Darren Fichardt said the overriding emotion after winning the Joburg Open at the Royal Johannesburg and Kensington East Course on Sunday was one of thrilled relief as the 41-year-old claimed an exciting one-shot victory with a birdie at the last hole.
The thrill came from winning an event where he did not feel his game was best-suited to the course; the relief was because he went into the R16.5 million European Tour event with a new putter and new putting grip.
“I’m very thrilled because this was a tournament I did not think I could win, it’s normally the big hitters who do well here. But I’ve been swinging really well, and I putted very well, whereas before I tried to hit the ball really hard off the tee here because I felt it was a bomber’s course. But I remember some advice Mark McNulty gave me to play your own game,” Fichardt said.
The Centurion Country Club golfer finished in a tie for 53rd in last week’s Dimension Data Pro-Am and made the decision to ditch the putter he has used for the last eight years and change his grip.
“I’ve never tried the claw grip before but last weekend Sam Hackner said I was a dying breed, the only guy who doesn’t use it. I then putted horrendously, so I thought maybe that was a sign.
“I was very nervous over that last putt because I haven’t tried that grip before under pressure, but it really works and I think I’ll stick with it for a while,” Fichardt said.
The final putt was a little one-metre effort set up by a wonderful chip from just short of the green as Fichardt, Paul Waring and Jacques Kruyswijk went down the 18th all with a chance of victory.
Fichardt and Waring were sharing the lead at that stage on 14-under-par, with Kruyswijk one behind, but Waring hit his first shot way right into the trees.
Young Kruyswijk, contending for the first time in a co-sanctioned event, is obviously a marvellous ball-striker, judging by the way he bombed his drive down the 18th fairway, but his second found the greenside bunker and his chances of making an eagle for a career-changing victory had all but disappeared.
Waring recovered brilliantly, chipping out into the fairway and then hitting a marvellous third shot to eight feet of the flag. But the Englishman suffered the cruel misfortune of seeing his tricky downhill putt, beautifully struck, lipping out.
“Obviously you’ve got to take the positives out, I took it right down to the last and then had a lip-out, but getting into the Open Championship is a big plus. Not too much needs to improve, I just need to get over the line,” Waring said afterwards.
Fichardt’s investment in a careful approach around the testing East Course, which was sodden and muddy in many places, paid off and he only dropped one shot on the final day, and just two over the whole three rounds of the weather-shortened event.
“Any tournament winner is going to be the guy who made the least mistakes, but I had some really good saves to keep the momentum going,” Fichardt said. “But I’ve been hitting the ball really well and I knew that if I could just figure out my putting and chipping then I’d be back in the winner’s circle.
“On 14 I was just off the fairway on the right, with a little soft eight-iron in, 154 metres, but it was a mud ball and the mud took over, sending the ball way right and I short-sided myself. I was left with a tricky chip, I just wanted to get on for par, and I had a very good up-and-down.
“On 18 I was very pleased with that last chip, obviously the adrenalin was going and I was quite nervous, but I was pretty relaxed actually over the ball,” Fichardt said.
The likes of Welshman Stuart Manley and South Africans George Coetzee and Jaco Ahlers all made runs for the title before crucial mistakes saw them fall short.
Coetzee eagled the first hole and was eight-under for his round through 15 holes, and was just one behind, but bogeys on 16 and 17 set him back and he had to be content with a share of seventh on 12-under-par, three shots behind.
Ahlers also moved to within one of the lead as he went to six-under through 13 holes, but he hit two balls in the water on the par-three 16th and finished with a quadruple-bogey seven, and tumbled down the leaderboard to finish tied-23rd on nine-under-par overall.
Manley had seven birdies in his round but a double-bogey on the par-four 11th cost him dearly and he finished tied-second with Waring, and will also be going to the Open Championship with Fichardt and the Englishman.
Kruyswijk was also undone by a double-bogey, his coming on the par-four 14th as a rare bad drive went way right into long rough, from where he hacked his second across the fairway into the reeds bordering the water hazard. But the 24-year-old is a rare talent indeed.
“Jacques is going to be something special, he held his nerve pretty well and it was just one bad tee shot that he didn’t get away with. I knew I would have to do something special to beat him,” Fichardt said.
Waring and Kruyswijk led halfway through the final round, but Waring made a couple of tentative putts and found some bunkers on the back nine, and those are the mistakes that ultimately cost him.
But it was one of those gripping final days when one could debate the what-ifs until the cows come home, with the experienced Fichardt proving he was up for the challenge.