It took 100 tournaments before a maiden Sunshine Tour victory. Now, one is likely to bring two for Jean-Paul Strydom, writes MIKE GREEN.
It’s happened to all of us – no matter at what level we play the game. Like just about any golfer, Strydom had moments when he thought things would never come right for him.
And then he won The Tour Championship in March, beating the top 50 players on the 2018-19 Order of Merit for his maiden Sunshine Tour victory. He produced a final round of the highest quality in the process – a six-under-par 66 on Serengeti Estates, which was ignited by a 40-footer for birdie on the 9th.
‘I always said I would win my first tournament when I wasn’t in the lead going into the final round,’ he says. ‘I feel more comfortable chasing than defending.’
It gave Strydom a one-stroke triumph over Jean Hugo, Jake Roos, Ockie Strydom and Thriston Lawrence, and propelled him to 11th on the Order of Merit for his highest finish on that list since he turned professional in 2013.
It capped a year which saw Strydom questioning whether he should even continue playing. He missed eight cuts in
20 tournaments and was able to post just three top-20 finishes as he struggled to fulfil the promise he showed with a top-10 finish in his rookie season, a third-place in 2016 and a runner-up in 2018. That trend should have continued upwards, but there was nothing to suggest a win was close.
‘I really thought a win was going to happen at the Dimension Data Pro-Am last year,’ he says. ‘But Jaco Ahlers was unstoppable.’ Strydom finished second there in February 2018.
And then came the Cape Town Open at Royal Cape in February this year. An opening 10-under-par 62 set Strydom up perfectly and he still had his nose in front going into the final round. But a closing two-over-par 74 let Benjamin Follett-Smith through for the victory.
‘Leading after three rounds at the Cape Town Open this year and finishing second was a bitter pill to swallow, but I knew the win was around the corner,’ says Strydom.
‘There were definitely times I felt it would never come right, but with a good support system that kept me going, I managed to pull myself out of the slump.’
We’ve heard words like that from professional players many times. It’s difficult to think of anything more demoralising than having a sense of certainty routinely dashed – or at least severely disrupted.
And yet golf does that to promising players – even the good and great ones are affected – all the time. The kind of support system to which Strydom alludes is often not so much a system as it is simply a small circle of sympathetic family members and friends, with no expensive professional therapist in sight, to help paper over the cracks that disappointment inevitably brings.
With things seeming to be on an upward trend for Strydom after that runner-up finish in February, the game suddenly became inexplicably cruel to him towards the end of the year, with missed cuts at the Mauritius Open and the South African Open Championship causing the harshest of stings.
‘I missed a couple of local tournaments due to European Tour Q-School, which set me back a bit,’ he says. ‘I also lost a lot of my confidence last season and in golf, you need that to play well.’
When the final event of 2018, the Alfred Dunhill Championship, rolled around, Strydom was not in a good space. Something clicked for him there, though, as he finished in a share of 18th behind winner David Lipsky of the US.
‘I found something on the range on the Monday before the Alfred Dunhill,’ he says. ‘It was a big plus playing that tournament at Leopard Creek, as I feel comfortable there.’
There is no rational explanation for what happened and neither should we expect one from Strydom. But he does know what he changed in his attempt to break out of his slump.
‘I found that the more I practised, the worse I felt because things weren’t going my way,’ he says. ‘I prefer playing a round of golf to spending five hours on the range. I turned to this method, as this is what works best for me.’
It’s an approach weekend warriors around the world can identify with.
Things certainly started going Strydom’s way after missing the cut at the SA Open. The Alfred Dunhill result was the first of five cuts made, and while simply making the cut may not sound as if things have become ideal, when there are eight prior missed cuts on your record, it’s a sign of progress.
A share of 17th at the Eye of Africa PGA Championship confirmed that, as did the body blow of losing out at the Cape Town Open. Keeping things together in the face of that disappointment, with cuts made at the 2019 Dimension Data Pro-Am and the Limpopo Championship, was also confirmation that a corner had been turned.
And then came The Tour Championship. ‘I’m speechless,’ he said after the victory. ‘It’s an amazing feeling. I’ve been close a couple of times. I’ve been playing well and I’m just glad I could pull one off. I wasn’t looking good last year. Somehow I found something and here we are.’
The win was particularly memorable because it came at his 100th tournament on the Sunshine Tour. ‘To be honest, I didn’t know it was my 100th start as a professional, so it was quite special to have won this one,’ he says.
The win saw him climb 196 places on the World Rankings and 485 from the start of the year. ‘I do keep an eye on the rankings now and then, and my goal is to climb another 100 to reach the top 150 in the world,’ he says. ‘Hopefully another win in the near future will help me achieve that goal.’
The win is not going to magically ease the way forward for Strydom, though. ‘There’s always work to be done, but the win was a confidence booster and it helped me believe in myself going into the new season,’ he says.
There are the conventional ambitions of playing on a bigger stage, which he harbours like every Sunshine Tour professional. ‘I will be going to European Tour Q-School again this year and it is one of my goals to compete on the European Tour,’ he says.
Strydom was absent from the early tournaments in the 2019-20 season of the Sunshine Tour, as he was dealing with a body that was feeling the effects of pushing so hard for his maiden victory. ‘I’ve had a problem with my elbow since last year, and with all the golf we played at the beginning of the year, the wear and tear made it worse,’ he says. ‘I withdrew from the two Zambia tournaments at the beginning of the season because I had to rest it.’
The break felt particularly secure to him after the insecurity caused by the slump.
It felt that way not only because of the win, but perhaps more significantly because he’d also found a way to deal with those demoralising cracks in the veneer of self-confidence that are the stock-in-trade of any professional sportsman.
The victory gives Strydom a level of exemption for Sunshine Tour events in the immediate future, along with peace of mind before his European adventure at the end of the year.
That’s one way of making sure those cracks stay closed.
Another is being secure in the knowledge that his method of finding the physical wherewithal to overcome the slump has been tried, tested and found to be successful.
But by far the most important thing is the relief of knowing that his support system worked for him.
‘Francois Olivier [Dean Burmester’s former caddie] is a great mate of mine,’ says Strydom. ‘He caddied at the start of my professional career, so it was quite special to share my first win on Tour with him. Adrienne, my girlfriend, has supported me through everything, and she’s the one who encourages me to keep my head up. My parents have always supported me, no matter what, and I have been lucky to have my dad, Jannie, there for all those late-afternoon nine holes as a youngster.’
The win is on Strydom’s CV now.
While another victory is not a given, or even to be expected, it will certainly be surprising if quite a few more don’t come very soon.