He came 10th in the Sunshine Tour Qualifying School in January, had to qualify for the Tshwane Open, and Erik van Rooyen found himself in a three-way share of the early round one lead of the €1.5-million tournament at The Els Club Copperleaf on Thursday.
The University of Minnesota graduate had an eagle, seven birdies and three bogeys on his way to his six-under-par total of 66, sharing the top of the leaderboard of the event co-sanctioned by the Sunshine Tour and the European Tour with England’s Ross Fisher and fellow South African Jared Harvey.
“I’m extremely happy,” he said. “I hit the ball extremely well today. I missed a couple of short ones out there, but I had my fair share of long ones that I made, so I’m happy with the start.”
The trio led by one from the cosmopolitan grouping of Denmark’s Lucas Bjerregaard, England’s Chris Wood and India’s Shiv Kapur, with the next-best South African Jean Hugo in a five-way tie on four-under-par.
With the length of the course very much the talk of the players heading into the tournament – the Els Club Copperleaf is, at 7,281 metres (7,964 yards), the longest in European Tour history – Van Rooyen’s eagle came on the 555-metre (608-yard) par-five eighth. That is one of all four of the par-fives which play at over 600 yards, which is also a first for the European Tour.
“It’s playing long, but if you hit all the fairways, it’s not too bad,” he said. “Your wedge game really needs to be good. You’re not going to reach all the par-fives in two, so that’s where you really have to score.
“I like it long. I’m probably not the longest hitter out there, but I get it out there quite a way, so I think the length suits my game,” he added.
Van Rooyen had a good finish in the Joburg Open when he had a share of 42nd gave him a satisfyingly bulky cheque to start his 2014 year off, but leading a big tournament was a new experience for him.
“It’s a lot of fun and I’m just trying to enjoy the experience,” he said. “You try to stay calm and seeing some of those big names below me on the leaderboard – that’s a lot of fun, trust me,” he laughed.