Sunshine Tour veteran Danie van Tonder has seen enough of the game to know the journey is not nearly finished, writes MIKE GREEN.
A veteran South African golf writer, who may have been given to occasional bouts of hyperbole, enthused soon after Danie van Tonder turned professional in 2011: ‘This guy will win The Masters one day!’
In the cold light of day, it seems an outrageous claim, but we all know golf, and that, in the words of the hoary old cliche, ‘It’s a funny old game.’ So, the truth is, once you’re at The Masters, you have a shot at it, just like everyone else. And Van Tonder, with that characteristic swing and all, has the physical and mental tools to succeed.
In the 2014 Sunshine Tour season, just three years after he turned pro, he started the final event of that season, the South African Open Championship at Glendower, leading the Order of Merit. He didn’t need to win it. That was left to Andy Sullivan, who broke Charl Schwartzel’s heart in a playoff victory. But a decent finish would have kept Thomas Aiken at bay and Van Tonder could have crowned a remarkable first three years of his professional career.
Instead, he opened with a six-over 78 and it was an uphill battle for the rest of the tournament. Aiken finished fourth, Van Tonder closed 68-71-75 and missed out on the top prize by just over R150 000.
His response now? ‘I am a big believer in looking towards the future. The past is the past and it can’t be changed,’ he says.
But the apparent meltdown seemed to be something that came from left field and, in the wake of it, saw him battle to raise his game again. There was a very good reason and it’s one he’s reluctant to go into in any detail.
‘At the end of 2014 personal issues emerged between my family and me,’ he says. ‘People in the world don’t always know what happens behind closed doors.’
Those issues dogged him in a real and painful way throughout the next year – and longer – and they seemed to show in what, for him, was some lacklustre playing. Despite that, he finished 23rd on the next year’s Order of Merit and 22nd the year after that. Neither performance was poor, but they seemed so, given the promise he’d shown.
‘The personal family issues continued during 2015 and I have to admit that it did affect me mentally,’ he says. ‘Because I couldn’t think straight, I was listening to so many people. Coaches were telling me all sorts of things I was doing wrong with my golf swing. I lost friends because we had different views in life. I completely lost my identity. I had to start from the beginning, think about my amateur days of how competitive I used to be and I had to reignite my passion for golf.’
He got to 12th on the Order of Merit for the following two years and things seemed to be heading back in the right direction. ‘It did not feel like a long time to get back into the top section of the Order of Merit. Time flies when you’re having fun,’ he says.
And then came the 2019-20 season.
‘I enjoyed last year,’ he says. ‘In 2018, I finally made the cut at the Tshwane Open and I finished tie-fourth. My wife and I put together the perfect gameplan and I finally conquered my battle at Pretoria Country Club. Since then it has felt like my golf game has come together. I made 22 consecutive cuts in 2018. I have been practising harder.
‘And at the start of last season just before the Zambia Open tournament, I had the privilege to sign with an amazing sponsor, SimCura Business Systems. They feel like family and I am honoured to represent them. This has really helped me feel stress-free on the course.’
He had a hard-fought victory at that tournament on a tough course at Nkana Golf Club in Kitwe, his first win in over four years, and it felt good. ‘I have always enjoyed playing on tough courses,’ he says. ‘Each year I play really well at that tournament and it was only a matter of time before I would take the trophy.’
Part of the deal was having his wife Abigail such an integral part of his golf life. That fourth spot at the Tshwane Open in 2018 was a sign of how critical having her on his bag was to his success.
‘When my family issues happened in 2014 there was no one else I could trust to be on my bag,’ he says. ‘She knew what I was going through at the time and that helped a lot. It was difficult because of everything that had happened, but I have learned to forgive and forget. It is our future at stake and nobody else’s.
‘We are both still the same; we have just learned to deal with challenging circumstances together and that’s what makes us such a great team. Abigail used to play golf and carry her own bag, but not for seven days in a row. There were some challenges in the beginning but she adapts quickly to any situation.
‘She plays a big role in a tournament. Firstly, she carries the Tour bag. Secondly, she does all the yardages. She tells me what the distance is to the front of the green, how far to fly the bunker, how much green is behind the pin, where the wind is, helps me decide which club to take on certain shots, sometimes she would check the grain on the greens on courses I don’t really know so well – quite a few things. She has a great gut feeling of when I should go for a certain pin or green. I would normally just go for it and that doesn’t always have the best outcome. But she knows the difference when I am confident and playing well versus when I am struggling and I want to just attack everything without making sure of the situation.
‘Abigail is always with me when I practise during tournaments. She will normally take videos of my swing. I am self-taught so when I say something doesn’t feel right in my swing she will stick with the basics and ask me to make sure my alignment is correct, if my shoulders are aligned or if my grip is fine. After making sure of the basics I can figure out what would be feeling wrong in my swing.’
The pairing really works well because of his willingness to take risks. ‘Golf is a game,’ he said early on in his career, ‘and it should be fun. So why wouldn’t I take risks?’
That’s a hangover from his amateur days, and it could be a drawback in the unforgiving pro game. ‘When I was an amateur it was more like “don’t think, just hit the ball,”’ he laughs. ‘I still try not to think too much on the course. I am a passionate player on the course so I do get quite wound up when things aren’t going according to plan, but over time I have matured as a player.
‘Each day I strive to become stronger physically and mentally. I also feel more confident and comfortable on the course. I don’t think I’ve become a different player. I am still very passionate about golf. I have just matured. I don’t stay angry at certain things for a long time. I’ve learned to let things go and to keep on fighting until the end. I always try to finish as well as I can to open the door of opportunities.’
Opportunities are what doing well on the Sunshine Tour Order of Merit brings. And, despite the Covid-19 pause in his career, some are coming his way now. ‘I am exempt for the WGC-HSBC Champions 2020 in Shanghai, China, and the WGC event in Mexico in 2021. I am looking forward to playing at those big tournaments.
‘Each year I set goals and I try my absolute best to accomplish them. Yes, every year my goal is to win the Order of Merit. Even if I don’t win it, I still get to finish well and earn invitations and exemptions into tournaments overseas. I don’t tend to focus on one goal. Maybe it isn’t my destiny to win the Order of Merit. Maybe there are other opportunities waiting for me with my name on them. All I can do is to practise each day. Take it one day at a time and be patient. And I believe God knows what my plans are in life.’
For now, it’s like anything in uncertain times: one foot in front of another. ‘We would’ve gone to the Korn Ferry Tour Final Stage at the end of this year but that’s on hold and we will be going there at the end of 2021. My plan is to keep on practising and playing in order to be ready for whatever lies ahead. All I would like to say is don’t let anyone get in your way of following your heart and dreams.
‘Like I said, the past is the past. You cannot change what happened but you can focus on what’s going on in your life now in order to excel in the future.’