Jaco Ahlers, who had never been to the USA until last week, birdied two of the first three holes to take the very early lead at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone before coming in with a two-under 68.
He admitted the round surprised even him.
‘I’m pretty chuffed,’ said Ahlers, who qualified for this week’s elite 71-man field by winning the Sunshine Tour’s Dimension Data Pro-Am in February.
Chuffed? Well, yeah. It’s his first WGC. All he knew of the US was what he’d read about on Google, seen in movies and learned from two friends who play on the Web.com Tour. He’d once met Kevin Na, who told good stories, at the Nedbank Golf Challenge.
Chuffed? Absolutely. In addition to being one of the lesser-known players in this field, Ahlers has quite the backstory. He cracked a rib while waterskiing in Mauritius last December, fractured a bone in his left arm playing ‘adventure sports’ in South Africa last month, and took a cortisone shot last week. He hadn’t hit a ball in about a month when he showed up in Akron, and, mindful of his arm, played just 21 holes Monday through Wednesday. But he wasn’t about to miss this week.
‘Everyone dreams of playing the PGA TOUR in America,’ Ahlers said. ‘I’m no different.’
Well, he’s sort of different. Most players in this field had actually been to the US.
Reasoning that he may as well jump in with both feet, Ahlers brought his wife, Ronelle, to New York last week. They flew into JFK airport on Wednesday and promptly got to work. They strolled through Central Park, checked out China Town and Little Italy, tucked into a pastry at Carlo’s Bakery of ‘Cake Boss’ fame and gaped at the Empire State Building and Statue of Liberty.
At Firestone on Thursday, paired with Xander Schauffele (69), Ahlers played his usual game, swinging with what people tell him is Ernie Els-like fluidity and tempo. Ahlers and Schauffele chatted about the US, and Ahlers was so caught up in the moment he forgot to look at a scoreboard until the seventh hole, when he was already running second to Kyle Stanley (63).
But still, second place! At a WGC! Ahlers and his caddie/little brother, Hein, wondered if they take a picture of the scoreboard. Alas, they didn’t.
‘He takes his job very seriously,’ Ahlers said of his brother.
So does Ahlers. He has played everywhere from Canada (Mackenzie Tour, 2013) to Kazakhstan, but mostly in Europe, Asia and South Africa. He lives in George, which is most famous for Fancourt and, as you might expect, he has met Els, Retief Goosen and other South African legends.
As for how Ahlers thinks of himself, he said the word is ‘journeyman’. While he and Ronelle continue their American adventure, her parents are still back home with the Ahlers’ daughter, Eunelke, 8, and son, CJ, 4. They’ve all had a few Skype sessions, too.
Screens, it turns out, have been Ahlers’ window to the world.
‘It’s a great golf course,’ he said of Firestone South. ‘We’ve all watched it on TV, so we know how it goes, but you don’t see the elevation changes, like the big hill on 16th.’
As for the dizzying number of legends in Akron, with whom Ahlers could conceivably be paired if the breaks go his way in this no-cut event, he knows them from the same screens. He is trying not to obsess about meeting them, in part because he knows that like Els, they’re just people.
His heroes, yes, but people.
‘If I don’t meet Phil [Mickelson] or Tiger [Woods], it’s fine,’ Ahlers said. ‘I know what they can do on the golf course, and that’s good enough for me. If it happens, it happens. It would be nice to pick their brain and compare how they see the game compared to how I see it.’
And how exactly does he see it? Does he think he can win?
‘If I was 100%, I’d say yes, definitely,’ he said. ‘But it’s nice just to be here. It’s been a lot of hard work.’
Credit: PGA TOUR