Erik van Rooyen is aiming to hit the right notes and become the first South African since Ernie Els in 2012 to win a Major, writes GRANT SHUB.
Van Rooyen is yet to win a Major but he made headlines at last year’s PGA Championship when he destroyed a tee-box marker on the 17th hole and snapped his long-iron. His behaviour drew widespread condemnation, with Twitter users describing it as a ‘temper tantrum’ and ‘meltdown’.
Van Rooyen has a different outlook on the most controversial incident in his career so far. He suggests that the act of angrily smashing the tee marker was a low point from a behavioural sense but on reflection it was a blessing in disguise. It turned out to be the flint that sparked his revival and led to a change in his game after months of simmering frustration.
‘I’m a boertjie from Bellville and our parents teach us that respect and good manners are important,’ Van Rooyen says. ‘So having done that [smashed the tee marker] wasn’t great but it was actually the best thing that could have happened because all the stuff that was inside me came out. From there on, I played fantastic golf, so in the bigger picture I don’t regret that it took place.’
After winning his first PGA Tour title – the Barracuda Championship in 2021 – Van Rooyen has since had something of a lean spell by his high standards. After missing the cut at The Masters and The PGA Championship, which were pockmarked by back spasms and sinusitis, he is determined to play his best golf at the year’s final Major and be in contention when ‘moving day’ comes into focus.
‘It will take nothing different from what I’m doing at the moment to win a Major,’ Van Rooyen says. ‘But health is one aspect we can’t always control. I have had two spells of pretty bad sinusitis over the past couple of months and that really knocked me. I have also struggled with my back, that stems from inflammation in some of the lower joints which causes the muscles to spasm.’
Unlike Tiger Woods, who has undergone five back surgeries, Van Rooyen hasn’t been on the operating table but he outlines how there is a direct correlation between the swing and back issues.
‘The back wants to do flexion and rotation but it doesn’t want to do both at the same time,’ he explains. ‘When it comes to the golf swing both those things happen at the same time which puts strain on the joints. In Tiger’s case, he has undergone many swing changes over the course of his career and I don’t think they have been beneficial for his body.’
Van Rooyen watched as Woods pushed his battered body to the limit at this year’s opening two Majors and says he would love to meet the former world No 1 to find out what makes him tick.
‘I would like to talk to him about his mindset and how he went about his business when he was so dominant by winning 13 Major championships. Tiger doesn’t have more talent and he didn’t work harder – there are only 12 hours of daylight – the difference between him and others is in the mind.’
Van Rooyen has made three previous appearances at The Open Championship and isn’t dwelling on the disappointment of missing the cut at Royal St George’s last year. He draws on those closest to him to gain perspective as he chases incremental gains in a professional career which began in 2013.
He has forged a brotherly bond with his caddie Alex Gaugert, who he met while studying a degree in business marketing at the University of Minnesota where they played college golf together. The pair became best friends when Gaugert, nicknamed ‘Feely’ after the cartoon character Felix the Cat, played on the Sunshine Tour for a year and stayed with the Van Rooyen family in South Africa.
‘When Feely got on the bag for me three years ago, at first I thought it would be tricky because I had to separate being his best friend with essentially being his boss. But it has brought us closer together and the greatest part of our relationship is that we are always honest with each other. We know that what we say to each other comes from us trying to get better as a team.’
Gary Player, the patriarch of South African golf, had an African American caddie, Alfred ‘Rabbit’ Dyer, who worked with him for over two decades. Player says that in those days, a caddie’s primary role was to carry your bags and ensure you teed off on time. But the role of the caddie in the modern game has evolved and has become more of a partnership. With Gaugert having played professionally, he is much more than just a bagman.
‘It’s awesome to have him on my bag in the heat of the moment and I foresee us doing some great things together,’ says Van Rooyen, who rose to a career-high ranking of 40th in February 2020. The affable South African, who had amassed earnings of $3 896 366 after competing at 59 Tour events, emphasises the point that he isn’t motivated by money or fame; both a by-product of success.
Van Rooyen, who is a massive fan of the Foo Fighters, draws on famed guitarist Dave Grohl’s outlook in life. He reveals he read Grohl’s autobiography The Storyteller: Tales of Life and Music with a tinge of sadness after the band’s drummer Taylor Hawkins passed away in March 2022.
‘The reason Grohl has all the success is because it comes from a place of purity. You can see he absolutely loves what he does and was determined to be the best,’ says Van Rooyen. ‘I absolutely have a passion for golf but sometimes you have to remind yourself of that because you get caught up in the fact it’s your job. So when I put in an extra hour, or when it’s my fourth consecutive week on Tour, I don’t mind working hard because I love what I do.’
The now 32-year-old took guitar lessons as a teenager in the hope that he would become the next Grohl. The lessons didn’t last too long, though, as his teacher was an out-of-towner and golf took precedence for a young Van Rooyen. However, his love for plucking the strings remains undimmed and on his Instagram profile you can find him doing covers on his beloved electric guitar, with his latest favourite a band called Biffy Clyro.
When asked if he has jam sessions with any of his peers on the PGA Tour, Van Rooyen lets out a hearty laugh. ‘On Tour, I’m trying to kick their butts and not make friends,’ he says. ‘That said, it’s not such a brutal environment but playing the guitar is something I just do for myself. When you are on Tour, there isn’t much time to socialise and have a jam session or band practice.’
After The Open, which is back at the Old Course at St Andrews this year, Van Rooyen is looking forward to competing at The Presidents Cup. Fellow South African Trevor Immelman will captain the International team at Quail Hollow in September and there have already been a few dinners and meetings in an effort to build team unity among a disparate group of golfers.
‘The Aussies and Saffas are probably the most similar; besides the fact that I play golf, I don’t have much in common with the likes of Hideki Matsuyama and Sung-jae Im. The cultures are so different and I can’t talk to them about Siya Kolisi and the Springboks,’ says Van Rooyen, who represented South Africa at the 2018 World Cup of Golf. ‘But what Trevor is trying to do is for us to get to know each other even better because it was the biggest thing the team has struggled with in the past.’
– This article first appeared in the July 2022 issue of Compleat Golfer magazine. Subscribe here!