Golf’s hardships are laid bare in the 2018 SA Open champion Chris Paisley’s slide down the rankings, writes GARY LEMKE.
The South African Open golf trophy is a magnificent piece of silverware. Widely considered the second (or third, depending on who you listen to) oldest national open in the sport, the list of engraved names is a veritable Who’s Who of golf.
Gary Player’s name is etched on the trophy 13 times, Bobby Locke’s nine, Ernie Els’ five, Trevor Immelman and Retief Goosen have won it twice each, while the likes of Louis Oosthuizen, Henrik Stenson and Vijay Singh have also raised the national treasure. Major champions, every one of them.
Then you get those who might get you thinking, ‘Wait a minute … who?’ Morten Orum Madsen is one such example. He held off Jbe Kruger and Hennie Otto to win the 2013 SA Open by two strokes. He stuck around in the country and played that year’s Nedbank Golf Challenge at Sun City where he finished tie-25th. And that’s basically as good as it got.
After winning the SA Open at Glendower he reached 119th in the world. These days you’ll find the 34-year-old Swede playing in the third-tier Nordic Golf League and languishing 1 118th in the World Ranking.
There were a couple of years where the golfing gods seemed to develop hiccups when it came to the South African Open. Henrik Stenson won in 2012, the year before Madsen’s win. Then Andy Sullivan and Brandon Stone reclaimed some sort of order in 2015 and 2016 before the unheralded Graeme Storm triumphed in 2017, beating Rory McIlroy in a playoff, no less. The Englishman moved to 133rd in the world but, like Madsen, he’s fallen off the edge of the cliff since and is now ranked 1,539th in the world.
A year later, January 2018, England’s Chris Paisley arrived at Glendower with his wife Keri carrying his bag and ranked 289 in the world. He then went head-to-head with Branden Grace in the final round and beat the South African hero in front of a baying Glendower crowd. Paisley, then 31, rose to 121st in the world but in terms of career moments, like Madsen and Storm, that was as good as it was to get.
And, again, normal service resumed with Oosthuizen, Grace, Christiaan Bezuidenhout and Daniel van Tonder winning the next four editions of the tournament.
Since winning the SA Open four years ago Paisley has struggled to maintain his form. He missed the cut at 10 of his 22 events after the SA Open that season. In 2019 he missed only six of 24 cuts but dropped to 239th in the world, while in 2020 he missed 11 of 19 cuts and ended the year 254th. In 2021 he missed 14 of 22 cuts and dropped further, to 383rd. This year he missed cuts at five of his first seven events on the DP World Tour – including both in South Africa – and by the end of March was ranked 513th.
So, what has happened to leave him in a desperate battle to retain his DP World Tour playing privileges?
‘It hasn’t been easy, especially after 2018 when winning the SA Open was a fairytale. Having Keri on the bag, too, was special, it was the biggest golfing achievement of my life and it doesn’t get any better than that,’ he says. ‘Since then, what can I say?
‘Well, the rest of 2018 was a strange year. Simply put, I played really poorly in the middle of the season, but I did finish fairly strongly. I came back to South Africa at the end of that year and finished T24th at the SA Open that December and T18th at the Alfred Dunhill Championship.
‘In 2019 I played OK, I guess, and had top-10 finishes on the DP World Tour in Portugal, Denmark, Oman and France. And then that’s when Covid-19 hit and things became very strange. I finished seventh at the Qatar Masters that March and then teed up again in late July and missed the cut at the British Masters. Although I finished sixth at the Scottish Masters I finished the year with six missed cuts at the last eight events. It was a difficult time scheduling events and coping with the whole Covid “bubble”.
‘Then I started getting really inconsistent. My 2021 was difficult and I didn’t make many cuts and to be honest, I played pretty poorly. I got Covid at the end of March and missed six weeks. I felt bad for a couple of days and then I noticed – well, my wife noticed – that for months afterwards I wasn’t that good. I was definitely more tired for an extended period. My world ranking started dropping and that’s when the stress levels started increasing. It does nothing for your confidence when you’re missing cuts.’
Paisley missed nine consecutive cuts to sign off the 2021 season, ending the year at 383rd on the World Ranking and hanging on to his DP World Tour card by a thread. That’s when he went looking for help.
‘I’ve got a good short game and I make a lot of putts, but it’s my long game that has been suffering. At the Abu Dhabi Championship I went to [swing coach] Jamie Gough and we sat down and had a chat. I liked the questions he asked and the answers he gave so we decided to start working together.
‘I had picked up a lot of bad habits in my swing, basically it was too long and flat – and it would start wearing away at my confidence. I had no direction off the tee, hitting it left and then right. The more you miss a cut the more it dents your confidence. And the more your ranking suffers, the more pressure you start feeling. It’s a slippery slope.
‘But, while the results aren’t there yet with the swing changes, I feel as though I’m starting to get back on track. I think it’s really good to have someone like Jamie around and it helps with the confidence. I can’t say when things will come right, but I can say I definitely feel like they will.’
Paisley, who hopes his fortunes will be on an upward trajectory that mirrors that of his beloved football club, Newcastle United, returned to South Africa for two events on the DP World Tour calendar, the MyGolfLife Open at Pecanwood and the Steyn City Championship. He missed both cuts, by two shots and by one respectively.
That, albeit a bitter pill to swallow, gave him some confidence and belief that the wheel is about to turn again, importantly so in the context of his DP World Tour ranking where he was sitting at 159th – outside the qualification limit for a card next season. He then played at the Qatar Masters where he unfortunately also missed the cut.
The Geordie is a member of the Birdies4Rhinos initiative, started by South Africans Justin Walters and Dean Burmester, where golfers donate money to the fund for every birdie they make. Although Paisley hasn’t been able to contribute as much as he likes, he is a committed supporter of the cause.
While in South Africa he enjoyed taking in the wildlife and game parks, and it must be said he experienced his share of good fortune.
‘On my very first trip I saw the Big Five. People wouldn’t believe me when I told them. They said, “Ah, but did you see leopard?” And I said, “Yes, it was sitting there on the first branch of the tree.” I thought that was a normal sighting. But then I was told that some people have gone like 20 times and have not seen leopard.
‘I’ve never been close to a rhino but I feel that the Birdies4Rhinos initiative is so important and it also helps raise awareness. Each year there’s a trip lined up where the golfers are shown all the latest technology that’s in place to help get the poachers but I’ve not been on one of those as yet. I’m hoping to be able to be on the next trip, though.’
Something else Paisley shares with South Africa is his love of cooking over hot coals. He is bullish about his successes with the Big Green Egg (a souped-up version of the Weber) and reckons his pork loin ribs, St Louis style, are truly world-class. In fact, on his Twitter bio he refers to himself as a ‘wannabe chef’.
So, have those culinary skills and competitive cooking streak earned him the respect of every self-appointed braaimaster in South Africa?
‘I’d better not say anything, this is a South African magazine after all,’ he laughs. ‘When I’m over here I’ll watch and not get too involved. I have seen how passionate you all are about your braais!’
It’s good to hear that, after nearly four years of hard times on the golf course and the pressure those dips in performances bring, life outside the ropes is good for Paisley. Married to the love of his life, the father of a beautiful daughter and being able to appreciate that life isn’t always all about winning at golf.
Although, everyone with a pulse will be hoping he returns to the form that saw him hold off Grace at Glendower four years ago and lift one of the most iconic trophies in the sport.
– This article first appeared in the May 2022 issue of Compleat Golfer magazine. Subscribe here!