Jaco van Zyl normally wakes up for the first round of the Nedbank Golf Challenge and makes sure he’s stocked up on biltong and beer. On Thursday, he had to make sure his golf shoes and clubs were clean before he went out and shot a six-under-par 66 to take a share of the first round lead.
He shared the lead with world number seven Henrik Stenson of Sweden, with both players carding bogey-free rounds. So did defending champion Danny Willett of England with his opening 67 to take up third place, while Australian Marc Leishman was also bogey-free in a share of fourth with Branden Grace.
“There are two events I watch on television every single year,” said Van Zyl. “One is the Masters and the other is this. Normally I’m getting ready for a stint in front of the TV at this time of year, but today I had to go and work.”
He’s won at the course before, by five strokes in a 54-hole Sunshine Tour event. He had to get used to the place with giant stands and TV towers all over the place now. “It was just wow,” he said. “From walking onto the first tee box to walking down the 18th fairway – it is the same golf course, but it is different.”
He warmed to the task quickly, making birdies on two and three, and then he settled down and picked up his next one at the beautiful par-five ninth. On the homeward nine, he was hot down the stretch, with birdies on 14, 15 and 17.
But as easy as that sounds, he had to keep his emotions in check at the start of the round. “The nerves didn’t stop after the first shot,” he said. “I could feel my heart beating in my throat for the first three holes. I just tried to keep it in play and I managed to pick up two quick ones in the first three holes, and that helped settle the nerves.”
If he thought he had problems facing him at the start of his round, spare a thought for the 2008 champion Stenson, who got through the round despite a dose of flu. “I’ve been in bed with the flu for three days, and after I had to pull out of the pro-am on Tuesday, I probably had about a five percent chance of playing.
“I felt quite a bit better this morning and the doctor didn’t see any reason why I couldn’t play. I’m delighted with the score, but the last few holes I completely ran out of energy. From the 14th onwards, my legs were like jelly and it was a real struggle.”
Willett who was so impressive in his 2014 victory was pleased to start his title defence so effectively. “It was good to get the first round under my belt,” he said. “There were a few nerves, so I couldn’t be happier with my score.”
For the man who is playing for the first time in a tournament he has watched for 30 years, it was almost too good to be true. But he kept calm and did the basics right. “I capitalised where I need to, which was mainly the par-fives,” he said. “I needed to two-putt from long range on quite a few holes, but I have been putting really nicely for a few months now. I hit 10 out of 14 fairways today, and the couple I missed weren’t really in trouble. But the main thing is the 27 putts today.”