round I started finding the fairway bunkers – six of them in the first nine holes. I then fought back from six or seven over through nine, and still had a chance to make the cut. But I hit the ball into another bunker on 17, which cost me a double-bogey, and although I birdied the last hole, I ended up missing the cut by one.’
Given the quality of golf Kruger was producing at the time, it seemed a foregone conclusion that his next Major appearance would be just around the corner. Yet towards the end of 2012, form began to desert him – notwithstanding a respectable finish at that year’s DP World Tour Championship in Dubai.
He looked to have finally turned the corner in late-2013, going close at the SA Open, before picking up a second Zimbabwe Open title early the following year. But consistency has been elusive since, and it culminated in the loss of his full European Tour card in 2015.
‘I haven’t had it all my way in the past five years, to say the absolute least,’ he says, smiling wryly. ‘Being a Christian, I hold on to the belief that everything will work out for the best. I would love this game and my performances to always be on the up, but there are going to be constant challenges along the way. Yet, having had a lot of lights come on in the past couple of years, I do believe the ship has turned around.’
Kruger was unable to regain his full playing rights on the European Tour in 2016, and although there were a handful of decent finishes on the Sunshine and Asian Tours last season, he had little cause for profound optimism by the time the Singapore Open came around in January. The fact there were four qualifying spots available for this year’s Open at Royal Birkdale was a sizable carrot, but one many would have felt was out of his reach.
But he got things together nicely at the Sentosa course, following an opening-round 68 with a steady 69 on day two. And after a 70 on moving day, his position was consolidated and he was in with a shout. But the remarkable, dramatic tale of how the diminutive Kruger managed to get over the line is quite simply best told by the man himself.
‘It was an emotional final day, knowing it was in my grasp to qualify for my second Open, especially after years of drought since 2012,’ he reflects. ‘I shot level on the front nine on the Sunday. I was playing well, but just not scoring. I knew I needed something special on the back nine. I birdied 10, but bogeys at 12 and 13 set me back. Then I made birdie on 16, and had a phenomenal par save on 17 after steaming my first putt eight feet past the hole.
‘When I stood on the 18th tee, I wasn’t really thinking “eagle” because the leaderboard suggested I needed to pick up three or four shots. I hit a hybrid off the tee, and, with all the adrenaline, it went a little further than normal. Standing on the fairway, I was just thinking of trying to make a birdie, and securing a decent finish.
‘I had 269 yards to the front, and didn’t think I could reach. I was preparing to lay up, and then I heard God’s voice saying, “You have nothing to lose, just go for it.” With the flag tucked behind the bunker, some 28 yards on to the green, I probably hit one of the best shots of my life,’ Kruger says, beaming.
He knew it was good, but had no idea how good. In fact, his ball had flown much of the way there, skimmed through the greenside bunker, and finished within striking distance for eagle.
‘With the sun reflecting on the water, it was tough to see where it finished,’ Kruger recalls. ‘There was hardly any applause, so I thought it must have finished short of the green, or crept into the bunker. I couldn’t believe it when I saw a ball just short of pin-high, about 15 feet away.
‘Glancing up at the leaderboard, I noticed that the players behind me had dropped a few shots, and it suddenly occurred to me that I might still have a chance. Walking around the hole, it was like the line was illuminated. Left edge was all I could see. So, I made it.’
He continues: ‘The emotion that followed was obviously huge excitement, but there were two guys who still had to finish who could bump me out. One made a mess on 16 and again on 18. The other hit it to about 20 feet from the hole on 18, also for eagle. Luckily for me, he missed.’
Faith, of course, has played an integral role in Kruger’s life, and certainly the astonishing nature of his passage to The Open would test the resolve of even the most hardened sceptics. Sometimes in golf, there are those moments when science and reason are insufficient to explain the extraordinary.
Yet one also wouldn’t want to undermine the immense talent Kruger possesses, and the events in Singapore demonstrated just why there remains such a high level of expectation regarding what he can go on to achieve.
For now, though, it is a week at Birkdale that awaits, and he goes to the Southport course as a bona fide contender.
‘I feel like qualifying for The Open might be God’s reward for perseverance,’ he says. ‘I’ve been building nicely towards it too.’
That was emphasised when an eagle and five birdies in the final round helped him to a tie-second place at the Lyoness Open in Austria in June.
‘I haven’t played Birkdale before, but I have played in a few links tournaments, and I’ve started to enjoy links golf, so I am quietly optimistic.
‘Playing against the best golfers in the world will most definitely bring out the best in me. But, like I always say, it’s in God’s hands.’
KRUGER BY NUMBERS
1 Holes-in-one registered on the Sunshine Tour
63 Lowest round recorded on the Sunshine Tour
42 Number of top-10 finishes on the Sunshine Tour, including three wins
8-million Career prize money in rands
2007 Sunshine Tour Q-School (3rd), Highveld Classic (T3rd)
2009 Zambia Open (1st), Lombard Insurance Classic (3rd), Telkom PGA Pro-Am (T3rd), SAA Pro-Am Invitational – Randpark (T3rd), Vodacom Business – Selborne (T2nd)
2010 Africa Open (3rd), Zimbabwe Open (1st), Vodacom Business – Sishen (2nd)
2011 Vodacom Origins – Wild Coast (T3rd)
2012 Avantha Masters (1st)
2013 SA Open (T2nd), Vodacom Origins – Langebaan (T2nd)
2014 Investec Cup – Bonus (3rd), Zimbabwe Open (1st)
2017 Lyoness Open (T2nd)
– This article first appeared in the July issue of Compleat Golfer, now on sale