JOHANNESBURG – Defending champion Louis Oosthuizen made a fast start, as did his 18-year-old amateur sensation playing partner Jayden Schaper, but American Johannes Veerman put together an even faster finish for the first round lead in the South African Open hosted by the City of Joburg at Randpark Thursday.
Oosthuizen, who is also the tournament host, birdied three of the first five holes on his way to a 65 on the par-71 Bushwillow course, while 27-year-old Veerman – also on Bushwillow – blitzed the back nine with seven birdies which added up to a sizzling inward half of just 29 strokes, and a nine-under-par round of 62.
Coincidentally, Oosthuizen also opened with a 62 on Bushwillow en route to a six-stroke victory last summer, before breaking out in tears such was his emotion at realising a life-long dream of winning the SA Open, which is co-sanctioned with the European Tour, for the first time.
Overcast, wind-free conditions and receptive greens made for a day of low scoring Thursday, especially on Bushwillow where South Africa's JC Ritchie and Italy’s Nino Bertasio also signed for 63s, and SA trio Toto Thimba, Rourke van der Spuy and Peter Karmis, and Chile's Matias Calderon and England’s Sam Horsfield were home in 64. “It wasn’t THAT easy out there,“ insisted Thimba with a smile, “but my golf made it look easy!”
On the adjacent, more difficult par-71 Firethorn course South Africa's Branden Grace did best with an outstanding seven-under 64, one better than compatriot George Coetzee who was with a group on 65. Coetzee actually got it to eight-under through 14 holes after making eagle at the par-5 14th, but he double-bogeyed the par-4 16th to give back two shots.
Grace was particularly upbeat: "I took the chances that came my way and to start the year with a 64, especially bogey-free, on a demanding course like Firethorn, was great. I was aggressive off the tee and I putted really well. I so badly want to win the SA Open. Not only is it our national open but it's the one missing from my CV." He had seven birdies and felt the best of these was at the tough par-4 18th where he hit a big four-wood down the middle, a seven-iron to 10 feet and rolled in the putt.
Veerman, the son of a Dutch father and Indonesian mother, was born in California but spent his formative years in south-east Asia before attending college in the US and then turning professional. He earned his playing privileges for the 2020 European Tour at Q-School late last year and quickly made an impact with top 10s in the Alfred Dunhill Championship at Leopard Creek and the Australian PGA.
“There was a low score out there today because of the conditions, and I made the most of it, especially on the back nine where I really came alive,” said the tall, 6ft4 American.
Oosthuizen’s pre-tournament flight into Johannesburg was delayed so he wasn’t even able to have a practice round on Bushwillow. “On top of that I was bit rusty after the Christmas break but I actually drove it nicely, and I soon remembered from last year what the lines were and where to hit my shots.”
The 2010 Major champion couldn’t say enough in praise about Schaper, also round in 65 Thursday and who last year claimed the SA strokeplay title at De Zalze which included a 63. And topping all else which he achieved in 2019, he won the Junior Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass in America which – in terms of junior world ranking points – is the biggest junior tournament in the world.
“Jayden’s an unreal talent,” said Oosthuizen. “I love his ball flight off the tee with a little cut. That’s control for you. Believe me, he’s going to be up there with the very best in the years to come.”
Jayden has his father Ryan on the bag and while Schaper senior is 45 he looks 35 because he’s so fit. He played football for Jomo Cosmos in his younger days and today rides in demanding cycle races like the Cape Epic.
“My Dad’s also a decent golfer and understands how I think and what I’m doing out on the golf course so he’s just the perfect caddie and a great help,” says Jayden who, never intimidated by playing partners Oosthuizen and Christiaan Bezuidenout, birdied his first two holes before driving the green at the 310m par-4 fifth hole and rolling in a 40-footer across the green for an eagle two.
That put him four under through five. Fast start in the first SA Open for Team Schaper? You bet.