The year’s first Major of 2016 appeared on Jaco van Zyl’s radar when he won the Eye of Africa PGA Championship in February and moved to a career-high 49th in the world. As of 11 April the leading 50 players in the world will qualify for The Masters and he relished the chance to compete at Augusta National. By mid-March he was showing how things were shaping up, writes Mike Taylor.
‘I’ve been fortunate enough to play in three Majors, as well as on the PGA and European Tours. I’ve had a fair amount of success, but I had two goals before hanging up my clubs – the first was to make the top 50 in the world and the second was to play in The Masters. It’s phenomenal to have breached the top 50 and now the carrot is dangling in front of my face for Augusta,’ he days.
The Johannesburger shares 10th place on the list of players with the most Sunshine Tour wins, having lifted 14 trophies in 15 years on the circuit. His victories on the local tour have been big ones and include three PGA Championships, the latest of which came at Eye of Africa in late February and raised him to 49th in the world.
‘I went through a stage where I won quite regularly, but it had been a while. I was in position a few times and came second at the Joburg Open, the Investec Cup, and then at the Turkish Airlines Open. You begin to doubt yourself and wonder whether you can win again, so pulling off that victory was a big boost to my confidence,’ he says.
Reaching the top 50 in the World Ranking comes with huge perks for Van Zyl. He’ll qualify for all of the WGC tournaments, all the Majors, and prove to himself he belongs in an elite group most players only dream of joining.
Van Zyl regularly leads the Sunshine Tour in stroke average, due to his solid all-around game and good composure on the course. He has been a member of the European and PGA Tours over the years, but international victory has eluded him. Last year was his closest to date, and included runner-up finishes at the Joburg Open and the Turkish Airlines Open, along with a third-place result at the Alstom Open de France.
Since turning professional in 2001 he has competed across the globe, but his victories have all been in South Africa, where he averages one win per year on tour. He is a more prolific winner on the Sunshine Tour than Dale Hayes, Nick Price, or Retief Goosen.
Van Zyl’s career has been hampered by injury and in April 2014 he underwent knee surgery to remove ligaments from his hamstrings and replace them in his knee caps. ‘They tell you it will be quite painful, but you don’t realise how much. You can’t walk and wonder about ever swinging a club again. It was a relief to get back out there and the break gave me the will to do well again,’ he says.
The time off also changed his perspective on the important things in life.
‘I’m blessed with being able to play golf. There’s a lot more to life than material things and I’m in a good space. I had a rough year in 2014 and I had a lot of time to think. I’ve been working hard on my fitness and got stronger in the process, so it’s really positive for me on tour at the moment,’ he said.
Life is going so well for Van Zyl that he gave his caddie Jason Reynolds a stand at Eye of Africa Golf Estate, which he won along with the trophy at the PGA Championship.
‘Jason is such a great guy and I’d like to think it will make a huge difference in his life,’ says Van Zyl. ‘Hopefully it’s the start of a nice relationship between us, because he’ll be my caddie for a while. He’ll be on the bag if I get to Augusta.’
The Dainfern resident began his career in 2001, shortly after winning the South African Amateur Championship. He spent a quiet few years adjusting to life on tour and finally broke into the winner’s circle in 2005 with a victory at the Platinum Classic.
He earned a PGA Tour card at qualifying school in 2006, but made the cut four times in 21 starts and finished 227th on the Money List, which forced his return to South Africa.
Van Zyl continued to dominate on the Sunshine Tour and by 2010 had clocked up nine victories on home soil, beating stalwarts Jean Hugo and Darren Fichardt in the process. He was an accomplished winner in an era ruled by Charl Schwartzel and Louis Oosthuizen, but he struggled to transition on to the international stage.
At the end of his stellar 2010 season Van Zyl earned a European Tour card at qualifying school. His maiden season in Europe yielded five top-10 results and he finished the year ranked 50th in the Race to Dubai.
The biggest annum of his career in South Africa was undoubtedly 2013, when he won the Dimension Data Pro-Am, PGA Championship, and Investec Cup within the space of a month. That season he rose to a previous career-high 68th in the world, despite competing for minimal ranking points on the local circuit.
Then injury struck in 2014 and he was sidelined for six months due to ligament damage in his knee caps.
The route back was not easy for Van Zyl, who returned at the Vodacom Origins of Golf Final in October 2014 and tied for 29th place. The following week at the HSBC Champions he felt a crack in his knee after a tee shot in the third round. One of the screws in his kneecap had snapped and further surgery was required, but he soldiered through the procedure and took a mere two months to recover.
He put hard yards into his fitness and by 2015 was back in contention and shared second place at the Joburg Open, despite having lost 18kg during the recovery process. He went on to record four top-fives that season and finished 21st in the final Race to Dubai standings.
Van Zyl appeared in the US Open and The PGA Championship in 2013. He missed the cut on both occasions, but has experienced the nerves and excitement of teeing up at big events on American soil, which puts him in good stead for Augusta this year. His last showing at the big four was a missed cut at The Open in 2015. He suffered a first-round blowout of 79 at The Old Course and, despite going 10 shots better on the Friday for a round of 69, was unable to play the weekend.
He turned 37 this year, an age considered golfing prime before Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy made a mockery of experience. The recent surge of older winners in Adam Scott and Bubba Watson has re-established the order of things, as did Van Zyl when he beat young gun Dean Burmester in a playoff for his latest victory.
Augusta National is a dream venue and The Masters is Van Zyl’s favourite tournament to watch. He envied the glory days of Tiger Woods and dreamed big when his friends Trevor Immelmann and Schwartzel won. This year he has a chance to compete on those hallowed grounds, but it will take a determined effort to ensure a spot.
‘The Masters is the flagship of all events,’ says Van Zyl. ‘It and the Nedbank Golf Challenge are the two tournaments I always watch, and I was lucky enough to compete at Sun City last year. There’s only one tournament left that I would love to be a part of. If I get to play The Masters I will be there to savour the experience and atmosphere. It’s an event I’ve dreamed of playing for many years and to add expectations when I’m there might put a dampener on the experience,’ he says.