South Africa’s newest winner on the European Tour, Christiaan Bezuidenhout, has a remarkable back story that shows dreams can come true, writes MICHAEL VLISMAS.
Bezuidenhout lounges on the bed of his hotel room as we have a casual video chat.
The overriding sense you get from him is not the incredible golf talent or the status of being a European Tour champion. The most dominant thought throughout our conversation is just what a beautiful human being he is.
From his maiden European Tour triumph at the Andalucia Masters hosted by the Sergio Garcia Foundation to whatever heights Bezuidenhout will achieve in his career, what he says about the journey he has travelled reveals everything about where he is going.
‘I wouldn’t change it,’ says Bezuidenhout. ‘My journey has been different to most golfers. But I’m happier where I am in my life and I know where I’m going. I’ve always been a guy who sets goals and works towards them. There’s nothing more satisfying than setting a goal and ticking that box. And the next phase of your life opens up.’
The story is now a very public one in the golf world, thanks to a refreshingly honest blog written by Bezuidenhout on the European Tour’s website.
It is the story of a two-and-a-half-year-old child who mistakenly picked up ‘a random Coke bottle’ while playing in the street and took a sip of what he thought was cooldrink. It was rat poison.
‘It changed my life forever,’ he wrote. After surviving the immediate effects of the poison and having his stomach pumped, the long-term effects kicked in. Bezuidenhout developed a stutter. And with that came severe anxiety and depression.
No amount of talent in golf could ever overcome the self-doubt his stutter caused him. Until he began mining that deep well of character within him, and one day made a very important decision.
‘The main thing for me was accepting the fact that this is who I am and it’s not going to change. When I was younger, that’s what I struggled with. I always wanted to be perfect or do public speaking. Even when I won junior tournaments I was scared to go up and give a speech. It was a mind switch of accepting who I am and dealing with it if anyone had something to say about it. I accepted it, as did my family and friends. That was the main thing for me in moving forward.
‘When I was younger, I never fully believed in myself. I was always holding myself back from my full potential. I knew I could play the game and go far in it. It was just getting that self-belief.’
Bezuidenhout rose to be one of South African golf’s top amateurs. And then came another blow when the medication he was taking to control his stutter caused him to fail a drugs test during the 2014 Amateur Championship at Royal Portrush. The two-year ban was reduced to nine months, but it still kept him out of the Eisenhower team he’d worked so hard to qualify for. It was a cruel blow, but once again Bezuidenhout made a key decision in the midst of this low point.
‘I could’ve viewed that nine-month ban as a negative or positive. I just decided, “It’s happened, so deal with it.” I could work hard for nine months and then go and show the world it wasn’t the medication that helped me play better. And that’s what I did. I could’ve stopped playing golf for five months and then started again for the last three months of the ban, but in my mind, that’s a negative mindset.
‘I spoke to my parents about it when it happened and they agreed with my approach. We took it day by day with my normal routine and I worked hard. I’ve always been a hard worker. I just said to myself, it’s a negative thing that’s happened and I need to turn it into a positive thing. I wanted to come back stronger and show the people who had negative things to say.’
He did exactly that, turning professional and winning on the Sunshine Big Easy Tour before his breakthrough on the Sunshine Tour at the 2016 Sun Fish River Challenge. Then came an arduous journey at the European Tour’s Qualifying School to secure his playing privileges there.
‘I birdied my 108th hole at Q-School to get the final card in 2017. I literally took the longest road to the European Tour. My main goal last year was to keep my card and my playing rights for the full 2019 season. I changed coaches and started working with Grant Veenstra, and we made some changes to my swing. My ball striking improved and I was more consistent, which gave me more confidence as I ironed out the small things and put it all together. I always knew I could compete out here. But there’s a massive difference between believing you can win and then knowing you can win.’
To do this at Valderrama, beating Jon Rahm and Sergio Garcia in the process, brings with it a healthy dose of self-belief.
‘It’s amazing. I always believed I could play with the best in the world and compete on Tour, but to pull it off at such an iconic venue like Valderrama, which is a tight and a mentally-draining course, where every shot takes so much concentration and energy, is amazing. In that final round I went through a tough stretch in the middle and needed to dig extra deep and it took more out of me. I was mentally tired after that. To be playing with Rahm in the final group on Sunday, and to pull it off with a five-shot lead going into the final round, which can also be tough, just makes it all so much more special.’
The list of those who were among the first to congratulate Bezuidenhout on his triumph also speaks volumes for the kind of character he is.
‘Ernie Els phoned me that Sunday. I also received calls from AB de Villiers, Jacques Kallis and Mark Boucher. They were so delighted for me. They see the hard work being put in. They know how difficult it is, and for them to acknowledge you for what you’ve done is special.’
Bezuidenhout also revealed how his caddie, Zack Rasego, played a major part in that final round. As he has done for Louis Oosthuizen and Branden Grace.
‘Zack has been on my bag since the start of the year. He’s changed my whole demeanour on the course. He relaxes me and believes in me almost more than I do. On that Sunday when we went through that tough patch he kept me calm and told me to stay in the moment and take it one shot at a time. He’s been a massive help. I feel so much more relaxed on the course because he just makes me feel so calm. I’ve learned a lot.’
The learning through every phase of his life and career is something the 25-year-old Bezuidenhout has always focused on.
‘I was always happy to go through the phases in my career. I’d been close a few times on the European Tour and couldn’t finish it off. But I had put myself in those positions and learned how to handle the pressure. There are so many players on the Sunshine Tour who could easily play on the European Tour. It’s just that it’s difficult to get from the Sunshine Tour to the European Tour and then the PGA Tour. But as soon as you do it and you start playing out here, you realise that you belong here.’
And now comes the next phase he has opened up, and new goals.
‘At the start of the year we sat down and the main goal was to get into contention more on the European Tour, which I’ve done. Then to get a European Tour win, which I’ve done. My next goal is to finish in the top 25 in the Race to Dubai and to add 15 yards on my drives.’
So this is not just a story about a great young golfer. It’s also a story about tragedy, dark times and triumph over the odds.
‘Before I wrote that blog nobody knew my story. After that, people were telling me what an inspiring story it was for them. I still get people coming to me and saying they have a new perspective on some things in life they’d previously taken for granted. It’s always nice to change other people’s lives with something that happened to you.’
It’s a story about dreams.
‘Don’t be scared to dream. Since I can remember, it’s been my dream just to play on the European Tour, never mind win here. I dreamed that and worked hard. Just dream and work hard. Dreams can come true.’