South Africa’s Darren Fichardt was in a share of the lead halfway through his first round in the Nedbank Golf Challenge at Sun City on Thursday, having only joined the fray a couple of hours earlier as the latest of replacement players.
Fichardt, ranked 87th in the Race to Dubai, was only the sixth reserve on Wednesday afternoon, but with 76th-ranked Anthony Wall pulling out with a back injury and everyone else above Fichardt being from overseas and unable to get to Sun City in time, the 42-year-old suddenly found himself as the first alternate on the eve of the tournament.
That necessitated an early-morning drive to the Gary Player Country Club on Thursday, ‘just in case’, and that’s when the mad scramble began for the reigning Joburg Open champion.
“I was on the road, stuck between trucks, planning to get to Sun City by 8.30. With about 20km to go I phoned the tournament office and they said they thought I was in the tournament. I said ‘you’ve got to be joking’ and they said no, Wall had pulled out and I was first off at 9am!
“Having been sixth reserve yesterday afternoon, I hadn’t even prepared for the tournament, I was braaing until midnight. I’ve hit no balls for the last week-and-a-half, and I didn’t have anything set up. So I was quite rattled, I made a few risky overtakes and just left my car at reception and told them to take my keys.”
“I stood on the first tee [the par-five 10th], it didn’t feel like I was playing in the first round of the Nedbank Golf Challenge and I just aimed down the left and told myself to commit to the fade. I nearly missed my first two shots, but then I managed to chip it close, made birdie and then loosened up a bit,” Fichardt said when remembering his whirlwind start to the day.
He birdied the second as well and, although he dropped a shot at the par-three 12th hole, further birdies at the 14th and 17th holes lifted him to three-under-par and a share of the lead.
But Fichardt unravelled a bit on his back nine, dropping shots on the fifth and sixth holes, finishing with a one-under-par 71 and in a tie for 22nd, four shots off the pace.
The unrelenting Pilanesberg sun is tough to handle at the best of times, but it is even harder when mental fatigue, unsurprising considering his dramatic start to the day, sets in.
“It wasn’t the ideal start to a tournament, but it worked out and halfway through my round I was at my best. I made some nice putts on my front nine, but after the turn I got a bit tired. The two bogeys were weak on the back nine but it was down to fatigue.
“But I’m happy to be one-under and now I’m going to rest and get some better preparation in before the second round,” Fichardt said.
The five-time European Tour winner from Centurion said experience of the Gary Player Country Club course had been a major factor in his heroic performance.
“I’ve played plenty of golf here and won three tournaments here, so it’s not the course that I have to prepare for. It’s always good to be here, I love this course and I know what to do when you’re not feeling good,” Fichardt said.