With 20 titles under his belt, Darren Fichardt has the balance and ambition to aim for more, writes MIKE GREEN.
There’s unfinished business in Darren Fichardt’s career, so things felt a little bleak after a poor 2019 European Tour season and he had to head back to Qualifying School in an attempt to regain his playing privileges.
It was the fifth time he’s had to endure the nerve-racking 108-hole marathon that rewards resilient players with the opportunity to play at some 72-hole events on one of the world’s most challenging Tours.
‘Last year was a difficult one off the golf course and going back to Q-School was a reality check,’ says Fichardt of a European season in which he missed 11 cuts, with a share of seventh at the Maybank Championship last March being his best performance.
Despite this, he approached the week in a pretty casual way.
‘I didn’t touch a club for two weeks before it,’ he says.
‘I also didn’t play a practice round on either of the courses as I arrived only the day before the tournament started. But that probably helped me. I’ve been through all that tension before, where guys are trying so hard to qualify that they end up in a position where they tighten up and can’t play the way they know they can. They end up not qualifying.’
Even so, opening rounds of 71 and 72 left him well adrift of the lead. A third-round 68 helped, but a 71 in the fourth round saw him only just sneak into the final two days.
He turned it on with a 64 in the fifth round, but that’s when the nerves kicked in. ‘I knew it’s always tough to follow up
a low round with another,’ Fichardt says. He was able to hold it together well enough for a 69, to finish 22nd out of the 28 players granted a Tour card.
‘I was pretty tense during that final round. And when I sank that birdie putt on the final hole, I was flooded with relief.’
He had already mapped out a plan of action had he missed out. ‘I thought of maybe taking a year off and seeing what happened after that,’ he says. Despite a sometimes intense presence on the golf course, Fichardt knows that golf is a game. ‘Golf has never felt like a job to me,’ he says, ‘but the travelling does take its toll on me.’
That’s a familiar refrain from all players who are married, and especially those with children. International travel takes you out of the family loop enough to make it tough. ‘I am a family man so for me my family have balanced my life,’ he says. ‘Golf is my career, but being a good father and husband is what I aspire to be. All I want to be is a good role model to my children, so doing my best in everything I do is a life motto.’
Doing his best has brought him 17 Sunshine Tour titles. He’s won five on the European Tour, two of which – the 2013 Africa Open and the 2017 Joburg Open – were co-sanctioned by the Sunshine Tour. That total puts him joint seventh on the all-time list of Sunshine Tour winners together with Zimbabwean Tony Johnstone.
Many of those early wins came in a particularly fertile period for local professional golf. Fichardt shared the stage with the likes of Jean Hugo, Jaco van Zyl, Desvonde Botes, Keith Horne, Hennie Otto, Bradford Vaughan and Ulrich van den Berg. Those players all feature on the list of prolific winners, with only Hugo above him with 19.
‘That was a different time, to be honest,’ he says. ‘We had a lot more fun. We’d all travel together and end up with four of us staying in a hotel room … that kind of thing. Nowadays, it’s all very serious and I think it’s a loss that the fun might have gone out of things.
‘There may not be as many tournaments as there could be, but there are events like the Vodacom Origins of Golf and the Sun International series which keep the players going during the quieter winter months. It’s tough to make a living if you don’t have a couple of good performances in the big-money events. But the point is there are plenty of opportunities.
‘Having 17 titles is an achievement I’m proud of and I want to better that record every week I play.’
One of those titles is the Eye of Africa PGA Championship. It’s the latest trophy in Fichardt’s collection, added in January, and has given him a great deal of pleasure.
It came via a playoff against 2018 champion Matias Calderon and was built on a pair of 65s – in the first and third rounds. Despite Calderon’s closing 64, Fichardt was able to keep him at bay with a 68. He then sealed the victory on the first extra hole for the second playoff win of his career.
Back in the day, the PGA Championship formed one leg of what was called the ‘Triple Crown’ of South African golf. The second was the South African Masters, which Fichardt won in 2009, and the third was the South African Open.
‘I think every pro golfer in this country wants to win their national title so I would love to win the Triple Crown,’ he says. ‘The South African Open is a tournament I’ve come very close to winning; I came fourth in 2004. I would love to have that trophy in my bar.’
Fichardt is a little more laid-back when he talks about the Major championships. He’s played at The Open Championship
six times, the last in 2017 after he played his way in with his Joburg Open victory. He’s never made the cut.
He also played at the US Open in 2007 and it’s the one he prefers. ‘I’m not a fan of links golf so the US Open was my favourite,’ he says.
As for getting on to the pristine greens and fairways of Augusta National – well, that’s a whole other ball game. He tempers mention of that with a dose of resignation. ‘I certainly do want to play The Masters but if I don’t, it’s not the end of the world.’
That acceptance speaks to how Fichardt has settled into a life which perhaps belies the intensity he sometimes exhibits when he plays. He gets angry with himself, especially when he knows he could do better. ‘We are our own worst critics,’ he says, as he looks back on a career – particularly internationally – which some feel could have been enhanced with a few more titles.
Even with the calmness of maturity, there is still an appetite for success. At 44, there is plenty of top-level golf left in him. ‘This game never gets old and my goals stay high because golf always challenges a person. That’s why we love it so much,’ he says.
Strangely enough, even the grind of preparation is something which still appeals to him. ‘Practising has always been a fun thing for me and I suspect I’ll still be practising even when I’m a long-time retired golfer,’ he says.
It’s just as well, because that’s what it takes to stay up there and still be able to compete. Now, however, he has the added pleasure of sharing the game with family. ‘It’s an unbelievable feeling to be able to win tournaments with my children there seeing me do it,’ he says.
Perhaps that reference to the small, intimate circle is critical in understanding what it takes to succeed. Asked what advice he’d give up-and-coming players, Fichardt says: ‘Keep your circle small because the higher you climb in this career the more people want to get involved and that often complicates things. Always keep things simple.’