South Africa’s highly-rated young star, Brandon Stone, has all the building blocks in place on which to take his career to the next level, writes MICHAEL VLISMAS in Compleat Golfer.
It was 2010, and a 17-year-old Brandon Stone was knocking in a few practice putts before teeing off as an amateur in the second round of the Sunshine Tour’s Vodacom Origins of Golf tournament at Oubaai. A normal tournament day. Then Stone shot 61.
‘He played unbelievable golf that day. He made the course look silly,’ recalls Darren Fichardt, who was Stone’s professional partner in that round.
It was off the club tees, but as every pro who was there that day will tell you, you still need to make the putts.
Earlier in 2010, Stone shot 62 at The Els Club at Copperleaf – a week before Jean Hugo won a Sunshine Tour event on that course with a final round of 62 that saw him edge out Charl Schwartzel by a single shot for the title.
It’s for those and so many other examples that ‘normal’ is a very difficult concept to grasp when it comes to Stone.
We thought Schwartzel had redefined ‘normal’ when, by the age of 23, he’d won two European Tour titles and three Sunshine Tour Order of Merit titles.
When Stone reached the same age, he also had two European Tour titles, a Sunshine Tour Order of Merit title, with record earnings of over R7-million, and was selected for South Africa’s first Olympic golf team.
‘I have been a bit surprised by the success I have had so early on in my professional career. But in a way I haven’t. I set very high standards for myself and for my potential,’ says Stone.
‘But to win the Sunshine Tour Order of Merit at the age of 23, and to be the second-youngest player after Charl to do so, is pretty special. I mean, Charl is almost not normal with what he’s achieved.’
And we’re beginning to understand that neither is Stone. Whether it’s selecting the correct fly as he goes about his other love of hunting trout, or selecting the perfect wedding venue for later this year, Stone is living anything but the normal life of a 24-year-old.
This year he reached another significant milestone when he qualified for the US Open and made his first cut at only his third Major, finishing tie-35th at Erin Hills.
And he did so by doing his best to be, well, normal.
‘The first Major you play in, you get caught up in the aura around the event. The golf course, all the people, everything around you. I know that for The Open and The PGA Championship last year I was so caught up in the sheer magnitude of the event that it took my focus away from the playing of the game.
‘At Erin Hills I managed that side of it really well. I treated it the same as any normal week on Tour. I stayed in a normal hotel room, got there on the Monday and did my prep correctly. Basically, I made sure not to skip any of the normal processes that brought me success in the past.
‘I was very target-orientated and focused on what I was trying to achieve. I was deliberate in the process and had a very steady week.’
More than any other area of his game in 2017, Stone has arguably made the most progress in this department – perfecting his process of preparing for big events. And it’s something he’s refined while playing with, and watching, the best.
‘Playing with Rory McIlroy at the BMW SA Open earlier this year was enlightening. To watch how he goes about things was interesting. There’s not that much of a difference between him and me, it’s just the finer things here and there and a few approach shots and a few putts, and his approach to the week as a whole.
‘It’s the same value I’ve got out of watching guys like Charl and Louis Oosthuizen, Ernie Els and Branden Grace in the practice rounds at the bigger events. Those are the guys who are really setting the benchmark for South African golf abroad, so to watch how they conduct themselves, especially in preparation, has been valuable.
‘I think most people watch these players during a round and see them make a few mistakes and then recover, but they don’t see the preparation that has gone into the week. They’ve come up with an entire game plan for the week by Tuesday. It’s been special to see how those players conduct themselves and I try to mimic their preparation.’
It’s the same thing he saw and admired in Jordan Spieth when they played college golf together.
‘Every time he stepped on to the tee, he looked so calm and confident – like he belonged there.’
This ability to learn quickly and adapt his game has been the theme for Stone this year as he tried to challenge himself at every level.
It’s a process that began when he missed two cuts at the start of the year. It was hardly the start to 2017 you would have expected from a young star who in 2016 won twice on the European Tour. But those missed cuts were arguably just as important as those two victories in the lessons they provided.
They came during a two-week stretch on the PGA Tour. It was during a punishing schedule of travel that left him little time to recover, and there was some abnormal weather thrown in at the CareerBuilder Challenge and the Farmers Insurance Open.
Stone agrees they were vital learning experiences, and his result the next week proved this. He returned to the European Tour and finished tied seventh at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic.
Even his qualifier for the US Open represents an uncanny ability to bounce back quickly.
Stone had missed the cut at the BMW PGA Championship the week before sectional qualifying at Walton Heath, but hit back with rounds of 68 and 66 at Monday’s 36-hole qualifier.
Much of this can be traced back to Stone’s time on the Challenge Tour. While most young golfers will speak of the Challenge Tour as a good place to hone their skills as they focus on the technical aspect of their games, Stone viewed it with the bigger picture of a career in mind.
‘Those few years on the Challenge Tour were hard, but it’s a fantastic tour to learn the profession that is professional golf abroad.’
Being the consummate professional off the course as well as on it, is something that was drummed into him by his father, former Sunshine Tour professional Kevin Stone.
And it led to Stone being named as a brand ambassador for Sun International this year, joining Major champion Louis Oosthuizen in this role.
The announcement reminded him of the days when his father used to drive the speedboat on the lake at Sun City.
‘He had a stint doing that there. Then he’d sometimes just stop off at the 17th, climb on the tee with his baggy shorts and hustle the golfers with a quick money game,’ he says.
Kevin has undoubtedly been the greatest influence on Brandon’s career. A multiple winner on the Sunshine Tour, he has served as the perfect example for his own son, who has grown up observing at first-hand what the life of a professional golfer really looks like. And Kevin has always given his son the unvarnished truth regarding professional golf.
‘In this game, you’re either Ernie Els or you aren’t. And if you aren’t, then you’d better find another job,’ is one of Kevin’s favourite sayings regarding the decision to turn professional.
‘If you can’t be right up there, it’s an extremely difficult life. People don’t know what it’s like to sweat over a four-foot putt, knowing that if you miss it you don’t have money for next week. When you’re playing well, the game seems so easy. When you’re playing badly, you check the leaderboard and see you need a 70 the next day just to make the cut. That makes you think you should rather do something else for a living.’
It’s for this reason that Kevin spent the early part of his son’s career almost discouraging him from ideas of turning professional.
‘I never pushed him into the game. I’ve seen parents take their kids out of school and they just play golf. But that talent can disappear overnight in this game. One day you’re great and the next you can’t break 80.’
So, as much as his father honed the technical aspects of his swing, and having Els as a family friend clearly helped in this department too, Stone was raised on a diet of some very harsh realities about the real world of professional golf.
It’s the kind of reality check that played itself out on the fairways of Zebula when Brandon was still a young amateur. During a round with his father, they arrived at the 18th. Brandon hit his drive into the left rough and faced an approach shot over the water. Despite a great shot, his ball landed in the hazard.
The younger Stone turned to his father and told him how unfair he felt that was, because he thought he’d hit a great shot.
Kevin’s reply was, ‘That’s why we don’t hit it into the rough to start with.’
It’s this blend of pragmatism and talent that has created such a solid foundation for Stone. And it lies at the heart of a player who somehow knows how to keep himself grounded while reaching for the stars.
‘Sometimes you can lose perspective,’ he says. ‘It’s incredible having these things on your CV, but I also need to sometimes bring myself down to earth a little bit and see what I can do from here on in.’
2013 – BMW International Open (T10th), National Bank of Oman (T4th)
2014 – Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship (T19th)
2015 – Lion of Africa Cape Town Open (1st), Kenya Open (2nd), GANT Open (T2nd), NBO Golf Classic Grand Final (6th)
2016 – Alfred Dunhill Championship (1st), BMW SA Open (1st), Lion of Africa Cape Town Open (T2nd), Shenzhen International (2nd), 100th Open de France (T5th) AfrAsia Bank Mauritius Open (T6th), KLM Open (T10th), Dimension Data Pro-Am (T6th), Tshwane Open (T10th)
2017 – Joburg Open (T4th), Dubai Desert Classic (T7th), US Open (T35th)
– This article first appears in the August issue of Compleat Golfer