Yet another South African has arrived at the elite end of the world game. His next mission is to break into the top 30, writes MICHAEL VLISMAS in the January issue of Compleat Golfer.
A sense of feeling at home has dominated Christiaan Bezuidenhout’s year in golf.
It began with a win on home soil at the Dimension Data Pro-Am in February. It then included a stretch of tournaments on the PGA Tour where he played the kind of golf that convinced him he belongs on the strongest Tour in the world, competing against the best players in the world. And it ended in fairytale style when he won the Alfred Dunhill Championship at Leopard Creek – a place that is as close to home in his heart – and then his home Open at Gary Player Country Club at Sun City in a golden two weeks.
There was a particular sense of achievement for Bezuidenhout, who, as he arrived at Leopard Creek last November, declared how badly he wanted to win that tournament on that course.
‘I’m relieved to have won the Alfred Dunhill Championship,’ he says. ‘The tournament is very close to my heart, as well as Leopard Creek and all the people there, especially Johann Rupert and what he’s meant to my career. To win his tournament is very special.
‘And then to win the South African Open was amazing. That one was massive for me. It’s always been a dream and I wasn’t sure when, or if, I would achieve it.’
In a game defined by numbers, it’s three words that have dominated Bezuidenhout’s thoughts this year and especially during his time on the PGA Tour: I belong here.
In a year filled with emotions, a sense of belonging at the highest level of the game and competing against the world’s best has been the one overriding emotion that has fuelled Bezuidenhout.
The 26-year-old played 10 events on the PGA Tour’s 2020 season. He made the cut in seven of them, finishing in the top 25 in four. That felt comfortable. He spent time in the top 50 on the Official World Golf Ranking. That also felt comfortable. He won on the Sunshine Tour in February’s Dimension Data Pro-Am and he was two shots off the first-round lead before The Players Championship was cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic. Every week, Bezuidenhout felt more comfortable the higher up in the game he moved.
At the end of November, he was South Africa’s second-highest ranked golfer in the world at No 41. Yet he doesn’t want to feel too comfortable here, because his next goal is a place inside the top 30.
‘I’m getting more comfortable with my swing, where my game is and with the environment of the European Tour and PGA Tour playing with the best in the world. That’s been the biggest change in my game since my first European Tour victory [at the 2019 Andalucia Masters],’ says Bezuidenhout.
‘It’s more of a comfort thing for me. Now I just want to keep getting comfortable on the PGA Tour and gain more experience playing there. If I can just give myself more opportunities to play there, I can put myself in the top 50.’
Having had a place inside golf’s golden top 50, Bezuidenhout says he can now fully appreciate just how big an achievement this is, and the hard work it takes to remain there. It’s partly why, when the coronavirus put a stop to his rising form this year, he decided to use the opportunity to make some changes to his swing.
‘It’s an incredible achievement to get to the top 50 in the world, and to keep yourself there every week – year in and year out is remarkable. I have a lot of respect for players who have managed to stay in the top 50 for most of their careers. To play on that level every week is not easy. You have to work hard at your game and get better every week.
‘We decided to make those changes to my swing now so I can be ready for 2021. A place inside the top 30 is one of my next goals and hopefully I can play my way on to the PGA Tour and compete over there. That’s where you want to be.
‘I felt my game was trending in the right direction and I’ve made a few more swing changes that I’m getting comfortable with. I’m working on a few things.’
A big part of that process is for the 26-year-old to make the kind of start to his year that he did in 2020. Determined to change his normally slow start to the year, he came out in 2020 and finished second at January’s Omega Dubai Desert Classic before winning the Dimension Data Pro-Am in February. That took him into a few PGA Tour events with confidence and it was all looking very good indeed when he opened with a 65, two shots off the first-round lead at The Players Championship. And then came the global lockdown.
‘I had put a lot of effort into getting off to a good start to the year before The Players, and I liked the course at TPC Sawgrass. It’s a pity the event was cancelled because I ended up just missing my PGA Tour card by not that many points. A decent finish at The Players would’ve given me my card. But that happened and you can’t change it. It’s obviously time to rebuild and give myself another shot at it.’
Bezuidenhout has mastered an ability to accept the things he cannot control and reframe his approach. It was exactly how he came back from the unfair decision of a nine-month ban when he was South Africa’s top amateur for a drug test that revealed the prescribed medication he was taking for his speech impediment was on the list of banned substances in golf.
In terms of working through that setback, he says: ‘I just decided, “It’s happened, so deal with it.” I could work hard for nine months and then go and show the world it wasn’t the medication that helped me play better.
‘And that’s what I did. We took it day by day with my normal routine and I worked hard. I’ve always been a hard worker. I just said to myself it’s a negative thing that’s happened and I need to turn it into a positive thing. I wanted to come back stronger and show the people who had negative things to say.’
It’s this kind of measured approach to the setbacks in life, which began when he accidentally ingested rat poison as a two-year-old and which left him with a permanent stutter, that has seen Bezuidenhout serve as a model for even his peers, and from as far back as their days playing junior golf together.
‘He’s a role model for me and I look up to him,’ said Tristen Strydom, a fellow top amateur and now Sunshine Tour rookie, who noted how Bezuidenhout’s approach to the game and life helped him make better decisions for his own career. ‘He’s taught me to keep my head when I’m in tough positions on the golf course.’
And it’s this approach which also explains exactly how Bezuidenhout took the massive career interruption of a global pandemic and turned it into a positive, namely to identify what he needs to do to get better.
‘After the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth, I sat down with my team and we listed a few things that will help me improve and achieve my next goal, a place inside the top 30 in the world.’
According to his coach, Grant Veenstra, that is only the first step. ‘If we can get a few yards on his driver, I think he can get into the top 10 in the world. One of the biggest consistencies in Christiaan’s career is his diligence in practice. His work ethic is amazing. Technically, when we started working together we changed a few things in his swing to help build consistency. He also has an amazing short game, which is crucial on the big stage.’
Bezuidenhout’s experience at The Players Championship also cemented in his mind this unshakeable belief that the PGA Tour is where he belongs.
‘You just get that feeling that this is where you want to play. Everything is bigger and better over there. The best players in the world are all there. The way you’re treated as a player is incredible. For example, every player at a PGA Tour event gets a car for the week. The practice facilities are always world class. The golf courses are always in pristine condition.
‘It just adds to those memories and the feeling that this is where you want to be.’
Bezuidenhout’s time on the PGA Tour also brought with it another bonus – time with his mentor, Ernie Els.
‘I spent a lot of time with Ernie while in the United States. Ernie and I are pretty close. I came through his foundation and I’m very fortunate to have somebody like him who can give me great advice. We had a lot of chats about all the golf courses he’s played and performed well on. He gave me quite a bit of insight into the courses I was going to play, and told me which suited my game.
‘Ernie has worked really hard in his life to get where he is, and he still plays at a very high level. He’s still competing. I have a lot of respect for him and what he’s achieved.’
Bezuidenhout says the single most important piece of advice Els has given him is to find balance.
‘He said you have to have a balance of working hard and rest. You can’t just work yourself every day for seven to eight hours a day hitting balls and working on your game. You also have to rest. Over the past couple of weeks I’ve done less hours of work but more intensive work in that time. I would rather go to the range for a few hours and do my work, than stand around for four to five hours talking or on the phone.
‘You need to manage your time well. It takes a lot out of you to compete at that level, and Ernie told me you can’t just carry on like a robot. You need your rest. You need to manage your time and practise better. I’m also quite close with a number of professional cricketers and they say the same thing. It’s less hours but more intensity.’
Intensity in his practice. Intensity in his focus.
And intensity in his belief, which has grown immeasurably in this strangest of years. It’s shown in the numbers he’s written on his scorecards. And also in his words.
When he shot that 65 on day one of The Players Championship, Bezuidenhout was asked by the US media if he was nervous about his debut at this tournament.
‘Not really. I just try to keep it simple. You are always kind of nervous when you get on to the 1st tee box but it’s exciting nerves. It’s not something you have to be scared of,’ he replied. Perhaps the greatest indication that this was a young talent they need to be keeping an eye on came from another US journalist. It’s the same question they posed to Retief Goosen when he won the 2001 US Open for his first victory on the PGA Tour.
‘How do you pronounce your surname? And Bezuidenhout is clearly focused on helping the PGA Tour media become as comfortable as they can pronouncing his surname.