Judging by his prowess in the squally conditions on day one at the IGT Tour’s Wingate Challenge, the farmer from Lichtenburg could well have his way at the Fish River Sun Country Club in September.
On a day during which the wind blew with gusto at Wingate Park Country Club, the field battled to break par. Only five players finished in red numbers and Van Niekerk was among them.
The 28-year-old offset a pair of bogeys with four birdies for a two-under-par 70 to match the number posted by early clubhouse leader Coert Groenewald, the only other player who came home with just two blemishes on his card. They lead by one from David Ashley, Graham van der Merwe and recent IGT Tour winner, amateur Tristen Strydom and Van Niekerk was pleased to see another North West amateur Aubrey Beckley, take sole sixth with an even-par 72.
Ranked seventh in the country, Beckley mixed five birdies with a double bogey and two dropped shots on the front nine and countered two more bogeys with a birdie coming home.
“When Aubrey came off the course, he called it a Liquorice AllSorts day,” Van Niekerk said.
“I am really proud of the way he fought out there, because it was really tough in the wind and the experience will help us at the SA IPT. I did just about anything I needed to survive. My only aim was to keep the ball in play and try to get as pars. Every birdie I picked up felt like a bonus.”
Groenewald won the final event in the 2014 Race to Q-School series at Wingate before he secured his card for the Sunshine Tour.
His affinity for the layout showed over the front nine. The Roodepoort professional birdied the par-three fifth and turned one under, but his flawless run ended with a bogey at the 10th. He traded a birdie at 13 for bogey at 14 and notched further gains at 16 and 18 to lead at two under.
By contrast, Van Niekerk packed it in two years after he joined the pro ranks in 2009 and switched to raising sheep and cattle.
“I bought a farm and I’ve enjoyed the challenge over the last couple of years, but the passion to compete has always been there,” said Van Niekerk. “That’s why I took back my amateur status, joined my local club and started competing again.”
He finished second in Western Province Amateur and joint fourth in Boland Amateur Stroke Play Championships this season, but after securing a sponsor and with his family firmly in support, the farmer will be heading to Qualifying School next March to give the Sunshine Tour another go.
“The IGT Tour is where you come to prepare and get yourself to the next level,” he said. “. I was really pleased to tie for 16th in my first start last week. I didn’t know what to expect and a top 20 finish in my first start is pretty promising. Of course, the conditions were not half of brutal as today. To be sharing the lead under these conditions is a great confidence booster.”
Van Niekerk had an early slip at the second hole, when he laid up and duffed his third in the water, but got it back to level when he holed a two-footer for birdie at the short fifth.
“I made very solid birdies at 12 and 13 to join Coert at two under,” he said. “Unfortunately I three-putted the short hole, but I birdied 15 to get back to two under and I had a chance to take the outright lead at the last hole. Again, I missed the birdie putt, but if you had offered me a 70 at the start of the round, though, I would have taken it and gone home. I’m pretty satisfied with this start.”
FIRST ROUND SCORES
All competitors RSA unless otherwise specified and amateurs are indicated as AMA:
70 – Coert Groenewald, Danie van Niekerk AMA
71 – Tristen Strydom AMA, Graham van der Merwe, David Ashley (ENG)
72 – Aubrey Beckley AMA
73 – Damian Naicker
74 – Arno Pretorius AMA, NJ Arnoldi, Phillip Kruse AMA, Werner van Wyk, Leon Visser AMA, Pieter Moolman
75 – Francois Coetzee, Teagan Moore, Combrinck Smit AMA
76 – Gary Daoust (BEL), Kyle Barker AMA, Paul Boshoff AMA, Ivanna Samu AMA, Estiaan Conradie AMA, Ruan Conradie AMA, Quintin Crause AMA, Ruan Potgieter AMA, Angelo Marques AMA, Jonathan Waschefort
77 – WM Coetzee AMA, LJ Lowies AMA, Conway Kunneke, Joshua Seale, Deon Bredenkamp, Matt Bright
78 – Stephen Forsyth AMA, Calvin Caldeira, Etienne J V Rensburg AMA, Ruhan Van Dijk AMA, Chris Wicks AMA, Phumlani Maluka AMA, Clinton Cheia, Albert Visser AMA, Driekus Gous AMA
79 – Dwayne Coetzee, Andrew Carlsson AMA, Matthew Spacey, Stephan Erasmus AMA, Alex Van Heerden AMA, Hendrikus Stoop AMA
80 – Christopher De Beer AMA, Matthew Vogel, Tristan Nel AMA
81 – Bryce McCabe, Duan Nagel AMA, Patrick Thompson, Dongkwan Kim (KOR), Stephane Van Neer AMA (COD), Gareth Anderson AMA
82 – Bonita Bredenhann (NAM), Wesley Baptiste AMA, Dean Du Plessis AMA, Bryce Myburgh, Leon Vorster AMA
83 – Lydon Charnley AMA, Larissa Du Preez AMA, Mae Cornforth, Michael Schutz
84 – Heinrich Burger AMA, Andre Pistorius, Murad Hoosen AMA, Marc De Jager AMA
85 – Hanro Booysen, Ruan Korb AMA, Lourens Du Plessis
86 – Terence Archibald AMA
87 – Heinrich Venter AMA
88 – Estiaan De Jager AMA, Gustav Erasmus, Nicklas Van Wyk AMA, Jordan Parsons AMA, Martinus Barnard
90 – Pierre Le Roux AMA, Liam Bezuidenhout AMA
92 – Sam Metcalfe AMA
94 – Roelof Van Tonder AMA
99 – Jerome Van Zyl AMA
RTD – Simon Kruger