Ruan Conradie, now a first-time Sunshine Tour winner, has transferred lessons learned in the wrestling ring to the golf course, writes MIKE GREEN.
Wrestling is not a sport you’d ordinarily call a gateway to professional golf.
But for Conradie, the latest first-time winner on the 2019-20 schedule, credits a lesson he took from his amateur wrestling days for giving him a tool for his maiden Sunshine Tour victory.
Conradie carded 18-under-par 198 at the 54-hole Royal Swazi Spa Challenge in August for a one-stroke win over a chasing pack that included the likes of Jaco van Zyl, JC Ritchie, Michael Palmer and Haydn Porteous. That made him the fifth first-time winner in just seven tournaments of the season.
‘When I was younger I used to compete in amateur wrestling,’ says Conradie, ‘and I learned that with consistent hard work I could achieve anything. It also taught me to adapt to different scenarios very quickly when I had to wrestle against different opponents.
‘The characteristics from those experiences have become part of the skills I apply in my golf and the way I live my life. I’m very appreciative of the way it guides me through my life. In a golf sense it’s helped me to knuckle down and adapt to tougher course conditions and to just perform the best I could.’
With that wrestling background, he didn’t compile a lengthy amateur golf pedigree.
‘I never really competed at the highest level when I was an amateur,’ he recalls. ‘For me it was about getting to know what it was like to travel around and play at different venues; a stepping-stone to where I wanted to go. With that said, I played competitively on the amateur circuit for almost two years, collecting top-five and even second-place finishes. My first win came when I started to compete on the IGT Challenge Tour where I collected eight wins in two seasons. For me that was a big step in the right direction.’
Knuckling down was paying off for Conradie after a good start to the season, with cuts made at the four opening tournaments, and a fourth place at the Lombard Insurance Classic at Royal Swazi Spa Country Club. It gave him a degree of confidence that a win could not be too far down the road in his second season on the Sunshine Tour. Then, out of the blue, he missed a cut – at the Sun City Challenge. Things could have gone south quickly.
‘Anyone who plays in South Africa, or even around the world, knows that it’s always a special occasion to play at the Gary Player Country Club,’ he says. ‘So yes, I was gutted to miss the cut there. It made it even worse that I made a three-putt at the last to put me outside the cut line. But I wasn’t too worried since I had been injured the week before with back spasms which prevented me from preparing sufficiently for the event.’
He also missed the cut at the KCB Karen Masters in Kenya, the tournament where he had first showed up on the radar last year, with a pair of opening 67s, before sinking to a pair of 76s over the weekend.
But he bounced back with a vengeance in Swaziland: at the Investec Royal Swazi Open in May, he carded rounds of 66, 68 and 64 before closing with a 73 to finish 16th; and at the 54-hole Lombard Insurance Classic two weeks later, he signed for 65, 67 and 66 to finish fourth. He raced to an opening 11-under-par 61 at the Royal Swazi Spa Challenge, a round that included two bogeys.
‘From the first time I played there I felt I could be aggressive off the tees and that kind of game plan has always given me great confidence,’ says Conradie. ‘The attacking frame of mind means I have never been afraid to take on any kind of shot at Royal Swazi.
‘At the start of the round all I wanted to do was get going with some birdies as soon as possible. Unfortunately I started off with a bogey. But I steadied the ship by making birdie at the tough par-four 11th and made an eagle on the 12th. Once I turned, I knew that if I could avoid any bogeys I could have a chance at a low one.’
A bogey on the 2nd (his 11th hole of the day) halted any chance he had of signing for that magic 59 but finishing with a string of birdies resulted in what he called ‘probably my most exciting round of my career’.
The second round was less exciting as he ground out a one-under 71, but that wrestling determination kept him in contention and he closed with a 66 – including a bogey at the last as he took full advantage of his two-shot lead to take the title.
‘Getting that first win under my belt certainly was very special and it’s something I will remember for the rest of my life,’ he says. ‘That moment, right after you hole the last putt, is almost indescribable and it’s probably one of the biggest motivational experiences to get me to win again and again. My mindset has changed dramatically and my sights are now set on that big W, regardless of where I get the privilege of playing.’
Not only has his mindset changed, now he can think of expanding his golfing horizons beyond South Africa.
‘I would love to get a couple of opportunities on the European Tour as soon as possible,’ he says. ‘But I’m trying hard not to get ahead of myself, so for now I’m just trying to put together a successful season and prepare myself for the co-sanctioned events.
‘After that I’ll have sit down with my team and talk about my best options.’
That team includes his father and his younger brother Estiaan, who earned his Sunshine Tour card at the same time as Ruan.
‘During my time as an amateur I travelled to a lot of places across South Africa but my brother was still in school which meant he couldn’t travel with me,’ recalls Conradie. ‘I found that golf could sometimes be a very lonely sport. You always have your friends on Tour who make it fun and memorable, but having your brother with you makes it much more fun. When my brother and I got Sunshine Tour status it made it so much easier to adjust to all the difficulties of getting used to the new environment.
‘Having my brother with me almost gave me that sense of being home.’
He acknowledges that the Sunshine Tour environment is tough. ‘The step up was one of the biggest eye-openers I experienced. The level at which the guys were playing, the travelling, the preparations before events – all were factors in making those first couple of months incredibly tough.
‘I was trying to get settled and before I could even find my feet, half the season was already over. My dad then took over all the hassles that came with travelling and my coach helped me with preparation and generally getting better at everything I do. Once we had a structure going it became easier.’
It is a matter of adjusting, he says.
‘Ever since I started competing I always took a while to get settled on whatever Tour I was on. Once I felt comfortable, I would set goals that I wanted to achieve in a certain time frame. Winning on Tour this season was one of my bigger goals and getting it done so early puts me in a great position.
‘It is a great feeling setting new goals and my expectations and goals have been adjusted to keep me working hard.’
Conradie knows that change is a good problem for a winner to wrestle with.