As winds swirled and Leopard Creek Country Club showed its teeth, seemingly every challenger for the Alfred Dunhill Championship title faltered at some point Sunday. Bogeys, doubles and triples, oh my! Indeed, it was no coincidence that the Malelane, South Africa, layout borders Kruger National Park, one of Africa’s largest game reserves.
Adrian Meronk, the 54-hole leader who was vying to become Poland’s first European Tour winner, managed to lead after 11 holes before dropping three shots in his next three holes and finishing with a closing 4-over 76.
Jayden Schaper, the 19-year-old South African phenom who earlier this year decided to forego college and turn pro, was eyeing his first pro win until he kicked off his back nine with a triple bogey and made three more bogeys coming in for a final-round 75.
England’s Richard Bland, also chasing his first European Tour victory, albeit at 47 years old, was just two back with nine holes to play but ran out of momentum by playing his final seven holes birdie-less and in 1 over.
And finally, Sean Crocker, who was born in Zimbabwe but starred at USC in Los Angeles, had perhaps the best chance of winning among those who fell short, but only trailing by a shot he hit two tee balls out of play on the final hole. His closing triple left him at 10 under, along with Meronk, Schaper and Bland, and four shots behind the champion, the only contender who didn’t fall apart down the stretch, Christiaan Bezuidenhout.
You could call him the king of this event’s jungle, as Bezuidenhout was the most glaring exception to the rule in Sunday’s difficult final round, which players estimated featured a nearly-three-club wind. The 26-year-old South African, whose incredible story of overcoming adversity is well known, especially after his breakthrough European triumph last year in Spain, had his hiccups, most notably a double bogey at the par-3 seventh. But he also made six birdies and played flawlessly on the final nine, including holing birdie putts of 25 and 18 feet on Nos. 14 and 15, respectively, to shoot his fourth straight round in red numbers, a 3-under 69, and win for the first time ever in his native country.
“It’s incredible,” Bezuidenhout said. “This tournament has been close to my heart since I played it for the first time. It’s always been a tournament I wanted to win and to pull it off today is really, really special to me.
“I’m proud of myself to stick in there and to have pulled it off round here.”
Bezuidenhout has much to be proud of. For those who need a refresher, here are the spark notes: Bezuidenhout nearly died when he was 2 years old after unknowingly drinking from a Coke bottle that had been contaminated with rat poison. The poison took a toll on his body, affecting his nervous system and causing a stutter, which in turn led to bouts with anxiety and depression. When Bezuidenhout turned 14, his doctor prescribed him medication that helped him “enjoy my life again,” Bezuidenhout wrote last year in a blog post for EuropeanTour.com, but the beta blockers were also a banned substance, and despite Bezuidenhout being adamant that he filled out the proper paperwork, he was disqualified from the 2014 British Amateur and subsequently banned for nine months.
“It felt like my life was over. … I was inconsolable,” he wrote in the same post. “However, I eventually turned this into energy to help me come back stronger.”
Bezuidenhout’s comeback keeps getting more impressive. Since his maiden title last summer at the Andalucía Masters, Bezuidenhout has now played in all four majors. He missed the cut at last year’s Open Championship at Royal Portrush and earlier this year at TPC Harding Park, but he made the weekend at both the U.S. Open and Masters this fall. His T-38 showing two weeks ago at Augusta National tied him with Tiger Woods.
Funny enough, his first trip to Augusta helped him this week, specifically an early-week practice round alongside countrymen Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel, who both gave Bezuidenhout some tips about playing Leopard Creek.
“They said you can’t play this course the way you played it with the previous grass on it,” Bezuidenhout said. “I never thought of it that way and I just came here with a different frame of mind and I played it like it’s playing now – firm and fast.”
Now, after getting the job done at the Dunhill for his second career European Tour win, Bezuidenhout can all but count on a return trip to the Masters next spring. The top 50 players in the world by year’s end qualify, and with his win, the South African is projected to move to No. 41 in the world as he prepares for the South African Open in two weeks and the tour’s lucrative season finale, the DP World Tour Championship, the following week.