It had to be an Englishman, didn’t it? Tommy Fleetwood rained on South Africa’s sporting parade when he picked up ‘Africa’s Major’, the Nedbank Golf Challenge.
For two weeks South Africans have been riding a wave of emotion, street parades featuring the Springboks bringing the country to a virtual standstill as they paraded the Webb Ellis Cup on open-top buses. Who are rugby’s world champions? South Africa. Who did they beat to win it? England, that’s who.
And heading into the last 18 holes there were two South Africans – Zander Lombard and Louis Oosthuizen – who were in the final threeball, on a day when the home crowd came to anoint a local victory last seen in 2017 when Branden Grace was the one drenched in champagne at the end.
Fleetwood? Six shots off the lead. However, just as countryman Lee Westwood had come from behind on the final day with a 64 to deny Oosthuizen last year, Fleetwood carded with a brilliant final-round 65 around Gary Player Country Club. He had quickly wiped out that six-shot deficit on the 24-year-old NGC rookie within the first six holes as the Englishman made three birdies, while Lombard dropped three shots in two holes – at Nos 5 and 6. Oosthuizen, meanwhile, picked up two early birdies to go top of the leaderboard and went to odds-on favourite with 11 holes remaining. It seemed as though experience was going to carry the day, with King Louis having finished ninth, eighth and third in the last three years here.
What happened next was something made for an extraordinary Sunday. It’s always said that Majors don’t start until the front nine and so it proved in Africa’s Major.
It was where the eagles well and truly landed for Fleetwood as he closed out the back nine with an eagle and then made further threes on the par-five 10th and 14th.
By the same token the young Finnish golfer Marcus Kinhult, whose 68 was enough to force a sudden-death playoff, went through those three holes on par. No guessing where this tournament was won and lost, then. Oosthuizen, who played the last five holes in four over, also went level for those par fives as did Jason Scrivener, who finished in a tie for third.
Fleetwood’s 65 was 10 shots better than Oosthuizen’s round of 75 and 12 better than Lombard’s 77. It was a remarkable implosion by the two South Africans on the day. Thomas Detry, the Belgian who was the third member of the final group, shot 74 for eight under overall, a tie for third but four behind Fleetwood and Kinhult.
The Englishman played the par fives in 16 under for the week, including four eagles. His 72-hole total was 12-under 276, which means he played the par threes and fours in a combined four over par.
Kinhult covered the par fives in 10 under, Scrivener and Lombard eight under, Race to Dubai leader Bernd Wiesberger and Oosthuizen six under and Detry five under.
In the process the 28-year-old Fleetwood won the biggest cheque in European Tour history – $2.5 million. That translates at today’s exchange rate to R36.78 million. ‘It’s not about the money,’ he said, ‘it’s about the win and the memories that will last a lifetime.’
By the time he sank his putt in a dramatic playoff down the 18th, the home crowd were shouting, ‘Tommy! Tommy!’ He’s a popular figure in these parts and one supposes that if it couldn’t be Oosthuizen or Lombard, no one really begrudges Fleetwood his moment in the sun.
After all, we’ve still got the Rugby World Cup.