Not even a tweak to his back in the practice round was enough to stop Ulrich van den Berg from carding a seven-under-par 65 on Thursday to share the lead in the opening round of the Telkom Business PGA Championship.
He topped the leaderboard in the R3.75-million Sunshine Tour tournament being played at Country Club Johannesburg as he did after the first round last year, this time doing it together with Oliver Bekker, holding a one-stroke edge over Shaun Smith and 2011 champion George Coetzee, while there were five players a further shot back on five-under-par 67.
Van den Berg started slowly from the first tee, making just two birdies ahead of the turn while Bekker, who started on the 10th, was racing to a six-under-par 30 on his opening nine. And Van den Berg was feeling the pain from his back.
“It was the last shot on the ninth in practice yesterday and I hit a shot and felt something tweak right towards my coccyx,” said Van den Berg of his back. “I could barely make it back to the clubhouse, so it was a frantic time with the physios to get fit, but they’ve done a great job. It was touch-and-go on the range this morning, but it eased up through the round.
“The nice thing is that when you play like that you aren’t too concerned about what you’re shooting. You just take care of each shot at a time and don’t put any pressure on yourself during the round. I didn’t know if I was going to get through the round, so I’m very chuffed with how it turned out.”
After that slow start, Van den Berg found opportunities aplenty on the back nine.
“I spun around the turn and made a whole heap of putts and got busy with a bunch of birdies, which was nice,” he said. “That cooled down the frustration a little bit, because it gets upsetting when you’re hitting it close and they’re not going in.”
While Van den Berg was revelling in a course he plays often, Coetzee was going around without benefit of a practice round in a tournament he hasn’t played since he won it in 2011. “I can picture every hole and remember the wind like it was yesterday,” he said of that victory. “I remember every hole on this course and I think it helps."
Smith had to qualify for the tournament, and is playing in only his second tournament of the year, so he was thrilled with his 66. “I’ve got a special feeling about this week and it’s been a long time coming,” he said. “With the pre-qualifiers that we have to go through you can play reasonable golf and not even get to play the tournament.”
Van den Berg is going to have to deal with that kind of hunger to play from players like Smith in the rounds ahead, as well as the experience of Bekker, who will play his second round in much the same way as he played his first.
“I’ve been swinging it well for the last three months now and if I can keep hitting it onto the fairway and onto the green then I’ll keep giving myself a look at birdie,” said Bekker. “If the putts go in you’ll score well and if they don’t you should still score alright.”