Schwartzel is the latest in a long line of sweet-swinging South African Major champions
GARY PLAYER made an immense impression on me the first time I saw him in the flesh back in the late 1960s.
My father had taken me to watch a Big Three televised match at Carnoustie in which Player was pitted against Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer and I can still recall how impressed I was that the diminutive South African could hold his own against the much bigger and more powerful American duo.
Player was clearly punching above his weight that day and that is exactly what he and his fellow South Africans have been doing ever since.
South Africa is by no means the most populous golfing nation but ever since the days of Bobby Locke they have been annexing major titles with a regularity alongside which British efforts look almost paltry.
Charl Schwartzel joined that impressive group when he won the recent Masters at Augusta National and the 26-year-old did it in a fashion that suggests it will not be the last time he claims one of the four titles that matter the most. While Rory McIlroy was imploding in dramatic fashion Schwartzel claimed four birdies over the last four holes to relegate Adam Scott and Jason Day into second place.
Player might have provided my own personal introduction to South African golf but the founder of that country’s rich dynasty was clearly Locke, who won four Open titles between ...
That outcome meant that we have still to see a single Australian don the traditional Green Jacket, which if you think about is almost as extraordinary as the scale of success the South Africans have achieved in the Majors. Schwartzel’s victory also means that America currently holds none of the four Major titles, something that would have been utterly unthinkable even a couple of years ago.
Player might have provided my own personal introduction to South African golf but the founder of that country’s rich dynasty was clearly Locke, who won four Open titles between 1949 and 1957, at one stage was hoovering up so much prize money in America that the locals invented some spurious excuse to have him banned.
Locke was one of the greatest putters the game has ever seen. Player’s great forte was his sand play and he was also ultra competitive. He went on to achieve an impressive haul of three Opens, three Masters, one US Open and one USPGA and it is clearly fitting that Schwartzel’s victory was confirmed on the 50th anniversary of the Black Knight’s first triumph at Augusta in 1961.
Locke and Player set the tone by winning 12 major titles between them and in more recent times they have been succeeded by the likes of Ernie Els, Retief Goosen, Trevor Immelman, Louis Oosthuizen and Schwartzel who have added a further eight.
That might be only six more that Tiger Woods claimed during his golden spell between 2000 and 2008 but it is five more that British and Irish players have accumulated since the second World War and could easily have been even more because during that same period Player, Els, Goosen and Denis Watson claimed another 14 runner-up finishes between them.
It is all but impossible to explain exactly why the top South Africans have enjoyed so much success at the highest level but one reason has to be the manner they swing the golf club.
Els, Goosen, Immelman, Oosterhuis and Schwartzel all have text book actions that appear impervious to the sort of pressure one encounters over the closing stretch at Major. In their prime at least, Els and Goosen also holed almost as many crucial putts as Locke.
The Augusta authorities deserve huge credit for the manner they set up the course for the 75th Masters and their skill was rewarded with the sort of buzz from the gallery that was missing for several years in the middle of the last decade.
Schwartzel had to hold his nerve while a few hundred yards away Tiger Woods mounted a charge that sent the crowd into raptures and the fact he did so suggests he has just as much ice in his veins as Goosen who memorably kept his cool at the 2004 US Open at Shinnecock Hills while the rest of the field were driven to the edge of distraction by the utterly unreceptive greens.
It remains to be seen whether Rory McIlroy will ever display such resolve. Certainly, I hope so because he is lovely lad who in defeat was a credit to himself and to his family. Shame Woods wasn’t as gracious in his own post-round interview with CBS’s Bill Macatee. I’d give the former World No 1 eight out of 10 for his golf, much less for his PR.