One of South Africa’s most decorated amateurs, Wilco Nienaber, is settling into life as a professional, writes BRENDAN BARRATT.
For the first time since winning the 2019 South African Amateur Championship, Wilco Nienaber returned to the 18th green at King David Mowbray Golf Club at the Cape Town Open.
Naturally, his thoughts returned to the day, 12 months ago, where he rallied from one down with two holes to play to snatch a one-hole win against rising star Jordan Duminy by coaxing a curling, 15-foot par putt into the hole.
‘I still can’t believe I did it,’ he says. ‘I’d been battling with my swing that week and Jordan played so well in the final that
I was just hanging in there at times.’
In some ways it feels just like yesterday, he mused, but it also feels like a lifetime ago.
It certainly hasn’t been the comfortable ride many predicted for the 19-year-old when he joined the paid ranks midway through 2019. Indeed, for a player who dominated the amateur game as he did – 21 titles and an extended stint at the top of the ranking – success in the professional game was hard to come by.
And yet, despite the ups and downs, Nienaber arrived at the Cape Town Open as one of the players to watch after a runner-up finish at the previous week’s Limpopo Championship. The cheque elevated him to 17th on the Sunshine Tour Order of Merit after just four events and there can be little doubt the young man is starting to find his feet on Tour.
‘It has been tough,’ he says. ‘To begin with, I wasn’t playing my best golf and then all the travelling got to me. It’s only now that I feel things are getting easier. Everything is more familiar – I know where to go, who the people are and I don’t feel so much like the new guy.’
Nienaber’s first taste of professional golf was a tie for 11th on the European Challenge Tour and since then he has
made use of a number of invites to European Tour events, with mixed results. He admits to feeling a little overwhelmed.
‘At registration at one of my first events I was in the queue and Thomas Pieters was behind me. I felt like I needed to let him go ahead of me,’ he says. ‘At the Omega European Masters in Switzerland, Lee Westwood and Danny Willett were hitting balls next to each other at the range. The only available spot was a small gap between them. If my dad had been caddying for me we would probably have waited for them to finish, but my caddie got right into that space, spread out my clubs and off we went.
‘That’s been a massive help for me – a manager and a caddie who have been in this game for such a long time that they know the ropes and what to expect. I can just get on with playing.’
Being a rookie, Nienaber began his long road to a European Tour card at the first stage of Q-School. After comfortably progressing through the first two stages, he agonisingly missed out on his full card by a single shot.
‘They say Final Stage is where you see grown men cry and after being there I can appreciate that,’ he smiles. ‘To be so close
to getting my card, only to miss by one shot – well, that really sucks.
‘But I believe everything happens for a reason and it has helped me learn that I have a lot to work on before I get on to the main Tour. That’s my primary goal for the year, and I will do anything it takes to get there.’
It may only be a matter of time before Nienaber achieves that, but once he’s there he assures us he won’t be overwhelmed by the big names who tee it up alongside him.
‘I had the great privilege of playing with Tommy Fleetwood, Branden Grace and Ernie Els at the Dunhill Links in Scotland,’ he says. ‘And to be honest I was probably more nervous about having Mr Johann Rupert as my playing partner. I’m not
really a guy who gets star-struck, but when my dad caddies for me he often gets distracted by some of the big names. Once, we were hitting balls on the range next to Thomas Bjorn and, when I looked up, my dad was watching Thomas. I had to politely remind him to do his job and clean my clubs.
‘It’s really cool spending time with all the players you see on TV and realising they are just normal people.’
The Challenge and Sunshine Tour schedules have conveniently aligned in Nienaber’s favour in his quest for a swift graduation to the European Tour. His first six events of the season were played on home soil.
‘It has been a huge boost to start here in South Africa,’ he says. ‘I played at the Dunhill Championship and the SA Open and started my Challenge Tour season with three straight tournaments here. It’s great to play professional golf in South Africa, where I feel very comfortable. And because I’ve played nicely, I’ve managed to secure my Sunshine Tour card too.’
Nienaber finished tie-24th at the Dunhill Championship and looked to have sewn up a top-five finish at the Eye of Africa PGA Championship when he discovered he had made a rather rookie error.
‘On the first day I finished one under and after four rounds I had got to 16 under, so I had made up some good ground. Then I lost it all by not signing my scorecard! It was a silly mistake, but it’s a lesson I won’t forget. After my first round in Limpopo, everyone was saying to me, “Please make sure you sign your card,” and I can assure you, I triple-checked everything.’
The Limpopo Championship, an event co-sanctioned by the Sunshine Tour and the Challenge Tour, may turn out to be
the kick-start Nienaber’s professional career needed. Rounds of 65, 68, 71 and 67 saw him finish second and his big hitting caught the eye of many observers.
‘I was in with a chance of winning but I was also aware that I didn’t want to push too hard and make a mistake,’ he says. ‘I felt very comfortable being in contention over the last seven or eight holes and I know that if I keep giving myself a chance, the wins will come. I just need to stay patient. I haven’t won in a while but when I do, it’s going to be a really good feeling.’
Other than a spot on the main Tour, Nienaber has set himself a couple of goals for 2020.
‘I just want to play good golf,’ he says.
‘I don’t have to be up there every time, but I want to play golf I am happy with and where I feel I like I am improving.
‘And somehow – I have no idea how – I want to play at the Nedbank Golf Challenge. I don’t know why that is so important to me, especially since I’ve never played Sun City before, but it always looks so amazing and a great tournament to be at.’
Given how Nienaber has risen to the challenge of professional golf, it would be no surprise to see the young man striding the fairways of the Gary Player Country Club come November this year – with his European Tour card comfortably sewn up.
*Ed’s note: Nienaber finished second at the Challenge Tour co-sanctioned Limpopo Championship and T14 at the Cape Town Open. He ended T28 at the Qatar Open and has seen his OWGR go from 1665 at the start of the year to 586