Heartbreaking European Tour Qualifying School stories abound, but they are matched by equally inspiring tales of success. Ulrich van den Berg is certainly on the right side of that draw, and his victory at the ‘toughest tournament in golf’ has given him a new lease on life as a competitor in the 2016 Race to Dubai, writes Mike Taylor.
This will not be the first time the 40-year-old tees up as a European Tour member, but his last overseas bid was back in 2008, when his children were still sparkles in his eyes and life was a little simpler. This time he’s got a different family dynamic, but it won’t stop him from tackling the biggest events on the European Tour schedule.
‘I’m not sure if I’m a better golfer now than I was then, but age certainly brings wisdom. I’ve had a lot of knocks over the years, but also a lot of great moments, which I think happens with all professionals who have a long-standing career. I haven’t waited this long and hoped for this moment to not take it with both hands,’ he says.
Last November plans changed drastically for the Sunninghill resident when he claimed the first European Tour card on offer after six gruelling rounds at the PGA’s Catalunya Resort. The scale of difficulty at Qualifying School is difficult to comprehend, but players often speak of the 108 holes in Spain with a softened voice, as though mentioning it may invoke the wrath of the golfing gods.
That marathon, however, has ended for Van den Berg, who shot 68 for the final round and secured top honours, despite being the oldest qualifier in the field. Of the 953 players who took part in the process 27 got cards, not the greatest odds one could hope for.
His world ranking of 559 does little to explain just how talented the seven-time Sunshine Tour winner really is, and he has won or been runner-up at least once a season for all but four years since turning professional in 1999. The ranking points available on the local circuit are simply not sufficient for players of his calibre to build an international reputation, but in the coming year he has a chance to change all that.
It all began when the East London-born professional picked up a club at the age of eight. He quickly began to make tracks for the big time, starting off with a junior career that included him representing Border at five consecutive inter-provincial tournaments.
His amateur career was also profound and he held Springbok colours for three years, during which time he peaked with a victory at the South African Amateur Stroke Play in 1997.
Van den Berg then turned professional in 1999 and immediately showed signs of what was to come when he finished sole second at the Zimbabwe Open in November 1999. His breakthrough win came in 2000, when he lifted the Riviera Resort Classic trophy after shooting 63 for the final round.
Since then it’s been one-way traffic for him on the local circuit, and he is the model of professional golf. He eats healthily and has a regimented training schedule, and on top of it all he’s won best dressed player on tour several times.
Those attributes will come in handy as he begins the travel-laden routine of playing on the European Tour, where consistency is crucial. Mental strength will also be important for Van den Berg in the coming season, but he has experienced some deep lows during his career and come out on top.
There is a golden opportunity for him to become the golfer he was meant to be, competing on the international stage alongside the wealth of other South Africans who fill the entry lists at European Tour events.
Van den Berg had a springboard into the new year and he began the season at the South African Open Championship, which he holds close to his heart.
There is vindication on offer for Van den Berg, who qualified for the European Tour in 2007, but left after his father contracted pancreatic cancer and passed away. His progression to international renown was halted at that point and he never truly recovered, despite playing off an extension in the 2008 season.
He’s back on track and Glendower Golf Club ought to have been the perfect host for his return to the European circuit. It’s his home club and was the scene of his most recent professional win, which came at the BMG Classic in 2013. As it stands, his horizons are broader than they have been in eight years.
‘I think it’s every professional’s dream to play on the biggest stages in golf. I don’t play to compete just on the local circuit and when you get this kind of privilege, you have to take the chance.
‘I’m hoping for some of the same form I’ve produced over the last while. It’s not reinventing the wheel. The wheel has already been formed and shaped, you just need to make it turn,’ he says.
Playing under the shadowy parklands layout will surely help to ease him into the new season, which included a run of tournaments at courses he loves – the Joburg Open at Royal Johannesburg & Kensington Golf Club and the Tshwane Open at Pretoria Country Club.
The strain of having a family and having to travel is one of biggest hurdles Van den Berg faces. The life of a touring professional is not for the faint of heart, and involves spending week upon week in different hotels, battling jet lag and, at times, strange cuisine.
Add a family unit into the mix and strategising for the season becomes a huge undertaking, with the European Tour covering a total of 26 different countries during the course of the year.
‘When I was on tour in 2008 I was married, but we had no children. This time we have two kids aged four and six, and I think the toughest challenge will be leaving them behind. My wife and I have discussed all the options in depth and I’m going to take on this new challenge.
‘I’m really glad to able to compete again at the highest level – it’s what all of us are here for. It’s been a physically tough year, but we’ve come through with some great opportunities,’ he says.
Times are changing for the South African, who must face up to the best of Europe. It’s a big task, with players like Rory McIlroy, Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson (all ranked within the top 10 in the world) regularly competing on the second-most lucrative circuit in golf.
The tour doesn’t skimp on tough courses in its rotation either, and players often have to grind out results on tricky layouts. That should play into Van den Berg’s hands, especially since he grew up playing at East London Golf Club, where the coastal winds taught him an array of shots.
The ante has been raised, with bigger prize funds and better players competing on a global circuit. That will be the stage set for Van den Berg to achieve his dreams, but so far he looks the part.
In the past few years there have been older players proving their longevity, and one needs only to think back to Darren Clarke and Ernie Els lifting Claret Jugs, or to Miguel Angel Jimenez becoming the oldest winner in European Tour history at the Spanish Open in 2014.
Golf has always been a sport that allows for aging, but the latest set of veteran success stories proves the value of experience. Van den Berg will be begin a new chapter in his career knowing that he can rely on shots that he’s hit under tournament conditions for the last 16 years. All that’s left for him to do is take the plunge.
‘You never know or can predict what’s going to happen, but I’ve been playing nicely and if I continue to take it step by step then hopefully we can produce some good results. I’m a pragmatic person when it comes to golf, and I think that wisdom has taught me the way to go about it,’ he says.