Hard work and a refusal to give up on a dream has led Erik van Rooyen to winning a European Tour card, writes MICHAEL VLISMAS in Compleat Golfer.
We often convince ourselves it’s the passion that drives success in this game. The dream of young golfers standing over a putt imagining it’s to win The Open Championship. And that’s all fine and well. But then there’s also the grind.
Those weeks that merge into one long chain of travel, hotel, golf course, repeat.
That’s when the dreams Van Rooyen, who earned his European Tour card, had as a 14-year-old becomes as much about sheer endurance as talent. That’s when a win can be something as simple as climbing off your umpteenth flight feeling only slightly smashed up physically and only moderately fuzzy mentally, and knowing you’ve got maybe one good day to get yourself focused and start it all again.
In the journey to the top in professional golf, they have a name for this kind of thing: the Challenge Tour.
This feeder Tour is one of the many routes to the European Tour. But it’s not for everyone, because, as Van Rooyen will tell you, it can be brutal.
It would be far too easy to point to Van Rooyen’s win at the Challenge Tour’s Hainan Open in China as the moment he secured his European Tour card for the 2018 season.
But that wouldn’t be half the story.
With his maiden victory at the Eye of Africa PGA Championship, made possible by the most incredible approach to within a foot of the hole to win a playoff for the title, Van Rooyen secured his playing privileges on the Sunshine Tour and achieved the breakthrough that was several years in the making.
‘Eye of Africa was a great boost for me,’ he says. ‘I’d been knocking on the door in South Africa a few times in some Vodacom events, so to get that win against a good field was big for me.
‘Then I decided to play the Challenge Tour this year. Winning the Eye of Africa made this decision possible, knowing I’ve got the two-year exemption on the Sunshine Tour.’
Playing on the Challenge Tour is the equivalent of Vijay Singh hitting thousands of golf balls on the range until his hands bled.
‘The Challenge Tour is tough because it’s extremely top-heavy and only the top 15 get their European Tour cards. It’s an absolute slog. I’ve been home for 10 days since May. It’s a grind.
‘What’s tough about the Challenge Tour is you play so many events in a short space of time, and it’s important to 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 that 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.
‘It was such a long season until that point when I won in China. I played really well in some events and didn’t quite finish it off. So, to play well in China and secure my card was unbelievable.’
But Van Rooyen had the kind of resolve to know the Challenge Tour is about learning. Van Rooyen has been learning ever since he and his father sat down at a junior tournament at Fish River when he was 14 and decided together they were going to embark on this journey towards a professional career.
‘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 golf more seriously. I got involved in one of the squads at Fancourt and had the privilege of practising there three or four times a week.
‘I played for Southern Cape and got South African junior colours when I was 17. After that I went to the University of Minnesota to play college golf. I never won World Juniors, like Dylan Frittelli, or played in the Eisenhower Trophy or anything like that. I guess I had an OK junior season. But college golf was all about learning and getting better, and I’ve been trying to do that ever since.’
The Challenge Tour was another major learning curve. And Van Rooyen has taken the necessary notes, applying what he has learned there to what he’s seen repeated in the careers of Major winners such as Padraig Harrington and Martin Kaymer.
‘One thing the Challenge Tour taught me was to understand my own game and how to play well coming down the stretch when you’re in contention. It’s important to stick to what works for you, and that’s what I’ll keep doing for the next couple of years.
‘Something that sticks out for me in terms of a big lesson for my career is equipment changes. I’ve been with Nike since college and I was disappointed when they announced they were going to stop making equipment. Some great players have made equipment changes and it hasn’t worked out. I’m still playing with Nike irons and will have to make a change in the next 12 months. 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. Everything is working nicely for me. I feel it’s about fine-tuning things and to keep polishing that diamond instead of trying to reinvent the wheel.’
Van Rooyen has also spent this year fine-tuning his routine, and he’s surrounded himself with the best people in the business when it comes to his mind and his game.
He works on his mental preparation with renowned sports psychologist Maretha Claasen, and has been working on his putting with visions specialist and performance coach Dr Sherylle Calder.
‘An important part of my weekly routine is to catch up with Maretha every Monday and we’ll have a long chat where she helps me get in my zone and be where I need to be mentally.
‘And Dr Calder is amazing. I met her in November last year at the Cape Town Open. I wasn’t putting great. I’ve always been a good ball striker but my putting has let me down a bit. I didn’t know who to turn to. I spoke to Tjaart van der Walt and he set me up with her.
‘She’s been fantastic. She’s one of a kind in what she does. If you look at who she’s worked with, she’s very good at what she does. She’s helped me an incredible amount. Putting is one of the best parts of my game at the moment, and it’s shown in my performance this season. Working with her, it’s awesome to think about the future and where we might end up.’
Where he ends up, is now the next part of the journey for Van Rooyen.
‘The goal up until this point has been to secure my card. I haven’t given it much thought as to my new goal from here. I’m playing good golf and I’ve proved I can play at a high level.
‘Now I’m on the European Tour and it’s that extra step up. I guess, first of all, I need to secure my card for the next season and then get my first European Tour win. You look at guys like Dylan Frittelli, who obviously did that this year, so it’s possible. But yes, I’ll take some time to write down some new goals.’
But, as Van Rooyen will be the first to point out, putting pen to paper is only a very small first step in that process.
‘I feel like there are a lot of guys on the Sunshine Tour who are good enough to play on the European or the PGA Tour but never get there. Players sometimes say it’s so expensive on the Challenge Tour, but it’s important to invest in yourself.
‘Even if I hadn’t got my card I would’ve looked at it as a good season because I got better as a player and I learned a lot. That’s what I want, to keep getting better every year, because you will get there eventually. It was a slog, but whether I got my card or not, it would’ve been completely worth it.’ Lesson learned.
1 – Tournament wins on the Sunshine Tour – the 2017 Eye of Africa PGA Championship
3.88 – The average number of birdies per round on the Sunshine Tour
62 – Lowest round recorded on the Sunshine Tour – at the 2016 Sun Wild Coast Sun Challenge
71.24 – Career average strokes taken per round on the Sunshine Tour
2.7m – Career prize money won on the Sunshine Tour
*Editor’s note: Since this article Van Rooyen finished second at the Joburg Open and booked a spot at the 2018 Open Championship
– This article first appeared in the December issue of Compleat Golfer, now on sale!