With this third sub-60 round, Sunshine Tour pro Colin Nel has earned his bragging rights among an elite group, writes Mike Green.
There is much ado about finding a name for a bird of a different feather when it comes to extraordinary feats on individual holes. One man’s reasonable albatross is another’s freakish double-eagle. So why isn’t an ordinary eagle simply a double-birdie then?
But there can be no confusion about the extraordinary achievement of breaking 60 in a single round. All of us can relate to the joy at finally cracking one of the big numbers that golf gives us – 100, 90, 80 …
So when Sunshine Tour professional Colin Nel took to social media to trumpet breaking 60 for the third time, the circumstances were worth more than a cursory glance.
He achieved the feat on 27 June at Port Shepstone Country Club after first carding an 11-under-par 59 in the second round of the rain-hampered Nelson Mandela Championship at Mount Edgecombe on 13 December 2013. He followed that effort just a couple of months later with a 14-under 58 at Maritzburg Golf Club.
His latest effort pulled him clear at the top of the South African table of players who achieved the feat, one ahead of Daniel Greene’s pair of 59 and 57 at Victoria Country Club in 2008 and at Bosch Hoek in 2019. A total of nine other players have achieved the feat – Louis Oosthuizen’s famous Mossel Bay 57 leads the way from Jaco van Zyl, Eric Moore, John Bland, Branden Grace, Shaun Norris, Mark Truter, Matt Saulez and Spain’s Jorge Campillo, who matched Nel’s feat on 13 December 2013.
Nel takes up the Port Shepstone story: ‘The course record is held by the club pro Jessie Verster at 62,’ he says. ‘Playing the 14th – a par three – I knew if I made one more birdie in the last five holes, I would have the record. I have shot 63 around Sheppie twice before.
‘I made par on 14. On 15, I made a 25-footer for birdie. Par on 16. The 17th is a par three and I hit a 9-iron to about 20 foot below the hole and made the putt for birdie. I did realise on the 18th tee that if I made one more birdie it would be 59. I really wanted to break 60. Shooting 60 is like running the Comrades and as you get to the finish line the gun goes off and you miss out on officially finishing, even though you got all the way to the finish.
‘I hit a great drive and had a half a wedge to the green. I hit it to seven foot above the hole, a little left-to-right putt for 59. In the middle it went. The other three guys could not believe what they had just seen!’
His Mount Edgecombe round came in a professional tournament, which made the pressure just a little more intense. The 2013 Nelson Mandela Championship, like the previous edition at Royal Durban, was beset by rain. The Woods course was shortened to a par 70 (it’s usually a 72), and the tournament was cut to 54 holes.
‘I had to make the cut to finish in the top 50 on the Sunshine Tour Order of Merit and keep my exempt status. I shot 77 the first round which was seven over par. It didn’t leave me in a good spot,’ he recalls.
‘I was playing the second round with local boy Michael Hollick and England’s Oliver Wilson, who now holds the first official 59 on the European Tour. I said to Michael on the first tee, “We’re both going to need to shoot a course record to make the cut.”
‘I had resigned myself to missing the cut and having to pre-qualify for all the events the following year. That all changed a few hours later when I had to par the last three holes for 59. That day I had 22 putts, 11 on each nine, which was pretty satisfying.’
Nel added more drama to the mix when he tweaked his back shortly before the round, having arrived at the course at 6am for the restart of the first round, only to be sent back home for a 9am restart because the course was still too wet.
‘I could hardly bend down to pick up a ball or put in a tee,’ he says. ‘I had a bit of physio, and I said to the guys I’m just going to go out and have fun and let it happen.’
Just to underline the professional tournament 59, two months later, he was at it again. ‘I was playing in the Wednesday school at Maritzburg Golf Club. I missed a putt on the 9th hole and my playing partners told me that was for 29. I said, “No stress, I will make it up for you on the back nine.” I make a 20-footer on the 18th for 28 to shoot 58 [-14]. I remember making pars on two of the par fives. Once again, I had 21 putts that day.’
Putting was the key to all three of those scores, says Nel. ‘To have a great score you have to hit the ball well, but the putter must be hot, that is the scoring club. I had 22 at Port Shepstone.’
Nel, who won on the Sunshine Tour in 2014 – ironically, also a weather-shortened Wild Waves Challenge at the Wild Coast Sun – has, like so many others with the shake-up delivered by the coronavirus crisis, had to re-evaluate his golfing options, despite the pleasure he so obviously takes in going low.
‘I think the crisis has got a lot of people thinking about the future,’ he says. ‘Yes, it’s great to play a sport you love and get paid for it. One thing about golf is that it is commission-based. If you play badly, you do not get paid. There is no salary at the end of the month like other sports. That is tough if there are no tournaments because there’s a pandemic.
‘I think a lot of touring pros are going to look at things differently and maybe think of getting a salary at the end of every month.’
His re-evaluation was prompted by something else which happened before the world was shaken to its core. ‘Things changed in January 2018; I became a father to twins,’ he says. ‘The first half of 2018 I played OK, but that at the end of 2018 and the whole of 2019 my focus was not on golf but the family.
And that took its toll on me and my golf. I could not afford to travel and play golf, and when I did, I put too much pressure on myself to make the cut and get paid. I knew I had to provide for the family. I put myself under pressure and there was way too much stress. I lost the love for the game.’
So Nel will not be the fixture he has been on the Sunshine Tour. ‘I have not played much since we have been allowed to play again, just once a week. I have a fencing business and that has taken all my attention and time. And with Daniel and Colt it is non-stop. They are on the go all the time.
‘I did a bit of work on my swing during the lockdown period but not like I use to when playing full time. If I could change one thing it would be to have a higher work ethic. I understand that the more you put in the more you get out, but circumstances play a huge role in that too. I’d have quality practice, not quantity practice. I would rather spend two hours on the range working hard, than spending four hours on the range stuffing around.’
He always brought that sense of fun to his playing on the Tour, not least characterised by some of the most outrageous trousers imaginable. ‘I think it’s important to have fun and enjoy what you are doing,’ he says. ‘Yes, it is a job and you have to take it seriously when you on the course at a tournament, but you can still have fun. What I will always remember is the travelling to courses around the country and neighbouring countries. I have met some great people and still mates with all of them.’
He’s had a good career: Over R3-million in prize money on the Sunshine Tour is a nice little nest egg. His best finish on the Order of Merit came in 2012, when he ended up 29th. He was inside the top 50 three more times, but it was the tough 2019-20 season, where he finished 147th for his worst finish, that saw him looking beyond the game for his future.
And with the pressure off, might there be another sub-60 lurking in his future?