CAPE TOWN - The exceptionally hard and dry fairways at Carnoustie in the first round of The Open Championship were running fast on Thursday - super fast, like airport runways - and, fittingly, three South Africans, Erik van Rooyen, Zander Lombard and Brandon Stone “took off” beautifully and were soon flying with the birdies.
Van Rooyen, playing in his first Open - his first Major in fact - signed for a four-under-par 67 which at that stage gave him the clubhouse lead. Stone, winner of last week’s Scottish Open with a sensational final round 60, was home in three-under 68 and he, like Van Rooyen, was one of the earlier finishers on a relatively golf-friendly day on the hallowed turf where the game has been played for over 400 years.
Later in the day, just as Tiger Woods, who had a late tee-off time, was opening with a birdie three, 23-year-old Lombard also completed his round in 67 strokes - wonderful golf, and a mix of great ball-striking and a delicate touch on the greens. At that stage Van Rooyen and Lombard were just one back from leader Kevin Kisner from the US.
Earlier this year, Lombard sadly missed 10 cuts in 11 starts. Then, in last week’s Scottish Open at Gullane where Stone was on such a roll, the young Pretoria pro finally hit form to finish in the top three among the players not exempt for The Open, and therefore booked himself a coveted ticket for Carnoustie. How fortunes can change in golf.
As everyone who follows this game knows, Carnoustie is known as “Car-nasty” because under normal circumstances it is so brutally tough, and the last four holes - a par 4, a ridiculously long 252-yard par-3, and two treacherous par-4s to close off with, are said to constitute the toughest closing stretch in the game.
So for all three South Africans to complete these four holes in level par, when so much can go wrong, with the cruel Barry Burn snaking its way through 17 and 18 seemingly at every turn, was impressive to say the least.
Okay, Thursday was a little different because the ball was bounding for ever down the hard fairways, the rough is not too thick, and the superb putting surfaces are rolling very true. But still, two 67s and a 68 from three of our boys, all pretty inexperienced at Major level, deserve plenty of credit.
Van Rooyen came close to winning the Irish Open two Sundays back (he tied for fourth after taking a four-shot lead into the final round) and is playing with plenty of confidence, as is Stone, while Lombard - at least for 18 holes on Thursday - outshone some of the game’s greats.
Van Rooyen, Lombard and Stone have “taken off” really well at Carnoustie. Hopefully, they will also “land” smoothly come Sunday afternoon. Lombard, incidentally, dropped his only shot of the day at the par-4 10th hole, which goes by the name of South America. Why so?
Well Scotland has always been big into golf and even as far back as the late 19th Century the country was producing a large number of players of a professional standard. But many could not earn a decent living at home so when golf became the rage in the US, there existed a pool of experienced professionals keen to emigrate to the New World.
Even little Carnoustie, basically a one-street town, sent over about 100 professionals across the Atlantic. One fellow was given a rip-roaring farewell at Carnoustie before, having over-indulged, he staggered out onto the course and fell asleep on the turf on the 10th hole.
When he woke up the next morning in a daze he thought he was already in South America and picked out a site to build a home before he realised where he was. Happily for him he did go on to emigrate to Argentina and lived there for the rest of his life, but the par-4 10th hole at Carnoustie has been known as South America ever since.