19 years and still counting . . . The lengthy barren search for a major for Southern African elite golfers

By Robson Sharuko

HARARE – Ernie Els provided some hope on the opening day of the 2017 US Open at Erin Hills in Wisconsin but, at the end, it was a familiar depressing story for southern Africa’s best golfers as a 19th Major Golf Championship came and went with their barren search for honours being extended once again.

The 47-year-old veteran, with four Major titles under his belt, was the last golfer from this part of the world to win a Major Golf Championship when he captured the 2012 British Open.

That triumph came during a golden period for southern African golfers with Trevor Immelman capturing the 2008 Masters, Louis Oosthuizen winning the 2010 British Open and Charl Schwartzel taking home the 2011 Masters green jacket at Augusta  National.

But, since Els triumphed at the 2012 British Open, the region’s best golfers, who are also the continent’s finest, have struggled to find their winning touch when it comes to the four Major Golf Championships – the Masters, the US Open, the British Open and the US PGA Championship.

For a region that has a rich history, when it comes to producing thoroughbred golfers, the lengthy wait for one of them to emerge victorious, in the four tournaments that matter, has left the game’s fans wondering when that barren spell will end.

There was hope, on the first day of the 2017 US Open last week, when Els showed remarkable comfort in the challenging conditions at Erin Hills.

This is a major Golf Championship with a purse value of $12 million with a staggering $2,16 million going into the pockets of the winner.

He started with a two-under par 70, but that score only told half his story. Els started his challenge by birding four of his first nine holes to go in at four under-32 on a course which was providing a huge test for the world’s best golfers in a tournament where the top three golfers on the globe would eventually fail to make the cut.

“I felt good from the moment I walked through the gates (at Erin Hills),” Els told the authoritative Golfweek.

For a player who had missed seven of his first eight cuts this year, Els’ performance on the first nine was vintage Big Easy, a remarkable transformation from the golfer who has been struggling with his touch.

This was despite finishing last at the 2017 Masters among those who made it into the final weekend of the battle.

And, if it wasn’t for two bogeys in his final two holes, including a par five 18th which didn’t have any demons for a number of golfers, Els could have carded a far better score on the first day.

“Physically I wasn’t great,” Els told Golfweek as he reflected on the struggles that he has battled this year, adding that things are getting tough for him as he had to deal with niggles on his lower back him, shoulder and knee.

But, a level par 72 on the second day, a seven over par 79 on Saturday and a two-over par 74 saw Els fading badly at the US Open and finishing tied 55th place with $25,389 as his prize money.

Others will say that, just making the cut, was an achievement for the 47-year-old at the 117th edition of the US Open where the brutality of the course saw the world’s best three golfers – Dustin Johnson, Rory McIIroy and Jason Day – all failing to make the cut.

Not even a flurry of four birdies in the last six holes for McIIroy would save the Northern Irishman to stay and fight for honours after he ended the first two rounds five-over-par.

Instead, it was American golfer Brooks Koepka who destroyed the field to take his breakthrough Major victory, birding his first two holes on the final day and scoring 67 for an historic 16-under-par total that powered him to success and ensured he also tied the lowest score, relative to par, in the tournament history.

And, the US Open also continued a trend which has been seen since Day one of the 2015 US PGA Championship of producing a maiden winner for all the Major Golf Championships that have been played since.

American golfers dominated the top 10 at Erin Hills with Hideki Matsuyama of japan and Tommy Fleetwood of England being the only non Americans forcing places in the pack.

Oosthuizen was the best of the South African team as he finished tied 23rd for a cheque prize of $112,680 after rounds of 74, 70, 68 and 73 while Brandon Stone was the second best, of the regional contingent, with his rounds of 70, 74, 72 and 73 enough for him to be tied 35th. Stone took home $61,055.

Branden Grace finished tied 50th after rounds of 72, 72, 71 and 77 for a $27 686 cheque with Thomas Aiken finishing tied 58th after rounds of 71, 71, 75 and 79 and a $24,663 cheque.

Swartzel failed to make the cut after a 147 score in the first two rounds while Oliver Bekker and George Coetzee also couldn’t make the final weekend of action at Erin Hills.

Southern Africa has produced a number of elite golfers, in the past, with both Els and Bobby Locke boasting four Major Golf titles each while Zimbabwe’s Nick Price won three Major Golf Championships during a period in the ‘90s when he was the number one ranked golfer in the world.

June 2017
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