When Dawie van der Walt looks back on his victory on Saturday in the €1-million Nelson Mandela Championship presented by ISPS Handa, he will remember how he fought back from a pair of potentially catastrophic bogeys down the stretch at Mount Edgecombe Country Club.
Van der Walt took the tournament – shortened to 54 holes after heavy and persistent rains interrupted play and left some fairways waterlogged – by two strokes from England’s Matthew Baldwin and Spaniard Jorge Campillo on a total of 15-under-par 195.
The win also won him the Sunshine Tour Order of Merit for 2013, his R2,250,700 cheque vaulting him past long-time leader Darren Fichardt by nearly R700,000 after Fichardt finished in a share of 50th.
And it represented a change in fortunes after he sprained his ankle badly in July, affecting his game so badly, he hit what he called ‘rock bottom’. “I missed every cut in the events in Europe I played,” he said.
When he bogeyed the eighth and 11th around the turn, it looked as if the chance of winning his second tournament co-sanctioned by the Sunshine Tour and the European Tour – he took the Tshwane Open in February – was slipping away.
“I was pleased with the bogey putt at eight,” he said after he had battled to chip the ball out of the thick kikuyu rough to the left of the green. “It could so easily have been a three-putt. And 11 was playing tough anyway, so I was ready to battle through that one.”
He responded splendidly to the setback, with an eagle three on the 12th. “I hit a good tee shot down there, because I knew it was an eagle chance. I had a wedge in, and then sank the putt.”
Then birdies on 13 and 15 sealed the deal for him as he pulled clear of the field which seemed unable to match the pyrotechnics of the low-scoring during the first two rounds.
There was a moment of drama for him on 15: “I hit a rescue perfectly – not hard, but just very well,” he said. “And it just kept on flying, and it hit a fan. I got a lucky break there, and I had a bout a 20-footer for birdie.”
As it turned out, the fan he hit was a representative of Branden Grace’s management company.
Van der Walt parred his way home, leaving playing partners Grace and Oliver Bekker – both of whom were within touching distance of the lead during the final round – battling to make up shots on him. Campillo and Baldwin were in the final group behind him and were unable to close the gap which that aggressive response to adversity had opened for Van der Walt.
“Once I got that birdie on 15,” said Van der Walt, “I was pretty comfortable that the tournament was mine to lose. I wasn’t sure what the guys behind me were doing, but I knew that they would have to go for birdies if they were to force a play-off.
“So I was pretty relaxed coming home – it helped that I had been in that position before,” he added.
The victory confirms his status on the European Tour for the immediate future, but the Order of Merit title brings with it some special privileges – not least a place in next year’s Open Championship at Hoylake in Liverpool.
“It will be my first major,” he said. “I hope I can be at the top of my game then and test myself against the best in the world.”