Shaun battles to qualify for pro dream

Shaun Smith (@ShaunSmithGolf) first appeared on the Sunshine Tour scene in 2011 when, as an amateur, he received an invitation to play in the Big Easy Tour’s Glendower tournament, where he finished 18th. Three years later this talented 22-year-old’s professional career is revealing just how tough it is to make it on the Sunshine Tour.


Not that you’d say so after his first round in the Telkom Business PGA Championship being played this week at Country Club Johannesburg: He carded an opening six-under-par 66 to find himself one shot off the early pace.


“With the pre-qualifiers that we have to go through you can play reasonable golf and not even get to play the tournament. This is my second time playing a competitive tournament this year, and I’m happy to be here – it’s a privilege to play,” he said.


Smith graduated from the Sunshine Tour’s 2013 Qualifying School with a final round 72 that earned him the 34th card available. His category on the tour, like that of his fellow graduates, meant that he would spend the season playing a pre-tournament qualifier to try for a spot at nearly every event. The top 10 from the pre-qualifiers are only ones that make it into the tournament.


There is a big pool of players all vying for a top-10 at qualifying, and if they make it there are still four tournament rounds and a midway cut to contend with. The odds are stacked against the newcomers, who are yet to prove that they belong on the professional circuit.


The scene is loaded with talent and most rookies on tour can boast that they were the best golfer at their school and the best in their province. Big fish in a small pond, because the level of competition on the Sunshine Tour is vastly greater than anything these young hopefuls have experienced before.


An ex-Zimbabwean, he’s settled in Joahnnesburg now. But he lived in George for a while and trained at the Ernie Els & Fancourt Foundation. Smith showed promise throughout his amateur days and in 2011 he received the Ernie Els award for Golfer of the Year, during which time he represented South Africa against Scotland both on home soil and abroad.


In his rookie year of 2013 the athletic Smith played his way through five qualifiers and made the cut four times in the respective tournaments. Clearly there is no lack of talent, merely only a few chances and a lot of competition. Pre-qualifying is a tough ask for these uncut diamonds, who spend weeks out of competition and then find themselves paired with seasoned campaigners of the tour.


“At the pre-qualifiers we use so much energy on that specific day,” said Smith. “When a tournament comes we sometimes don’t really know what’s going on, especially because sometimes we’ve gone a few months without playing a tournament. Then when you do get into one and you’re a little bit shell-shocked about what’s going on. If you can capitalise on making the pre-qualifiers then it’s a big bonus and it shoots that little bit of confidence up for the week.”


Finishing 80th on the 2013 Sunshine Tour Order of Merit meant that Smith avoided going through Qualifying School again. In 2014 he’s only managed to play in two events, but that doesn’t indicate bad form, instead it shows that the scores needed to get through pre-qualifiers are very low. Even when he’s playing well it’s difficult for Smith, and his fellows, to sprint through one round with a low enough score.


There are exceptions to the rule, those players who thrive on the pressure of pre-qualifiers right from the start. Danie van Tonder (right) is one such player and during his rookie year he successfully qualified for seven events and made the cut at five of those. His results from those qualifier entries included a share of 18th at the Lombard Insurance Classic, a share of 12th at the Platinum Classic, a share of eighth at Vodacom Origins Zebula and a tie for second at Vodacom Origins Selborne.


But for Smith the change to professional golf has not been that easy. He’ll continue dreaming and with a bit of luck he’ll earn a decent exemption status for 2015. Otherwise it’s back to square one, which is a scenario many of our best young golfers face each year in the tough school of hard knocks that is the Sunshine Tour.


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