Unfortunately for the 26-year-old, the biggest birthday gift he could’ve received – a spot in the 48-man field and a chance to secure his status for next year – never materialised.
Du Plessis, the runner-up to Stinger GC teammate Charl Schwartzel in the inaugural LIV Golf event in London, was on site this week at Royal Greens Golf & Country Club as the first reserve. With Branden Grace battling an oblique muscle injury that forced him to withdraw early in the second round last weekend in Bangkok, there was a good chance that Du Plessis would rejoin the Stingers as the replacement.
Even if that didn’t happen, there were other possibilities to get into the field. Several players have been battling illness in Jeddah, including Kevin Na, Ian Poulter and Joaquin Niemann, and their status was uncertain going into Friday’s opening round. Additional reserves were brought in, including 15-year-old Ratchanon “TK” Chantananuwat, who arrived early Friday morning in case a spot opened up. If it didn’t, the teenager from Thailand planned to fill his time by taking a two-hour online physics test.
Eventually, all the ill golfers made recoveries and opted to play in the regular-season finale. Grace, in particular, had the most incentive to play.
Ranked No 2 in points in the season-long Individual Champion standings, he’s on pace to claim the $8-million bonus prize from the $30-million purse. Even if he dropped to third, he can still take home a $4-million bonus. Only the top three spots receive bonuses – Dustin Johnson locked up the No 1 spot and its $18-million prize last week – and the odds were strong that Grace would fall outside the top three if he didn’t play. By playing, Grace gives himself a chance to secure a bonus.
Meanwhile, Du Plessis also had plenty of incentive to play. Thanks to his second-place finish in London, where he received 30 points, he ranks 18th in the season-long standings. For players who are not under contract, a finish inside the top 24 in points after Jeddah guarantee spots for the 2023 LIV Golf League – provided they make four starts this year. Du Plessis has played just three events, so he needed one more start for the opportunity to secure status. Jeddah was his last chance.
As Grace finished a session on the practice green before walking toward the first tee to begin his round Friday, he shook Du Plessis’ hand and gave him a hug. “I have to give it a shot,” said Grace, aware of the implications for both players.
“I can’t blame him,” Du Plessis said. “Beware of the injured golfer. Branden’s a very strong-minded individual … He’s shown through his career he’s a fighter. With the pain he was in, to come back and be confident enough to play is really impressive.”
As for his own situation, Du Plessis said, “It would’ve been a different week playing a tournament, but still I was here, showed my face, showed the commitment I have to be here. I love the LIV concept and I still feel like part of the team. It was fun to hang around with the boys again.”
Although disappointed not to get that fourth start, Du Plessis is grateful just to be involved in the inaugural LIV Golf season. He made the London field via one of the world tour qualifying categories, and entered with momentum; during a five-tournament stretch earlier this year, he posted three consecutive top-6 finishes and another top-20 result, raising his world ranking to a career-best 122 in mid-May.
He was drafted by Stinger GC captain Louis Oosthuizen to be a part of the all-South African team. Oosthuizen, Grace and Charl Schwartzel had never met Du Plessis before, but there was an immediate bond. And then Du Plessis delivered the best performance of his career at Centurion Club, shooting 66-68-70 to finish at six under. He played the final two rounds with Schwartzel, the eventual winner at seven under.
“That second round was the most nervous I’ve ever been in my life,” Du Plessis said. “I started getting nervous when I teed up my ball and they said my name for the first time. Then I realized I’m playing with a major champion and I’m in the final group.”
He never let the nerves impact his game. As a result, he earned $2,125,000 for finishing second, and an additional $750,000 as part of the $3-million team bonus the Stingers earned for capturing the team trophy. His total payout of $2,875,000 for that week was about three times more than Du Plessis had earned in his seven years combined since turning pro.
He made two more LIV Golf starts after that, finishing 33rd in Portland and 44th in Bedminster. After Du Plessis fell out of his qualifying category, another South African, top 100 player Shaun Norris, replaced him on the Stinger team starting in Boston.
“Growing up, those were three idols of mine,” Du Plessis said of his Stinger teammates. “It was incredible to be part of that and be part of the team. They were great, true gentlemen and friends.”
Du Plessis may not be done with LIV Golf just yet this year. If Grace has a setback, the Stingers will need him to fill out the roster at the Miami Team Championship. As for next year? Du Plessis would love to be part of the LIV Golf League. Like many other LIV golfers, the team format is a huge draw, as is being part of golf’s future.
“Whatever happens, it’s been a life-changing year,” Du Plessis said. “I’ve got all the guys to thank for that … I want to be part of this change. I couldn’t be more grateful for the opportunity.”
By Mike McAllister, LIV Golf website