Photo By Zachary Boyden-Holmes
While the debate in worldwide golf has been raging about which side of the Atlantic Ocean produces the best players, America or Europe, the country that produced the first international winner of the Masters Tournament has quietly rivaled any single nation for supremacy on the sport’s grandest stages.
Maybe they’ve snuck up on the rest of the world because South Africa is so far away from both the U.S. and Europe. Maybe it’s because the top South African players also have been among the most dignified and unassuming of champions. They’re not fist-pumping like Tiger Woods or dressing loudly like Ian Poulter.
South Africans themselves would credit a development system that targets the best junior players, gives them the tools they need to succeed and encourages world travel to give youngsters a taste of how hectic life can be as a touring player.
Charl Schwartzel certainly fits the template written by the top pros from that country, beginning with Gary Player and Bobby Locke and continuing with the worldwide successes of Ernie Els, Retief Goosen, Trevor Immelman, Tim Clark and Louis Oosthuizen.
“Charl is a very quiet, very unassuming guy and not prominent in anyone’s mind but among European, Australian and South African players,” said Adam Scott, one of those swept aside by Schwartzel’s blitz through the final few holes on the second nine during last year’s final round. “He’s got a hell of a golf swing.”
In 1961, Player became the first international winner at Augusta. Fifty years later, the 27-year-old Schwartzel followed with one of the most dramatic victories ever in the Masters, as he birdied the last four holes to break away from a large pack of contenders and win by two shots, at 14-under-par 274.
Schwartzel’s closing 66 came three years after Immelman won the Masters and a year after Oosthuizen won the British Open and Clark won the Players Championship. It also came a month before Els entered the World Golf Hall of Fame, an honor that came through the most part by his three major championships.
Quite a stretch for the South Africans.
“We’ve got a great golfing history and we’re very proud of that,” says Els. “We keep maturing that. And I think that’s why you will keep seeing youngsters coming through from South Africa.”
Charl Schwartzel certainly came through at Augusta last year. “It’s like a dream,” he said after 2010 champion Phil Mickelson slipped the green jacket on him.
Certainly it was a dream that seemed far-fetched during his boyhood on the chicken farm that has been in his family for generations. But Schwartzel’s father, George, played on the South African Sunshine Tour and helped develop his game at the Maccauvlei Golf Club—and during moments when young Charl would take time away from his chores to practice hitting shots on the farm.
There was one key difference between father and son. The elder Schwartzel admitted that he was a bit quirky and nervous on the golf course, prone to emotional highs and lows that might have hindered his progress.
George Schwartzel told the media that his son had the temperament of his mother. “Even keel and unflappable.”
How else to explain how Schwartzel pulled away from the pack with birdie putts at Nos. 15, 16, 17 and 18 to beat Adam Scott and Jason Day by two shots?
Charl Schwartzel may have inherited his mother’s mellow personality on the course, but he said it was his mother who drilled the basics of the game into him—grip, stance, rhythm, posture and balance. Schwartzel has an elegant, easy swing with few moving parts and he hasn’t got a dependency on launch monitors, video and complicated swing thoughts.
When things go wrong, he merely reminds himself of his father’s simple and fundamental mantras: “Whenever something goes wrong, it will be one of those five that have gone haywire,” Schwartzel says. Sounds simple. Schwartzel likes it that way.
The other main component of his golfing background was the South African junior golf system, which targets the most talented junior players and encourages them to enter academies. There, they receive training not only in golf but physical conditioning, nutrition, the mental game and also academics.
It was an academy Els has a connection with that Schwartzel and Oosthuizen cut their teeth on. “We’ve got great junior programs, great amateur programs and it’s been in place since I was a junior, even before I was born,” Els says. “And it’s been kept in place by really, really good people.”
Schwartzel and Oosthuizen both came through Els’s Academy. They began playing junior golf when Oosthuizen was 12 and Schwartzel was 10.
“It’s amazing, when you look back when we used to play as juniors,” Oosthuizen says. “We played the same tournaments, won tournaments together as juniors and then as amateurs as well and it’s great to have a friend like him on Tour and to have the same success. I think the two of us feed off each other quite a lot. If he plays well, I want to play well. It’s really good what we have going for us.”
Els doesn’t mind taking a bit of the credit for his involvement in the development of Schwartzel and Oosthuizen. But he says they’ve clearly done the heavy lifting. “Obviously, I had a bit of a hand in Louis and Charl, but they were born with the talent...they had the drive, an inner drive within themselves,” Els says. “Even without our help, I’m sure they would have made it to where they are today.”
One of the most important facets of Els’s academy is that the best players are encouraged to travel worldwide. Schwartzel won junior tournaments in India and Japan and captured more than 20 titles as a junior and an amateur. He turned pro at 18 and was the third-youngest player ever to have European Tour status. But it wasn’t a case of coming out too fast. He was seasoned, mature and ready to take on the world.
It wasn’t long before Schwartzel was a winner on the Sunshine Tour and the European PGA Tour. He won four times on the latter Tour and accumulated enough World Golf Ranking points to earn spots in the World Golf Championships and majors.
Of the top tournaments in the world, Schwartzel believed early on that his best chance would come at Augusta National. “I always thought if there would be one I would win, it would be this one,” he said that Sunday night, sitting in the Augusta National media center with his green jacket hanging well on his slender shoulders. “This is the sort of golf course that fits my eye. These are the sort of courses that I grew up playing on, playing with the tree lines, and I just feel really comfortable with it.”
Schwartzel first qualified for the Masters in 2010, but he found out that sight lines and ball-striking don’t win the tournament—putting does. He shot 69 in his first competitive round at Augusta but then had a 76 in the second round and made the cut with only one shot to spare. He went on to tie for 30th at 3-over 291.
“I had problems with the putting,” he says. “I found the greens so quick...I had never hit putts that soft from 40 feet before.”
But Schwartzel is nothing if not inquisitive. He began picking brains and went to two of the best: six-time Masters champion Jack Nicklaus and Nick Price, who 25 years before had established the 18-hole Masters scoring record with a 63 in the third round.
From Price, Schwartzel learned how to putt the slick and tricky Augusta National greens. Price advised him that no matter where he played, to find the pin that would produce the fastest putt and practice that putt as much as he could.
Schwartzel continued that into the practice rounds at the Masters and, by the time he had drained his four birdie putts in a row to win, could there be any doubt that he had mastered the art of putting at Augusta National?
For the big picture, Schwartzel got some huge advice from Nicklaus at a chance encounter the year before at a charity tournament for Els’s Autism foundation. Introduced by a mutual friend—Sunshine Tour chief executive Johann Rupert—Schwartzel had never before met Nicklaus and broke the ice by talking not about golf, but hunting.
“That’s the way I got the conversation going, by talking hunting,” Schwartzel says, knowing enough about Nicklaus to know that the Golden Bear liked to hunt the kind of big game that Schwartzel learned to bag as a boy in South Africa. “I was really excited. I knew he liked hunting a bit.”
Rupert then gently prodded Nicklaus to offer Schwartzel “a few tips” on playing Augusta National. It was early in the year, before Schwartzel had ever played a practice round at the Masters, and he got the next best thing to being there.
Nicklaus went into a hole-by-hole dissertation on how to play the course, what areas to steer drives to, where not to hit it, which flags to attack, which flags to stay away from, which putts where the trickiest—in short, the wisdom that comes from six green jackets.
Schwartzel was enthralled. He was riveted. “The big thing for me is that I had never, ever played Augusta, and here he is, taking me through all 18 holes,” Schwartzel says. “I’ve only seen it on TV and now he’s taking me through it. It was such a big awe. I was sitting there taking it all in.”
Later, Schwartzel remembered something. He had been too involved in the discussion to remember to take any notes.
Rupert saved him. While Nicklaus was talking and Schwartzel was captivated, Rupert had been scribbling madly all he could of what Nicklaus was imparting. A year later, Schwartzel applied those tips and lessons to win his green jacket, putting his name in golf history with the rest of the South African major champion winners. Schwartzel also learned another key fact of the Masters. The tournament isn’t won early but can be lost early. In his second start at Augusta, he matched his opening-round score of 2010 with a 69. But instead of going five shots higher in the second round like the year before, Schwartzel had a steady 71 in the second round and entered the weekend at 4-under.
At the time, he was still an afterthought. Rory McIlroy, Schwartzel’s friend and fellow member of the management firm that Chubby Chandler ran, was 10-under and a threat to run away from everyone.
McIlroy shot 70 on Saturday. But Schwartzel cut into the lead with a 68 and entered the final round four behind McIlroy.
In the maelstrom of that Sunday afternoon, Schwartzel had two early shots that electrified the crowd and moved him into a share of the lead: a chip-on birdie at the first hole and an eagle-two at No. 3, hitting a sand wedge from 114 yards into the hole.
Schwartzel cooled off, players such as Woods, Scott, Day, K.J. Choi, Geoff Ogilvy and Angel Cabrera heated up and the day turned into a breathtaking series of events, one right after another, sometimes appearing to happen simultaneously.
But each one of the contenders also made their share of mistakes. Schwartzel merely made 10 pars in a row after his eagle at No. 3 and bogey at No. 4, and he went to the 15th tee 10-under-par and a shot off the lead.
“I wasn’t feeling at all disappointed with 10 pars in a row,” he says. “I wasn’t losing any ground, but I wasn’t gaining any ground either.” Schwartzel was actually pleased with pars at Nos. 10, 11 and 12, especially since McIlroy had imploded at No. 10 with a triple and Woods had made a three-putt bogey at No. 12. “I grabbed [those pars] with both hands,” he says, smiling broadly about going 4-4-3 at Amen Corner. “Those were big.”
At the 15th tee, Schwartzel had a tee shot he had felt good about all week. “I hit a great tee shot and gave myself a good angle to the green with a 6-iron,” he says.
That 6-iron from 220 yards out was flushed over the back of the green, but as any Masters fan knows, long is better than short at No. 15. Schwartzel nearly chipped in for eagle and sent the ball eight feet past the hole, but he made that putt to get his score to 11-under and at the time, one shot off the lead in the clubhouse held by Scott.
At the par-3 16th hole, Schwartzel hit an 8-iron and while the putt was twice as long as his birdie attempt the hole before, it was uphill, vital at that green. He banged that into the hole to tie for the lead at 12-under.
Schwartzel’s drive at No. 17 was in the fairway, but it was a hair right and he was blocked by trees from hitting the club the yardage called for, a pitching wedge. He clubbed up to a 9-iron, aimed left with a cut and the ball landed on the green for another 15-foot attempt.
He drew his putter back and made his third birdie in a row. This time, it was for the sole lead.
Schwartzel needed only a par to win at No. 18. Without hesitation, he hit driver off the tee and avoided the bunker on the left. With only 133 yards to the hole, he cozied a pitching wedge to within 14 feet and made that putt too.
“Driver up there, 114 yards, pitching wedge to about 14 feet...sounds simple,” he says.
Well, that’s the way his father taught him, wasn’t it? Keep it simple.