Getting on a flight back to Johannesburg from Munich last Sunday, I bumped into a mate of mine who was on the same flight home after a high-profile weekend of sport. The day before he’d played 18 holes with Rory McIlroy, and had started Sunday with a share of the lead at the KLM Dutch Open, finishing the European Tour event with a share of sixth. A European Tour winner, South African Open champion and Nedbank Golf Challenge contestant, the man’s a genuine golfing star – and yet despite James Kingston’s pedigree, not a single person on a ‘plane full of South Africans gave him a second glance.
It’s the nature of South African golf, unfortunately: had that been Ernie, or Retief, or Louis, Charl, Trevor or Tim, there’d have been requests for photos, pats on the back, encouragement for the next event. But beyond the half dozen or so superstars lies a veil of anonymity beyond the immediate confines of the dedicated golf community, despite the calibre of the players just below those top six. Convert to rugby, and they’d be worshipped across the breadth of the country; the same would apply to cricket or soccer. But with golf, it’s a Major that catches the eye of the public, leaving dozens of dazzling talents playing assorted Tours well clear of the spotlight.
It’s exactly that lack of profile that inspired Sunday’s event at The Els Club at Copperleaf, formerly Gardener Ross, but now renamed in honour of the course designer by new owners Investec. In a cheerfully deliberate mismatch of monumental proportions, the Sunshine Tour rounded up 50 of its top professionals, and paired them in individual matchplay against 50 members of the media. This was Goliath versus David’s younger, sickly brother 50 times over, with not a catapult in sight; a massacre in the making, albeit for very good reason.
Sunday Times sportswriter David Isaacson, a 26-handicapper with modest length off the tee, up against former South African Open champion Clinton Whitelaw. Derek Watts, he of the windmill swing and intermittent rounds, taking on Jake Roos, a regular on the Nationwide Tour in America. George Coetzee, 15th in the Open Championship this year and third at the Johnnie Walker at Gleneagles, faced with the challenge of Alan Jones, responsible for 12% of the tobacco annually consumed in South Africa. Thomas Aiken, a winner in Europe earlier this year, and along with Coetzee and Richard Sterne the best bet for our next Major winner. And me? 18 holes (in practice, probably far fewer) with Sunshine Tour winner Louis de Jager. Unquestionably the biggest golf moment of his career to date.
For a vivid illustration of just how good our local pros are, try playing matchplay against one of them. The surge of euphoria as your first drive soars off the tee towards territory where the probability of finding the ball is above average, vanishes as 300-plus metre drives follow you, booming arcs that glance back at your own pitiful effort from heady heights, before coming to rest at what you’d term seven-iron distance, but which for the professional is a casual wedge to a couple of inches. And it’s the precision that’s far more impressive than the early thrill of a huge drive: where the amateur hopes for the green and prepares for the bunker, both De Jager and Whitelaw nailed approach after approach to within feet at Copperleaf, making a quiet but firm point about the talent on display.
It was Whitelaw’s day on Sunday: despite Isaacson threatening to put him on the front page of next week’s Sunday Times in connection with racketeering, fraud, and secretly supporting the All Blacks, the veteran pro strolled round in 62, dishing out a 6 and 5 victory that would have been a little more had Whitelaw not generously conceded a couple of 25-foot putts (although Isaacson would have drained every one of them).
De Jager wasn’t far behind; despite talking up a storm in an effort to distract him, and threatening to reveal all manner of sordid secrets about him at prize-giving later, the Sunshine Tour winner, who’ll be off to compete in Asia next season, toyed with me before getting bored and putting down the hammer. Level through seven holes, the Jager Bomb suddenly discovered an inability to miss a putt from inside three nautical miles, and in a flurry of birdies put me the sword 6 and 4.
It was carnage across the field. Naas Botha destroyed by Doug McGuigan 7 and 6. Shaun Bartlett murdered by Neil Schietekat by the same margin. Graeme Joffe slaughtered by Michael Scholz, Joffers a tearful figure in the change room as Desiree Stone from Copperleaf cut him out of his shirt. SuperSport’s Neil Andrews and Terry Payne, Darren Simpson from The Sam Cowen Show on Highveld, 702’s Bruce Whitfield, Golf Digest’s Barry Havenga, Compleat Golfer’s Brendan Barrett – all reduced to crestfallen figures of defeat.
So was it a complete whitewash? Well no, not quite. 5FM’s Thomas Msengana saw off European Tour regular Darren Fichardt, Sunday World’s Happy Mnguni saw off Omar Sandys, and in the battle of the GQ models, semi-professional Breyton Paulse defeated Trevor Fisher. But the real story of the day was Martinengo: DJing until three that morning, clubs untouched in a month, and up against one of the most exciting young players in the game, the Formula 1 nutter ignored the pedigree of the man who won this year’s Open de Espana, to complete the most famous of victories. Martinengo was into his second case of champagne when I spoke to him last night; a similar call to Aiken got his mum on the line, who said that Thomas had been put to bed in tears, clutching his stuffed rabbit and threatening never to play again.
Astonishing win, then, but small consolation for the media as a whole: after 50 matches, the professionals just snuck a 46-4 victory. The Tour’s Executive Director Selwyn Nathan, dressed as usual in expensive silk pyjamas, and Investec’s Sam Hackner, who famously did stunt double work for Al Pacino on ‘Scent Of A Woman’, handed over the Khan-Winter Trophy, a tribute to golf writing stalwarts Iqbal Khan and Grant Winter. The assembled media, meanwhile, cowed in collective defeat (bar a singing Martinengo), absorbed the lesson in golf dished out at Copperleaf – and an appreciation for the local talent we have, that deserves the wider acclaim of a country blessed with as fine a pool of professional golfers as any country on the planet.