There have been plenty of ups and downs in his long career but Jaco van Zyl is starting again at home, writes MIKE GREEN.
It gives you a sense of how angry Jaco van Zyl is about the position he’s in when he talks about the 2019 European Tour’s Qualifying School Final Stage.
‘What happened at Q-School was a kick in the balls,’ says the quietly-spoken man.
Van Zyl was disqualified in the first round of the six-round marathon as he was trying to regain his playing privileges he had lost after a poor season returning from nearly a year and a half out with injury.
‘Q-School is an emotional rollercoaster on the best of days,’ he says. ‘I had worked the hardest I ever have to prepare as best I could. But unfortunately, it’s not always enough. I got in a predicament with a new rule that was put in place at the beginning of 2019. I was about two metres off the green with a sprinkler head between myself and the hole and I knew I was entitled to relief. But I didn’t know the ins and outs of the rule.
‘There was no rules official nearby, so my playing partner suggested I play two balls, as I was entitled to do in that situation, until I got a ruling – one giving myself relief, and the other not. I got up and down with both the balls. To cut a long story short, I did everything according to the book but I failed to report it to a rules official or ask for confirmation of the outcome when I signed my card. That led to an automatic disqualification. Moments like that make you wonder if you still want to play golf.
‘After my last injury not playing for 14 months, it’s been challenging, tough and trying. A couple of weeks ago, I was ready to give up the game.’
Of course, a man who has won 14 times on the Sunshine Tour and is only turning 41 in late February is not simply going to walk away from the game.
Those wins have come over a 19-year career, with 77 top-10s and a stroke average of 70.24. He had a particularly purple patch in 2009 and 2010 where he won nine times in a 19-month period, starting with his first ‘big’ win, at the Telkom PGA Championship at Country Club Johannesburg.
That trophy, one of the old ‘triple crown’ of South African golf (the South African Open Championship, the South African Masters and the PGA Championship), was a title he went on to win again in 2013 and 2016. He also won the inaugural Investec Cup, earning a R2-million bonus.
The 2016 Eye of Africa PGA Championship title was his last in South Africa and it took him into the top 50 in the World Ranking. It was also a time when it looked increasingly likely that he would break through in Europe. He had two runner-up finishes and three other top-10s in 2015, five top-10s in 2016 and another second place in January 2017 at the Commercial Bank Qatar Masters after a three-man playoff. His play made his maiden victory look imminent.
Then along came a slew of injuries and a frustratingly slow recovery as things just kept going wrong.
Eight missed cuts in his 2019 European season forced him back to Q-School. After the disqualification, his focus has switched to the Sunshine Tour.
‘I’m sure I will get a few starts in Europe,’ he says, ‘but I’ve decided to play at home and build up some confidence before making any further decisions. I had a really tough year and I’m not in a good place emotionally. I’m trying to build up a bit, take some time out.
‘It feels like the game is there but I just can’t put four rounds together. I either have a nice start and then bleed towards the end, or I get a horrible start and kind of get it back together. But it’s nice to be at home, to play at home and to not have to get on a plane and travel for 24 hours to get to wherever you’re playing. That alone will make life a lot easier.’
For those who are expecting him to win immediately, he has the obligatory caution: ‘I’m not too set on results at the moment,’ he says. ‘It’s a process. I had to learn how to hit it again, how to score again. You’ve also got to learn to deal with the emotions and the ups and downs of the game again – it’s a hell of a lot easier doing that when you’re 20, rather than 40.’
He’s also aware that the process might not bring him success, even though he has that extraordinary
local record. ‘Unfortunately, there are no guarantees in any sport so it’s best to take it one week, one month, one year at a time and see where it spits you out,’ he says.
That’s the essence of the advice he would give to any 20-year-old aspirant Sunshine Tour professional. ‘No matter how good you are, how good you think you are, or how good people tell you that you are, it’s a package you need to acquire,’ he says, ‘and only time, discipline and hard work will give you a chance at doing what you love.’
And doing what you love is something that can be done all over the world. When confronted with the example of Shaun Norris, who has carved out a place for himself in Japan, coming close to winning that Tour’s moneylist for two years in a row, Van Zyl also has a word of caution. ‘There are so many options of where to play. The real issue is deciding what you are willing to do and sacrifice to be able to play there.’
That, of course, makes reference to the tough time Norris had settling down in a culture that was so vastly different to what he was used to in South Africa. Other players find it equally tough to adapt to playing in Europe where there is often a different culture to contend with every week.
But Europe is the place that is perhaps most accessible for South African players, and it’s there that Van Zyl will be aiming.
But first, he’ll be buoyed by familiar surroundings, as well as by his record. ‘I’m blessed to have had the career I’ve had,’ he says. ‘Many dream of having my career and many perhaps think how little I have achieved. But I don’t think there is a Sunshine Tour player who doesn’t want to hold up the trophy on a Sunday evening.’
With 14 such opportunities having come his way, there is surely one which stands out in his memory. ‘I think my big break and my confidence came from my memorable win at the PGA Championship in 2009,’ he says.
On the final day, Van Zyl had played his way into contention after an early bogey on the 5th. Five birdies took him to a share of the lead with Canada’s Graham DeLaet and Trevor Fisher Jnr who were already in the clubhouse. With the players in the final group behind him out of the running, the tournament hinged on whether Van Zyl could make birdie on the par-five 18th, which had already delivered over 150 birdies during the week. But he pushed his approach to the right into the rosebed just short of the green.
‘I thought I would be fine. I didn’t even think of that rosebed there until my caddie mentioned it,’ said Van Zyl at the time.
‘I thought I would get relief and when I was told “no” by a rules official I thought to myself, “This is going to be interesting.” I think interesting also sums up the kind of lie I had in the roses. It certainly wasn’t the ideal situation you want to be in coming down the last hole.’
Van Zyl found the smallest of gaps in the roses and played one of the finest shots to win South Africa’s second-oldest professional tournament, finishing 10 feet from the hole.
‘That shot is one of those moments in my career that will stay with me forever,’ he recalls. ‘It might not be the biggest accomplishment but it’s most definitely the most memorable and special one.’
There will be more. The only question is whether there will be any in Europe. You’d like to think so.
Photo: Shaun Roy/Sunshine Tour/Gallo Images