One of the Sunshine Tour’s longest-serving players, Jean Hugo, opens up about a career filled with fond memories, writes MIKE GREEN.
Jean Hugo will be played his 21st South African Open championship as a pro golfer in January. That’s every one since 2000, when he turned professional, a year after he had finished in a share of ninth at level par to take the Freddie Tait Cup at a tournament won by David Frost.
‘The South African Open is a very special tournament for every professional golfer in the country,’ says Hugo. ‘I’ve had a few good ones – the 2003 SA Open stands out,’ he recalls of the time he finished tie-third behind Trevor Immelman. ‘I still think “could’ve, should’ve” about that one. Since then, I’ve had a bit of a love-hate relationship with it. These days, it’s tough to win any tournament, let alone the SA Open. I’ll keep working, keep playing, keep trying …’
Ninth place as an amateur was pretty impressive and it was a performance not unnoticed by South Africa’s newest golfing superstar, Ernie Els, who had finished tie-sixth at one under.
Perhaps it was then that Els reportedly remarked, ‘Jean Hugo has more talent in his little finger than I have in my entire body.’
The pair have been friends for a long time, so Hugo dismisses the extravagant praise. ‘I think he was exaggerating a bit
– Ernie is the immensely talented one,’ he says. ‘He really is a special person. He’s been an idol of mine and many other golfers of all ages.’
Hugo has been beaten at the SA Open by players who have gone on to be Major winners and international stars: Els, Immelman, Retief Goosen, Henrik Stenson and Louis Oosthuizen. He has also been beaten by players he should trump with his eyes closed when his game is on: James Kingston, Richard Sterne, Brandon Stone, Hennie Otto and Andy Sullivan are just some of those who would probably agree with that assessment.
Extraordinarily, the talent has been honed entirely by Hugo. ‘I am very much a self-taught natural golfer,’ he says. ‘I sometimes wish it was different. I would’ve liked to have been more technically sound. It would help on days when my feel and rhythm are off.
‘It probably comes from playing all sports when I was younger and only having a few clubs to play with when I started – I had to figure out a lot of ways to play a lot of shots. We didn’t have any coaching at school and my biology teacher was also responsible for getting us to and from matches. It was different to golf at school or junior level these days.’
Despite that seeming a disadvantage, after a gap of four years, Hugo took his tally of Sunshine Tour victories from 17 to 18 when he won the Sun Wild Coast Sun Challenge in October 2019. That makes him the player with the sixth-highest number of wins on the Tour, behind Gary Player (63), Mark McNulty (33), Bobby Locke (30), Sid Brews (26) and John Bland (21).
While the totals of Player, McNulty and Locke would seem to be out of reach for the 44-year-old, and even the Brews mark perhaps an unrealistic target, Bland’s bag of 21 titles is tantalisingly close. Four more wins for Hugo and he would find himself inside the top five. It would be an appropriate accolade for a player so supremely talented.
Perhaps it was one of those serendipitous moments that pop up in sport that Hugo’s opening round at the event, which gave
him his 18th win and set him on the quest to chase down Bland, was his best in tournament play.
His 10-under-par 60 effectively took the tournament away from the opposition and even five bogeys in his final round wasn’t enough to let anyone get any closer than four shots back.
He also came so close to shooting 59. ‘I was five under after nine and then birdied the first four coming home,’ he recalls. ‘Being a par 70, we always knew a 59 was on the cards.’
Hugo left his birdie putt about a foot short after he had moved to 10 under on the 7th hole – his 16th. And so it came down to his final hole, the 348m 9th which was playing fractionally under par that day and produced 22 birdies. ‘My playing partners were saying I had the putt for 59, so I was obviously thinking about it,’ he says. ‘I had a very good putt, but it just didn’t turn at the end and it lipped out.
‘It would have been very special. Somehow, the 60 doesn’t feel that great, but it was actually a good score. It could have been better, but it also could have been worse.’
Even though he was close to that 59, it isn’t one of the rounds he remembers most fondly.
He had a two-shot deficit going into the final round of the Vodacom Business Origins of Golf event at Gardener Ross (it has since been rechristened The Els Club at Copperleaf) in April 2010. The man who led was Charl Schwartzel, just a year away from becoming a Masters champion.
Schwartzel, then just 25, was playing some of the best golf of his life. Even though he bogeyed the 3rd, he raced to the turn in five-under 31 with four birdies and an eagle. Hugo matched him with three birdies, an eagle and no bogeys. It was game on.
Birdies were exchanged on the 11th and 13th, still keeping Hugo two strokes adrift. Then came the 578m par-five 15th. Birdie for Schwartzel and eagle for Hugo, and the pursuer was just one back. The 181m par-three 17th proved the turning point: a birdie for Hugo was answered with a bogey for Schwartzel and the lead changed hands.
Pars for each on 18 saw Hugo win with a course-record 62 – the six birdies and two eagles an indication of just how goo he was and how well he could play.
‘That probably still rates as the best round I’ve had to win a tournament when I wasn’t leading,’ he says. ‘Having moved from Stellenbosch up to the Highveld a couple of years earlier, most of the courses were new to me, but I took a liking to that one and I’ve been a member there for the past five or six years.’
The move was made after he got married to Niki in December 2007. ‘We decided to move to Centurion as it would benefit our marriage and my career,’ he says.
Hugo speaks passionately of how those benefits have become inextricably linked. ‘Friends and family life have certainly made the dry spells in my career much more bearable,’ he says. ‘They probably believe in me and my game more than I do.
‘I live for my family. My two boys are the biggest blessings in my life. They wouldn’t know, or care, whether I shot 60 or 80.
And my wife has been the rock from day one. Sometimes I think it’s easier to play golf than to raise two little ones!’
The perspective brought by a supportive and happy family circle masks professional regrets, but Hugo acknowledges he does have some.
‘There will always be regrets and I have a few regarding my early years in Europe. Back then golf was a game. I enjoyed playing and I loved travelling all over the place. I was too young, too naive possibly, to appreciate the fact golf was a career, a business. I should have had a better team and support structure around me, a different management company, perhaps.’
Despite the regrets, Hugo is appreciative of what he has achieved. ‘My career on the Sunshine Tour has been a long, decent one. To have won in three different decades is something I’m very proud of. With so much changing in golf, to still be able to win tournaments says a lot about my game as a whole.
‘I’ve never been one to set goals for myself. Maybe I should have. I’ve put a lot of pressure on myself for the past three or four years to keep the trophy cabinet ticking over. The most recent win felt just as special as the first one. I’ll remember it for a long time.
‘It was my first in a long time and it was the toughest, actually. I could easily have lost it. Three or four shots sounds like a big lead, but it isn’t on that course. I had to focus until the end. If you give yourself a challenge, and you pull it off, it’s quite satisfying.
‘I’ll just take my career as it comes from now.’