By the end of the opening day of the Nedbank Golf Challenge the leaderboard looked as though Faf de Klerk had left his underpants draped over it, writes GARY LEMKE.
The South African flag was everywhere to be seen and five South Africans had duly pinned their colours to the mast, with Louis Oosthuizen, Ernie Els, Zander Lombard, Richard Sterne and George Coetzee all inside the top 10.
Showing the way was Oosthuizen, who at 3am had been on his knees next to the toilet, perhaps even in his own pair of South African underpants. ‘I spent a bit of time yesterday [Wednesday] in the hospital in Rustenburg after I woke with kidney stones. This morning was very uncomfortable, but it sort of eased like six, seven this morning, and it started getting a lot better. Yeah, you could see me walking slower and just going everything a little slower out there. But at three this morning I was on my knees next to the toilet, which is not a great spot,’ he said.
How the world’s 23rd-ranked player managed to make his 10.28 tee-off time is a story he will still tell in years to come – and come Sunday afternoon he might well be talking about the 2019 Nedbank Golf Challenge as one of his most memorable weeks in golf.
Oosthuizen carded a bogey-free 63 with a scorecard that read 3-4-4-3-3-3-3-4-5-4-3-2-4-4-4-3-3-4. The birdies came on holes 1, 2, 5, 6, 10, 11, 12, 14 and 17 to leave him two shots clear on nine under par. Els rolled back the years on his way to a bogey-free 68, which left him in a tie for fourth with Lombard, whose only blemish came at the par-four 15th.
Sterne had a bogey and a double bogey but six birdies in his 69, while Coetzee birdied the 18th to join Sterne in a tie for seventh.
The Springboks have been at Sun City and the near fortnight-long South African party shows little sign of abating.
However’s Oosthuizen’s troubles weren’t the result of a hangover. ‘I didn’t think I was going to tee off early this morning. I thought it was going to be a horrible week for me. Somehow it got better a lot faster than what I expected. I just slowed everything down. I walked slow. My whole tempo, I just tried to do everything as slow as possible. Luckily we’re threesomes, so you can take a little bit of time,’ he said.
‘I hit it nicely and I swung it really good. There was no big hits, I always went for the smoother club. The wind around here can be tricky and sometimes that smoother swing actually gets a bit of ball flight on it. Today was just one of those rounds where I think everything just fell into place. I’m very chuffed with that round.’
Despite being a working day there was plenty of support for the nine South Africans in the field, but unquestionably the two fan favourites are Oosthuizen and Els. If the pair can continue their run in the second round then you can be sure that they’ll be roared on by the locals when it comes to the weekend if they get later tee times.
Els is loving life at the moment and the three-time champion is in a good space with his golf game. ‘Good memories came back to me today,’ he said. ‘I had a nice swing thought. Kind of just kept the ball in play. I didn’t try and overpower it – not like I can overpower anything anymore. I just kind of plotted around the course, and yeah, actually hit some good iron shots. It could have been a little better, but hey, I’m pretty happy with 68. I didn’t expect it.’
At 50 the three-time Nedbank Golf Challenge champion admitted that he feels ‘the odd pain here and there in the hip and so forth. I came here with a bit of a niggle in my hip, and it was from all the flying I’ve been doing, but that worked itself out through the day. As I said the other day, if I get something going, I know how to score around this place. I’d like to be able to have a chance. It was nice to get off to a decent start and then kind of ease into the round.’
Els had been an early starter, teeing off at 9am but the crowd started to grow as he made two birdies (at Nos 2 and 5) to turn in 34. ‘We were first out and there were already some people out there. Obviously fans of mine have supported me through thick and thin, and they grew a little bit as I made a couple of birdies. It was really nice of the people to come out. There’s the odd funny comment here and there, you know, now that I’m 50, but I’ve had a good long run around this place, so it’s nice to see some of the fans come out.’
And given the way the golfers themselves have responded, and it might be early days, but the countrywide party for South African sports fans could be set to continue for a while yet.