The 2014 Sunshine Tour Order of Merit race reached an extraordinary crescendo at Ekurhuleni’s Glendower Golf Club on Sunday, with Thomas Aiken firing a final round of 70 at the South African Open Championship to narrowly beat Danie van Tonder to the prestigious title.
Van Tonder, playing in his 25th event of the season, began the week with a R220,000 advantage over Aiken, who was his nearest challenger to have met the eligibility criterion of seven events or more. A late rally from Van Tonder then saw him scrape through to the weekend, but a disappointing final round of 75 ended up reducing him to a three-way share of 55th place.
It thus left Aiken needing to finish in a two-way share of 10th or better, and after the lead seemingly changed hands on a half-hourly basis, Aiken needed a par on the last hole to finish seven under, and likely wrap things up. A poor approach left him with some 80 feet for birdie, and the best he could do from there was stroke it up to around 10 feet. However, the 31-year old then nervelessly stepped up to bury the putt, thus effectively clinching the Order of Merit by a solitary stroke.
Had he missed it, he would have finished in a three-way share of 10th, and lost the Order of Merit to Van Tonder by the miniscule amount of R1,745.
“I’m absolutely thrilled,” Aiken, who eventually finished in a six-way share of fifth, beamed. “I knew top 10 might get in, and top five for sure. I was aiming for that, but with three holes to play I knew I was around eighth or ninth, and needed three pars at worst.
“It’s a pretty tough finishing stretch, and I hit good ones at 16 and 17. But I hit a really bad iron shot at 18 to leave myself a long one. Then I left myself a hell of a lot of work on the next one, but I hit probably one of my best putts of the whole week and it went in the middle of the hole. That’s the crazy margins of the game! But now and then they go your way, and that’s when it’s so sweet.”
It was tough on Van Tonder, who won twice and missed just six cuts during the season. The 23-year old also proved his worth this week, rallying with three closing birdies in the second round to make it on the cut line at two-over par. However, he was unable to back up a steady third round of 71 with a good one on Sunday, and ultimately came up just short.
“When I see Danie, I can’t wait to tell him how extremely well he has played,” Aiken said graciously. “For a 23-year old to play that consistently throughout the year is exceptional. I think he played 25 events, and won multiple times.
“He’s really got the fiery spirit to make it in this game because he grinds his way through when the chips are down. This week again, he birdied the last three holes on Friday to make the cut. So he’s really got the BMT that’s needed in this game, and hats off to him on a great season,” he added.
The impression is that Van Tonder’s time will come, but for Aiken, who himself has come close on numerous occasions, it was an especially satisfying triumph on a Tour he holds so close to his heart.
The title also brings with it some life-changing exemptions, including an invitation to the Open Championship, three WGC events and the Memorial. It also carries a golden ticket to the 2015 Nedbank Golf Challenge, and Aiken revealed that the Sun City showpiece was the one he was looking forward to most.
“Obviously the Order of Merit has been something that I’ve wanted to win since I started playing the Sunshine Tour back in 2002,” the three-time European Tour winner explained. “I’ve come close a few times before, but it’s nice to finally get it under my belt. The Sid Brews Trophy is something very special, and winning a money list – irrespective of what tour it’s on – is a feat in itself.
“But I’m just really pleased to win this one, because it means a lot to me. It’s one of the five main Tours in the world, part of the (International) Federation (of Golf Tours), and the perks that come with it are substantial – they can even make one’s career.
“I’ve watched the Nedbank growing up as a kid since the early 80’s, and it’s always been a dream of mine to play in it. Now I’m finally going to play there in December, so I’m thoroughly looking forward to that,” Aiken concluded.