But a disastrous finish that saw Schwartzel bogey both the par-threes coming in and rack up a double-bogey at 16 meant he was embroiled in a playoff with Andy Sullivan, and when the Englishman fashioned a superb approach shot from the rough and then sank a pressure 12-foot winning putt on the 18th, the local favourite’s dream had become a nightmare.
Sullivan admitted afterwards that he was just about to leave Glendower to head for the airport and his flight to Dubai when Schwartzel began unravelling, his final-round 74 leaving him on 11-under for the tournament.
“I was nearly ready to go and I didn’t see Charl do what he did. I was reflecting on the week and thinking ‘yeah, second is good for the first tournament of the year’, but the unbelievable happened,” Sullivan said.
He went to warm-up again on the driving range, but his tee-shot in the playoff was way left and in trouble in the rough, behind the low branches of a tree. Schwartzel, however, had been ropey all day off the tee and with his irons, and he had earlier sent his playoff drive way right, even further from the fairway than Sullivan’s.
The 28-year-old from the English midlands town of Nuneaton produced a superb stroke, setting up his maiden European Tour win, as he left his second a mere 12 feet from the hole.
“I thought I was in trouble because to miss the fairway right is better on that hole, it’s a lot clearer. But I thought ‘it’s all about what I can do’ and I didn’t allow Charl’s position to have any influence on what I did.
“I only had 131 metres to the pin, but I had low branches in front of me so I had to hit a low nine-iron to keep under those. I was aiming at the grandstand and trying to cut it back, and I hit it perfectly. I thought I’d still be 20 feet from the flag, but instead I was 12 feet and pin-high,” Sullivan said.
He said it was “without a doubt” one of the best shots he has ever played, and he made it count by ramming in the putt for birdie and becoming the first English winner of the SA Open since Tommy Horton in 1970.
The man who famously won a trip into space for a hole-in-one at the KLM Open last September said he would be celebrating and “milking it for all its worth” till he was seeing space.
The enormity of his achievement, coming to the lairs of Schwartzel, Els and Grace and claiming their title, was starting to sink in for Sullivan when he spoke to the media about an hour after sinking the winning putt.
“South Africans are so good on their home turf, to beat guys like Charl, Branden and Ernie here is just unbelievable. I’ve dreamt about winning a tournament since I was a little boy and what a championship, one of the oldest in golf and with all that history, to win. To think that my name will be on that trophy forever … “
Life is great on and off the course for Sullivan, who celebrated the birth of his daughter Ruby in late 2013 and has now converted a promising 2014 season into a maiden European Tour title.
Sullivan started the final round eight behind Schwartzel and knew he had to go low to have any chance. But he was only one-under through the front nine, before a stellar four-under-par back nine, including an eagle on the short par-four 12th catapulted him into contention.
He chipped in on 12 and was able to make birdies on the par-four 10th and 16th holes to earn himself R2.2 million.
Fellow Englishman Matthew Fitzpatrick began the day five off the lead in second place, but the young rookie faded to a 73 on Sunday, but will still cart off just over R400 000 for his impressive efforts.