Jaco van Zyl has never cared too much about the world rankings. ‘To be honest, I don’t really even know how they are calculated. Sure, I know that this number is divisible by that number and so on, but some weeks after I’ve played well my ranking has dropped and other times when I haven’t had a great week, I’ve gone up. You need to have some sort of degree to be able to figure out how they work!’
As we speak he was sitting at 65th on the Official World Golf Ranking, after briefly breaking into the top 50 in the world by virtue of victory in a playoff at the Eye of Africa PGA Championship in March. He had hoped the subsequent invitation to the WGC-Dell Match Play would come with a performance that would elevate him into a place at The Masters, which is one of his ‘bucket list’ events on the calendar.
Despite results that included halving with the man who would go on to claim his first Green Jacket, Danny Willett, Van Zyl ended in a tie for 28th and the following week he’d slipped to No 54 in the world and the chance of an invite to Augusta had disappeared.
What followed was a couple of trips around the world. He found himself teeing up in Spain, Mauritius, Dubai, England – where a promising tie for seventh in the BMW PGA Championship was followed by a missed cut at the US Open – and then back to Germany and then France. By the end of all that he was sitting in 65th position.
However, now he was looking a little closer at the World Ranking and all for one reason – the Rio Olympics, where golf makes a controversial return for the first time in 112 years. Controversial because a slew of high-profile golfers, especially the men, withdrew, citing fear of contracting the Zika virus, scheduling problems and personal reasons. Those withdrawals included world No 1 Jason Day, Rory McIlroy, Adam Scott, Hideki Matsuyama and Shane Lowry. And, crucially for Van Zyl and Brandon Stone, Branden Grace, Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel.
That left Van Zyl and Stone as the two leading South Africans on the World Ranking who made themselves available to tee it up in Rio.
Van Zyl jumped at the opportunity – even withdrawing from The Open Championship at Royal Troon and The PGA Championship, the last two Majors of the year, to be part of the Olympic family.
‘[World No 6] Henrik Stenson said he is more afraid of being eaten by a bear than being bitten by a mosquito and he is going to represent his country. I feel the same. I know I was “only” the fourth South African in line and “only” got in when Louis and Charl withdrew, but to me it’s a huge deal to be able to play in the Olympics.
‘I expect there will be a camp that will criticise me for withdrawing from two Majors, but I feel passionate about golf’s debut at the Olympics. Rory [McIlroy] said we play four “Olympics” a year because Major titles are what we play for, but I don’t agree. This is a complete one-off and I think there will be golfers who in the coming months regret their decision to not be involved at Rio.
‘I’m 37 and will be 41 by the time the Tokyo Olympics come round in 2020. This is probably a one-off for me. I have two boys and am not planning on having any more so I’m worried at all about Zika. The decision to withdraw from two Majors to compete in Rio wasn’t taken lightly.
‘But, while others have decided to rest around Rio, I slotted my rest in before. I went into the bush, where there is no cellphone signal, with my girlfriend and to spend time with that part of the family and to just switch off. After playing 36 holes in one day at the US Open and then another 36 holes in one day the following week at the BMW International Open, I needed to rest my body. I’m not 20 years of age any more, even though I sometimes think I am.’
And, can one expect him to be rested and hitting the ball well when it comes to the middle of August? ‘Look, I’m not the most technical person in the world. I’ll have got some good rest and then two weeks before the Olympics I’ll pick up the clubs again and play a fair amount.’
Van Zyl says he spoke with his 23-year-old countryman and Rio teammate at the French Open. ‘He was excited about being eligible for Rio and committed to the tournament or the right reasons. Given his age and his rise, he should be able to attend more than one Olympics – providing the sport hasn’t shot itself in the foot this time, and perhaps it has, which makes Rio even more important.’
The serial Sunshine Tour winner is in a good space. ‘I’m blessed with being able to play golf. There’s a lot more to life than material things.’ As if to prove the point, when Van Zyl won the SAPGA Championship he gave his caddie Jason Reynolds a stand at the Eye of Africa Golf Estate, which he won along with the winner’s trophy. ‘Jason is such a great guy and I’d like to think it will make a huge difference in his life.’
‘And when it came to the Olympics, I sat down and asked myself “Do I want to be part of it?” The answer was “yes”. As it started to get a lot closer, it became more of a reality. Then I had to ask myself, “Where can I fit in some rest?” So many others are doing so after the Majors, but I couldn’t squeeze the schedule to fit. So, I decided to drop The Open Championship and The PGA Championship. There were also some personal circumstances that contributed to the decision-making process, but I feel like I’ve done the right thing. The Olympics is something very special.’
‘There will be four more Majors in 2017, four more in 2018 and four more in 2019. The next Olympics, if golf is included, are in 2020. I love South Africa and it’s amazing to be afforded the opportunity of representing my country on that stage.’
Perhaps golf can learn from tennis. At the 1988 Games in Seoul, professional tennis was included in the Olympics schedule for the first time. Only three of the men’s top 10 made themselves available: Stefan Edberg, Tim Mayotte and Miroslav Mecir (who went on to win the gold medal). The man who won the bronze medal in 1988, American Brad Gilbert, recently suggested there would be regrets from those golfers who have turned down the chance to be in Rio.
‘I understand the thinking, but I would be shocked if by 2020 in Tokyo, golf didn’t have a loaded field for the Olympics. It’s like the first one is a mulligan. What’s happening with the golf is a lot like 1988. A lot of the tennis players just weren’t quite sure, and there were some security worries in Seoul,’ Gilbert said.
Another tennis player who is qualified to speak on the subject of their sport being at the Olympics is Boris Becker. ‘I can only speak for my own experience, but winning the Olympic gold medal is one of my highlights. If I look back on my career, I certainly remember my Wimbledon titles and maybe reaching No 1, but an Olympic gold medal is right up there.’
And back in January, the dominant men’s No 1 Novak Djokovic said he was making the Olympics his priority for the year. ‘There’s a different dimension to the Olympics: one of pride, honour and passion. I look forward to being part of that energy, absorbing it and giving my energy to it. And I would definitely like to meet Usain Bolt, because I never have,’ said Djokovic at the time.
Van Zyl, who has already overcome extensive knee surgery in 2014 and 2015 that threatened to cut his career short, knows there are no guarantees in life. He has been given the opportunity to tee up for his country in Brazil and wants to take it with both hands.
He is also looking forward to rubbing shoulders with Team SA’s golfing code manager, Gary Player and learning from the greatest golfer the country has produced. ‘Look, Gary is a global ambassador for golf and has done a lot of good for the sport. I think everyone will be looking up to him and having him around can only be good for myself and Brandon. There has been a lot of negative publicity over golf in Rio and it’s a personal opinion that I think there are some players who have gone about withdrawing from the Games the wrong way. But, for me, it’s a one-off and a life experience. So, will I look back and regret skipping two Majors for the opportunity to represent my country at the Olympics and as a consequence see my world ranking drop? No.’
Getting to know Jaco
Car: ‘I’m not a car person. I drive a VW but I’m more comfortable in the air and I fly autogyros (copters). I physically need to be in the air and if I’m not flying one at least once a month, I get withdrawal symptoms!
Music: ‘Anything really, pop music. Whatever is current and gets me listening is my favourite at the time.’
Food: ‘I love my protein, so the perfect meal is a steak on a braai!’
Golf course: ‘Without a doubt Leopard Creek. I love the bush and for me that golf course is brilliant, I’m in my element whenever I’m there.’
Rugby team: ‘Don’t judge me, but it’s the Bulls. I suppose it’s because I am mates with some of the players and I used to play quite a lot of golf with the likes of Victor Matfield and a few others.’
Month: ‘I suppose January is my favourite, because it represents a fresh start for the year ahead. Everything starts anew and being in South Africa’s it’s bang in the middle of summer and one can be a bit lazy and just kick back and chill.’