Jon Rahm returned to Valderrama… Sergio García battled to defend his title… the sun shone brightly (and generously) thanks to the tournament’s new dates… the prize money was increased from €2 million to €3 million… the spectators enjoyed a great sporting spectacle... and the richly deserved winner was a 24-year-old South African whose life has been marked by some calamitous chapters that could well form the plot of a tragic film – albeit now with a happy ending.
The frustration etched on Rahm’s face in an image captured on the 18th tee on Sunday, as Christiaan Bezuidenhout continued on his inexorable path to victory, said it all. He had fought hard, the global star from Barrika, but had not been able to catch his fiercely determined rival, who displayed astonishing security in his game and total control of his mind. Nerves apparently did not affect him, or at least he didn’t let them show. And that in spite of playing for so much, nothing less than his first triumph on the European Tour. Not even when family members sprung themselves on him and covered him with kisses and hugs did the new champion seem deterred. Could it have been because the serious adversities he suffered in the past had forged around him a shell impervious to his emotions?
But to return to the tournament before entering the turbulent world of Bezuidenhout… The South African played so well that he was on the verge of achieving the feat of finishing each of his four tournament rounds under par (he fell one stroke short on Sunday), something unheard of at Valderrama. His mastery was evident from the first day with an opening 66 (five-under), followed by rounds of 68, 69 and 71, to finish on 10-under 274 and secure a dominant advantage of six strokes over five players sharing second place: Adri Arnaus, Eduardo de la Riva, Mike Lorenzo-Vera, Álvaro Quirós and Rahm. Sergio Garcia, winner of the previous two editions of the tournament, would have joined them if not for finding the water that protects the 17th green. He finished seventh, with a three-under total of 281.
Apart from the half million euros he pocketed for his triumph, Bezuidenhout won another major prize: one of the three qualifying places in the British Open on offer for players competing in the Estrella Damm Andalucía Masters. The privilege of teeing up in the oldest of the four Grand Slam events was also won by Arnaus and Lorenzo-Vera, as they were higher in the world ranking than Quirós and De la Riva.
With its new dates, moving from October to June, the tournament did not suffer the inclement weather so common in other years, and members of the public were able to enjoy magnificent sunshine and – as always – a course in superb condition.
So now we can return to the champion’s unsettled history… and who better to recall it than the main protagonist himself, in an open letter he wrote for the European Tour website earlier this year before his triumphant appearance at Royal Valderrama Club.
“I drank rat poison”
“When I was a baby whilst playing with friends in the street I drank rat poison in a freak accident. I was two and a half years old and I was playing outside when I picked up a random Coke bottle. I took a drink of it thinking it was indeed Coke. However, it actually contained rat poison. It was a moment which would change my life forever.
As a result of that moment of naivety I almost died. The hospital had to pump my whole stomach to get rid of all the poison, but the poison affected the whole nervous system in my body, and one of the long-term effects of this led to me having a stutter. That stutter would eventually lead me to develop a severe case of anxiety.
I was diagnosed with anxiety by my doctor when I was four years old. This led to me becoming very introverted and depressed. Over the past four or five years it has slowly started to improve and I have felt more self-confident when speaking in front of people, but in previous years I would withdraw myself from everything and everyone.
I was basically just living in my own world because I was always scared of having to engage in conversation with my stutter. When I talked to people, I knew I would struggle and it would take time for me to deliver my words, so I always had a fear of answering the phone, saying my name or being asked a question. I would always withdraw myself from a group because I feared speaking to them. My psychologist helped me a lot to get over that fear and get a lot more self-confidence to put myself out there. Unfortunately, there is nothing you can do to get rid of a stammer — you just have to learn to adapt and work with the stammer to control it the best you can.
During my junior days I used to dread public speaking, which was a requirement when you won a tournament. It is a massive thing for me to have that self-confidence now to be able to stand in front of 100 people and to talk. I went to a psychologist when I was 14 and we worked on how to work with my stutter to be able to have enough confidence to talk in public situations. She gave me beta blockers, a medication which helps reduce your blood pressure and helps to treat anxiety. I used the medication for seven years during my amateur days, which helped me become more confident and enjoy my life again.
In 2014 however, I had a phone call which would have a huge impact on my golf career. I was playing in the British Amateur at Royal Portrush in 2014 when, after my first round, I handed my scorecard in and was told that I’d been nominated for a drugs test. I went for it and at that time I was using beta blockers for my stutter. I wrote the medication down on the form prior to the drugs test, making no secret of the fact I was using this medication.
Two months later I was back home practising for the Eisenhower Trophy where I would be representing South Africa when one afternoon my Dad phoned me to tell me I needed to come home immediately. I drove straight from practice and he broke the news to me that I had been suspended. I just broke down.
It was awful. I had spent my whole amateur career working to get into that Eisenhower side to represent my nation; it was a huge goal of mine to be selected in the team. To be told two days before the event that I couldn’t go because of a two-year drugs ban was simply too much for me to take in. It felt like my life was over.
The worst part of it all were all the stories that came out from people in the golf industry and supposed close friends back home. I was accused of using it to better my performances, which really hurt me and my family. A lot of nasty things were said and I was known as the guy banned from golf for a drug-related incident. I was aware of how labels like that are hard to shake off and I reached a very low point in my life, I was banned from playing the only thing in the world I loved, the game of golf. I was inconsolable.
After what seemed like the darkest period of my life I had a hearing and they reduced my sentence from two years to nine months after confirming that I had not used the drug for any performance-enhancing benefits. They were the longest nine months of my life. However, I eventually turned this into energy to help me come back stronger.
The fact I was cleared of using any form of drug to better my performance was the most important thing. My father, who introduced me to the sport, brought me up to play golf like a gentleman, with honesty and integrity, so to have that questioned was very hard to cope with. I felt I had let my family down, which above all else was the hardest issue to cope with.
In my first event back on a mini tour in South Africa I won by seven shots. This felt like a real statement to any of my critics that I won tournaments because I was a good golfer. Not because I was a drugs cheat. It felt like a new beginning for me — a life-changing lesson had been learnt and it made me become even more focused to achieve my dreams.
In my first big event as a pro I finished second at the SA Open. I had just got my Sunshine Tour card, so to do so well so early on was great. It gave me experience playing against the best golfers in Europe and made me even more determined to achieve my goals. In 2017 I secured my European Tour card after a season on the Sunshine Tour where I won Rookie of the Year.
I retained my card in the 2018 season and had some solid results. However, I still feel I have so much more to come. It’s been a huge learning process. I’ve made mistakes but every tournament that passes I learn more and the next goal for me is to win on the European Tour, qualify for majors and I would love to be heading to Portrush this summer.”