• Erik van Rooyen: On the brink

    Erik van Rooyen
    October's cover story on Erik van Rooyen

    Erik van Rooyen is beginning to reap the fruits of years of hard work and dedication, to go with undeniable talent, writes GARY LEMKE in Compleat Golfer.

    You can hear him knocking on the door and he’s not going away until it is opened. Failing that, he’s going to knock once or twice more and then simply barge through it. As his countryman Brandon Stone said on Twitter: ‘There are 3 certainties in life: Death, Taxes, @FredVR being in contention on the weekend on the European Tour. What a player!! #ProudlySouthAfrican.’

    Erik van Rooyen is coming. We don’t know exactly when, or exactly where, but we know he is coming. A week before he set off for another hectic nine weeks on European Tour duty that would see him play in the Made In Denmark, European Masters, KLM Open, Alfred Dunhill Links Championship, British Masters and WGC-HSBC Champions – a journey that would take him to Denmark, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Britain and China – the 28-year-old was realigning his sights in Johannesburg.

    It could be said he’s into the next chapter of his story. The groundwork has been done. The Sunshine Tour breakthrough victory came at the 2017 Eye of Africa Championship and with it a two-year exemption. What followed was a win at the Hainan Open in China on the Challenge Tour, which earned the South African a ticket to the European Tour for 2018. As he said at the time, ‘The Challenge Tour is a really tough Tour because it’s extremely top heavy and only the top 15 get their European Tour cards. It’s an absolute slog. It’s a grind. You play so many events in a short space of time, and it’s important to also rest.

    ‘You have to manage that too. So I would take every Monday off and sometimes even Tuesday. But then you know you only have one shot to see the course, on Wednesday, so you need to do a proper job and focus. It’s the dream of playing on the European Tour and against the best in the world that keeps you going.’

    Dream. It’s a word that crops up a lot in sporting conversation and Van Rooyen is no different because anyone with ambition is allowed to dream.

    However, he’s anything but a dreamer who thinks that success is a given, without plenty of hard work and the ups and downs that come to the very best players in the world.

    As we chatted, Van Rooyen was packing his bags again, having had some downtime in South Africa with his wife, Rose. That included a trip to the Kruger Park and some good old-fashioned ‘chilling’ – although it didn’t mean the golf clubs had been left in the cupboard.

    Key to that balance is Van Rooyen’s love of music and when we met him at Country Club Johannesburg in late August, he arrived with golf clubs and guitar in tow. ‘It’s always nice being home, it stimulates me. I’ve been playing the guitar since I was 14, around the time my dad and I had decided I’d play golf more seriously.

    ‘We moved around quite a bit when I was growing up. I spent primary school in Pretoria and played golf, but also rugby and cricket. We moved to Oudtshoorn when I was 13 and I started playing more golf. I got involved in one of the squads at Fancourt and had the privilege of being able to practise there three or four times a week.

    ‘I was in a band in high school and we covered songs. Rock ’n’ roll; anything really. I play anything from Jack Johnson to AC/DC and have an acoustic guitar and an electric one. I have a lot of fun with the guitar.’

    Whenever one speaks to people about Van Rooyen, there are only compliments: he’s loyal, articulate, hard-working, fun-loving, reliable, a thinker and a true ambassador for his country.

    Garth Milne, who is director of wellness at the Wanna Be A Champion academy at Serengeti, worked with Van Rooyen before the golfer headed back to Europe for his latest stint. ‘Erik is a true gentleman,’ says Milne. ‘He is a highly driven individual and all his behaviour is directed towards being the best golfer he can be. He dedicates himself to his craft and enjoys learning and discovering new elements about the game; he is stimulated by engaging in the process of developing his new skills.

    ‘Regarding his fitness, he’s dedicated to his health and his training and does not miss the opportunity to get to the gym. For such a big guy he’s flexible, so I spend a lot of time with him working on his stability, static and dynamic, which then allows him to use his long levers to create his effortless power. I know he will have a strong final finish into the end of the year.’

    A week later Van Rooyen closed with a final-round 65 to finish one shot out of the four-man playoff at the Made In Denmark, eventually won by Matt Wallace. It was his fourth top-10 finish of 2018 and helped nudge his world ranking up to 126 (as at mid-September it was at a career-high 121). ‘My aim was always to try to break into the top 100 by the end of the year,’ he said. ‘Getting into the top 75 would be great and rankings are important because the higher you go, the more playing opportunities open up for you. And once you get into the top 50 you get invites to all the Majors.’

    It’s neither premature nor far-fetched for Van Rooyen to be thinking of playing regularly at the Majors. In fact, he featured at the first Major of his career in July when he emerged as the top South African at The Open Championship at Carnoustie. He opened with a 67 to be one shot behind the leader, before finishing only six shots behind the champion, Francesco Molinari, for tie-17th.

    ‘I gave it everything I had on absolutely every single shot,’ he said at the conclusion of a memorable week at Carnoustie. ‘I was in the present, I played some fantastic golf. To finish inside the top 20 at my first Major is a job well done and I’m looking forward to the next one.’

    He’d booked his ticket to The Open last December when he finished second at the Joburg Open at Randpark Golf Club, with a 20-under-par total. And he showed that his game was strong heading into The Open by finishing in a tie for fourth – with Jon Rahm – at the Irish Open hosted by the Rory McIlroy Foundation. It was at that tournament that Van Rooyen snatched defeat from the jaws of victory and he is using that painful experience to ensure it doesn’t happen again. After rounds of 71, 65 and 66, the South African teed off in the Sunday group as the leader by four shots.

    ‘I started the round well enough with pars at the opening three holes and then made birdie at the par-five 4th hole. Then at the 5th hole, my birdie putt on the par three lipped out. I think, if it had dropped I would have taken a lot of catching. But that’s the thing with this game. I three-putted the next hole and made three bogeys in four holes. I could almost feel the shift in momentum. It’s a difficult thing to stop. It was disappointing to lose.

    ‘I spoke with Rory and he said he was upset with himself at this year’s Masters, in that he didn’t commit enough to his approach. And that’s the battle for us. You have to commit fully to the shot you’re going to play. The game plan doesn’t change and learning to commit myself is high on my list of immediate priorities.

    ‘It was also only the second time on the European Tour that I’d played in the final group on the Sunday. The first was back in April at the Trophee Hassan II tournament in Rabat, Morocco, where I came up three strokes short after a 73. Alexander Levy, with a 70, won. Obviously I was nervous, but I think everyone feels that. The fact I have been there already [in the final group and leading into the final round] will help immensely the next time I’m in that situation.

    ‘The belief is there. I know I have to play well to get into contention, it doesn’t just happen. But I feel I can win at that level, and playing against that quality of opposition is only going to help me improve. I know the wins are in me and while I’d hoped my first European Tour win would come in 2018 it’s still been encouraging.’

    Running one’s finger down Van Rooyen’s year up until the middle of September, one thing that sticks out is that a solid week was often followed by one when his game was off-key. While he’s had those four top-10s in his first 18 events of 2018, there were also five missed cuts. By contrast there had been seven missed cuts in 29 events in 2017, but the level of opposition has been a significant step up compared to last year.

    Tenth at the Tshwane Open in March was followed a week later by a missed cut at the Indian Open. That tie for seventh in Morocco was followed a week later by a missed cut at the China Open. The Irish Open heroics in July were followed a week later by a missed cut at the Scottish Open, where countryman Stone won and was inches away from a round of 59. The tie for 17th at The Open was followed three weeks later by a missed cut on home soil, at the Sun Carnival City Challenge. And then Van Rooyen finished fifth at the Made In Denmark in his next event.

    ‘You’ve got it in a nutshell right there,’ Van Rooyen says in a selfless, matter-of-fact way. ‘Inconsistency. It’s something I’m working hard on getting right and my swing coach Doug Wood and I did some good things in the time I was home. The reason I took five weeks off after The Open was to make changes and give it time to let my swing feel natural. Working with Doug has been fantastic and there’s plenty to be positive about.’ The results were immediate with his fifth-place finish at the Made In Denmark.

    ‘But when something is working for you in this game, it’s important not to deviate from it. Padraig Harrington won three Majors and then changed something and it didn’t work out. Martin Kaymer did the same. I feel it’s about fine-tuning things and one must keep polishing that diamond instead of trying to recreate the wheel.’

    That diamond continues to be polished and the world is seeing more and more of its sparkle. You just know it’s a matter of if, not when, Van Rooyen emerges as one of the most valuable commodities in the world of golf. Victory on the Sunshine Tour? Tick. European Tour playing card? Tick. Earning a spot at a Major? Tick. Winning on the European Tour, playing on the PGA Tour and a Major win? Watch this space.

    – This article first appeared in the October issue of Compleat Golfer

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