Despite a brave effort by Branden Grace, the famous SA Open silverware again fell into foreign hands – this time Chris Paisley – in front of an enthusiastic, patriotic crowd, writes GARY LEMKE in Compleat Golfer.
With his wife of three years, Keri, carrying his bag, Paisley continued the trend of the underdog when it came to the SA Open, although over four days at a magnificently manicured Glendower Golf Club, the golden couple looked anything but out of place on the big stage.
They had arrived in Johannesburg off the back of a six-week break in their adopted home in Orlando, Florida, after Paisley had missed the cut at the Australian PGA Championship at the beginning of December. Teeing up at Glendower he was ranked an unflattering No 289 in the world. Just another name
on a list of hopefuls.
Four days later a calm, bogey-free closing 66 saw him claim victory by three shots over pre-tournament favourite Branden Grace and the result helped him climb to a career-high 121 with the win following a trend of recent years at one of the world’s oldest Opens.
Last year another Englishman from the north-east, Graeme Storm, had teed up at Glendower ranked 251 in the world and he duly went on to stave off the challenge of Rory McIlroy. In 2016 Brandon Stone started the SA Open week at 252 in the world and delighted the home fans. The year before Andy Sullivan won from his world ranking of 150. And the time before that, Morten Orum Madsen lifted the trophy after going into the tournament at No 364. All these successes show there’s something magical about the
SA Open that brings the underdog to the fore. In football, they talk about the romance of the FA Cup; this could bethe golfing equivalent.
The manner in which the English 31-year-old kept his cool in the pressure cauldron while chasing his maiden European Tour victory suggests there’s much more to come from him. He is one of only two European Tour professionals who play out of Close House in Newcastle, England – the other being Lee Westwood, and if he achieves only a small percentage of what Westwood has, he will have done all right. After all, Westwood reached No 1 in the world and has 42 international wins to his name.
Paisley was consistency personified, making only three bogeys all week – one in each of the first three rounds – while totting up 24 birdies.
It was an extraordinary display of club selection and shot-making, while he was rock solid on the greens. By contrast, Grace made five eagles and 15 birdies, but he also had five bogeys and a double-bogey. The difference between the SA Open winner and runner-up was laid bare in those stats.
Grace cut a picture of frustration on day four, one in which he started so promisingly by making a birdie and eagle in his opening two holes. After his third-round 66 he admitted to having been ‘frustrated’ at not going lower. ‘I thought I hit the ball superbly through 13 holes, but just couldn’t get it in the hole,’ he said.
It was more of the same in the final round, although right at the outset it appeared as though it would be he, the world No 30, who was going to save his best for the Sunday. Paisley had begun the final round as the overnight leader with a one-shot advantage at 15 under but Grace’s explosive start saw the names swap places at the top of the leaderboard.
Yet the Englishman seemed unfazed by the South African’s fast start and drained a wonderful 30-foot birdie putt to return as joint leader, before Grace found the rough and the bunker at the par-three 6th to card a two-putt double-bogey, and Paisley was two strokes clear. That extended to three shots when he holed a difficult right-to-left putt for birdie at the 7th and from there he shut the door. Grace just couldn’t keep the pressure on Paisley, who had the luxury of going four ahead at the 11th hole, before Grace cut it back to three with two holes to play. In fact, it was a charging JC Ritchie who momentarily looked like being the man to chase home Paisley, by carding a second weekend 65 to sign off on 16 under. That was eventually five behind but alone in third spot for the best performance of his career. See our feature on him on page 78.
Grace was generous and gentlemanly in defeat, as one has come to expect from him. ‘Chris was flawless out there and played the best golf. It didn’t go my way but I’ll take second place in my first week back. Hopefully I can get my hands on this trophy sooner or later.’ Most observers would reckon on it being sooner.
The golfing world has been taken over by the younger generation and Grace is one of those twentysomethings – along with the likes of Jordan Spieth, Jon Rahm, Rickie Fowler, Jason Day, Justin Thomas, Brooks Koepka and Rory McIlroy – who go into every tournament they enter as one of the favourites.
At Glendower, however, it was a 31-year-old who was making his breakthrough into the big league.
There isn’t much to Paisley in terms of build – he’s only 1.72m and 73kg – and he’s not the longest off the tee, averaging 264m with his drives, but at Glendower he put them all in the right places and his course management and rapport with his wife was the cornerstone to his success.
‘She never put a foot wrong. It’s the first time she has ever caddied and I can’t thank her enough,’ he said. ‘My regular caddie is getting some stick but I just can’t say enough about how good a job she has done this week, and in life in general. She doesn’t know that much about golf but she knows me really well. Just coming up the last fairway with her next to me
Perhaps he had also been buoyed by his beloved Newcastle United earning a valuable point after coming from behind to draw with Swansea, because for any Geordie, football is part of life. His Twitter account, where he had 4 595 followers before hitting the jackpot in Johannesburg, bears testimony to that – and his other love, cooking, where constant references and images relate to his ‘Big Green Egg’, which looks to be a sort of Weber hybrid. He quickly earned another 600 followers in the hours after his victory, without offering a tweet, suggesting his social media graph is also on an upward curve. It’s small when compared to some of the sport’s superstars, but it’s a start.
According to his official Tour bio, Paisley was, ‘Raised in a golfing family – his father and two older brothers are all excellent golfers, with his middle sibling working as a club professional, and Chris’ putting coach attended the University of Tennessee before playing a mixture of Challenge Tour and Alps Tour events in 2011, notching three wins on the latter.
‘Came through the Challenge Tour Rankings in 2012, lost his card a year later but regained his playing privileges at the European Tour Qualifying School at the end of 2014. Four top-10 finishes in 2016 helped him to a career-best 71st-place finish in the Race to Dubai. Retained his card in 2017 finishing second on the “Access List”. Dog lover who is proud to be part of the Birdie 4 Rhinos initiative.’
Paisley is unashamedly a fan of Tiger Woods, previously admitting that when growing up the American golfer was his idol and he hasn’t been shy to take to Twitter to defend Woods. ‘Seeing the occasional complaint about how much coverage Tiger is getting, I’d rather watch Tiger take his pre-game dump than anyone else in the field play … so good to see him back,’ he posted in December.
He also took a pop at American president Donald Trump around Christmas time. ‘I don’t think that’s how it works Donald,’ Paisley said, replying with a retweet of @realDonaldTrump’s. ‘In the East, it could be the COLDEST New Year’s Eve on record. Perhaps we could use a little bit of that good old Global Warming that our Country, but not other countries, was going to pay TRILLIONS OF DOLLARS to protect against. Bundle up!’
It’s good to welcome Paisley to the winner’s circle and he’s someone who can bring something different to the professional circuit. Victory at the SA Open has earned him invitations to some of the big events on the European Tour, including The Open Championship at Carnoustie later this year.
What we saw at Glendower showed that because you might not be in the top 50 or even top 100 in the world, it doesn’t mean you can’t strike it lucky.
As the saying goes, ‘You’ve got to be in it to win it.’ Now that the 31-year-old Englishman will be ‘in’ many more events after making his breakthrough, it won’t be surprising to see him get even more lucky.
HOW IT UNFOLDED
Branden Grace made three eagles on his way to seven under par to share the lead with Chase Koepka, brother of the US Open champion Brooks. The pair had a one-stroke edge over Chris Paisley of England and two over Bradley Neil of Scotland, South Africa’s Erik van Rooyen and Richard Sterne, and Spain’s Nacho Elvira. Jamie Donaldson recorded his first hole-in-one in nine European Tour events, nailing his tee shot with a 9-iron at the 14th.
Adrien Saddier of France carded seven birdies and an eagle in a faultless round of 63 for a share of the lead with Paisley at 13 under par. Saddier, 25, was yet to drop a shot after 36 holes. Paisley (65) also caught a hot streak on the back nine, carding six birdies. His only blemish was a dropped shot on the par-five 13th when he found water off the tee. South African Jacques Kruyswijk (67) was alone in third on nine under par.
Paisley took a one-shot lead into the final round after shooting a third-round 70 to move to 15 under, with home favourite Grace a stroke back after a 66. Saddier
fell three shots off the pace.
Paisley defied the odds to card a six-birdie final-round 66 for a total of 267 and a three-stroke victory over Grace, who shot a 68. Grace trailed Paisley by one shot entering the final round, but was expected to triumph given his far higher world ranking of 30, much greater experience and huge home support. But the Englishman held his nerve and won by three shots.
BMW SA OPEN LEADERBOARD:
1 Chris Paisley (Eng) 66 65 70 66 267
2 Branden Grace (SA) 65 71 66 68 270
3 JC Ritchie (SA) 72 70 65 65 272
4 Jacques Blaauw (SA) 68 70 66 70 274
Jacques Kruyswijk (SA) 68 67 71 68 274
Scott Vincent (Nam) 70 66 71 67 274
5 Darren Fichardt (SA) 70 71 64 70 275
Chase Koepka (US) 65 71 68 71 275
Renato Paratore (Ita) 71 67 69 68 275
Adrien Saddier (Fra) 68 63 73 71 275
2010 English Challenge (1st)
2011 Karnten Golf Open (T3rd)
2013 Alfred Dunhill Links Championship (T12th)
2015 BMW International Open (3rd)
2016 Italian Open (T3rd), Portugal Masters (T5th), Scottish Open (T13th), Paul Lawrie Match Play (T9th)
2017 Made in Denmark (T3rd), Paul Lawrie Match Play (T5th), Dubai Desert Classic (T15th), Qatar Masters (T13th)
2018 SA Open (1st)
– This article first appeared on the cover of the February issue of Compleat Golfer