Another comeback follows more bad luck, and the Renaissance Man of South African golf is grateful he has a third chance, writes GRANT WINTER in Compleat Golfer.
When Jaco van Zyl – whose golf swing is the envy of his peers – finished second at the 2015 Turkish Airlines Open, John Rawlings, his caddie at the time, reckoned two champions had emerged from the tournament.
One was Frenchman Victor Dubuisson, who closed with a 66 at the Montgomerie Maxx Royal Golf Club course to take the first-place cheque of just over 1-million euros on 22 under par 266. The other ‘champion’, according to Rawlings, was Van Zyl, who ran playing partner Dubuisson close all day, only to fall short by one shot after a 67 in a world-class lineup. Van Zyl’s sturdy effort needed to be put in context, Rawlings explained at the time, because in 2014 the golfer didn’t hit a single shot for 10 frustrating months because of major operations to both knees, as well as further surgery when he did try to make a comeback but suffered a further setback.
First in a wheelchair, then unable to walk properly for four solid months – the then 13-time champion on the Sunshine Tour lost 20kg (and he’s not exactly a big man) and much of his power as a result. Not surprisingly, he wondered if he’d ever play golf at the top level again.
So this performance in Turkey in 2015, on top of an excellent season that year, did – as he admitted at the time – confirm in his own mind that he was well and truly back and able to compete at the very highest level. He was, and as we will see, still is golf’s Renaissance Man.
‘What Jaco’s been through, he’s a winner in our eyes,’ said his partner Stacey Stokes, now his wife, once the last putt had been holed in Turkey, and Rawlings was quick to nod his head in agreement.
On the European Tour alone, Van Zyl earned 1 312 326 euros in 2015, another 726 891 euros in 2016 and 414 164 euros in the first half of 2017. He was playing consistently good golf and making a handsome living out of it. In 2016, when he won the Eye of Africa PGA on the Sunshine Tour, he moved for the first time into the top 50 in the World Rankings at No 49.
‘Before the operations and time in the wheelchair and not being able to walk, I did feel I belonged out on Tour, but then you go through a year like I did in 2014 and you wonder whether you’ll ever get back to where you were before,’ he said at the end of 2015. ‘Well, now I do feel I’m back and I do feel I belong playing golf at a world-class level.’
All seemed to be going swimmingly well for him. But then, out of the blue in 2017, came another major setback. ‘It was July last year and I was playing at the Irish Open at Portstewart when I hit a shot out of the middle of the fairway and fractured my wrist and had to withdraw from the tournament,’ Van Zyl explained while taking part at this year’s Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in Scotland.
‘How something could happen just like that I’ll never know, but I went to a doctor who told me it wasn’t a fracture, but a micro-tear in the tendon and if I rested it for four weeks I’d be good to go. Well, after five weeks it still wasn’t right and when I tried to play at the Italian Open last October it just got worse. Two holes and I was done.’
Back home in South Africa, Van Zyl went to see Professor Ulrich Mennen in Pretoria, who confirmed that it was in fact a fracture. Van Zyl would have to spend three months in a cast and a further three in a splint.
This was another nightmare, just like it had been in 2014.
Jaco revealed on Twitter that his absence from European Tour action had been caused by the stress fracture, but he hoped to be back towards the end of April. ‘Eight months full of ups and downs. Unfortunately plagued with a wrist injury, which was eventually found to be a stress fracture, spent three months in a cast and now another three months in a wrist guard to ensure the fracture heals properly.’
And he concluded: ‘Very excited to get back out there and get playing, hopefully at the Trophee Hassan II in Morocco.’
Well, that little plan didn’t work out either. The wrist did finally heal, but before he could get that silky swing working again, more disaster lay in wait. ‘Two of my discs – a C6 and a C7 – collapsed in my back and I had to have a spinal fusion. How did it happen? I honestly don’t know. It just happened and once again my golf was put on hold.’
Well, Renaissance Man is finally back – again. The spinal fusion meant another two months out before he was able to start practising once more in June. And after 14 months on the sidelines since the 2017 Irish Open, he reappeared on the European Tour in September this year, playing four events that month. He made the cut at the Portugal Masters, the Omega European Masters and the KLM Open, where he played solidly with rounds of 67, 73, 71 and 67 to tie for 28th. He may have dropped from 49th in the World Rankings to 763rd, but he believes he’s definitely on the way up again.
Although he missed the cut at the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship, he remains optimistic. ‘People ask me how I feel after all I’ve been through, and all I can say is I feel blessed. Blessed that I’m OK again and able to compete. I had a second chance in golf after being in a wheelchair; now I’ve got a third chance and I’m going to make the most of it.
‘I love travelling the world, seeing beautiful places and experiencing different cultures every week, and playing golf at the same time, and earning a living from it is just a bonus. I feel so privileged to be able to be doing it, again. On tour you can also pick and choose where you play – courses that suit your eye. So that’s what I do. At home I love a braai with a lamb chop or a good steak on the fire.’
Van Zyl, born in Kokstad and now 39, was into all the sports at school, including surfing, but golf was always his first love. In 2000 he won the South African Amateur and represented South Africa at the Eisenhower Trophy before turning professional in 2001. His victory at the 2016 Eye of Africa PGA, effectively the South African PGA Championship, was his 14th win on the Sunshine Tour and the third in that event after triumphs in 2009 and 2013, when he scored 20 under par 268 at Country Club Johannesburg to edge out Dylan Frittelli by one. He has never won on the European Tour, but has five runner-up finishes.
His first win as a professional? ‘That was at State Mines in a Diners Club event in 2003. It wasn’t part of the Sunshine Tour and I won R8 500 which, let me see, with our weak rand, works out to be about one pound,’ he said, chuckling.
His passion outside golf is flying, and he has graduated from hang gliders, stepped up to microlights and now gyrocopters. He also dotes on his two sons, Cameron, who is 10 and a half, and eight-year-old Oliver. ‘They’re good little sportsmen and Cameron beats me at tennis and Oliver in golf,’ he says.
At the 2017 BMW South African Open at Glendower, Van Zyl aced the 222-yard par three 17th hole with a 4-iron. It was his 16th hole-in-one and it won him a BMWi8 worth R1.9-million. And at the 2016 Eye of Africa PGA, he not only took home the trophy and the winner’s cheque, but was also given the title deed to a R1.9-million stand on the Eye of Africa Golf Estate by owner David Nagle.
Van Zyl promptly gave the title deed to his caddie, Jason ‘Pup’ Reynolds, who was on his bag for the first time at that tournament. ‘At the beginning of the week I told Pup I’d give him the stand if I won, so I did. Victory was enough for me.’
So, was the R1.9m BMW a reward from somewhere up there for his generosity in giving away a R1.9m piece of property?
Maybe it was.
Van Zyl says his best ‘friend’ in his golf bag is his driver. ‘I may not be the longest hitter in the business, but shape-wise I feel I can do the business with that club.’
So that’s Jaco van Zyl. Renaissance Man. Expert shot-shaper. Lovely swing. Generous man. Doing the business on Tour again.
Car: ‘I’m not a car person. I’m more comfortable in the air and I fly autogyros. I physically need to be in the air, and if I’m not flying one at least once a month, I get withdrawal symptoms.’
Music: ‘Anything, really. Pop music. Whatever is current and gets me listening is my favourite at the time.’
Food: ‘I love my protein, so the perfect meal is a steak on a braai.’
Golf course: ‘Without a doubt, Leopard Creek. I love the bush and, for me, that golf course is brilliant. I’m in my element whenever I’m there.’
Rugby team: ‘Don’t judge me, but it’s the Bulls. I suppose it’s because I’m mates with some of the players and I used to play quite a lot of golf with Victor Matfield and a few others.’
Month: ‘January, because it represents a fresh start for the year ahead. Everything starts anew, and being in South Africa, it’s bang in the middle of summer and one can be a bit lazy and just kick back and chill.’
– This article first appeared in the November issue of Compleat Golfer