WILD COAST – His margin of victory was eventually four strokes, but Jean Hugo was hanging on for dear life as he won the Wild Coast Sun Challenge on Friday at the Wild Coast Sun Country Club.
It was the 19th Sunshine Tour title for the 43-year-old, but his last in 2015 seemed a long way off as he fought to maintain the five-shot lead he started the day with, as Clinton Grobler, Hennie du Plessis and Ruan de Smidt did their best to chase him down while he carded a four-over-par 74.
“I wasn’t sure if you’d given me 74 at the beginning of the day that I would have taken it,” said Hugo. “I could have played better today, but it’s a step in the right direction for me. The way I played the last four or five holes, it was great. It was probably the toughest stretch we’ll get this year.”
It was made tough but the inevitable challenge of playing golf at the coast: A wind that made scoring very difficult on a day on which three-under 67 was the best score.
“It was a pretty brutal day,” said Hugo. “It was the first time we got the wind from this direction this week and it was quite heavy. To start out, it was very tough to judge how strong it was and I knew that for a few holes on the front nine it was going to be very testing. It did catch us and even the downwind holes weren’t that easy, and putting becomes very difficult with this wind.”
A bogey on his first hole would have dented his confidence, and two more by the time he reached the sixth would have reminded him that he had five missed cuts this season, and just one top-10 finish – an anomaly in a glittering career.
But his experience made him grit his teeth and battle on.
“I tried not to look at what was going on with the people around me,” he said. “If I was playing great, I wouldn’t have had a look because I would have been far ahead. I had a look at 12, and I still had a three or four-shot lead.
“Then Ruan had a few birdies coming in, so it was between myself and him. A two-shot lead playing the last hole is never enough for this course.”
That a small lead is not enough was clearly demonstrated when De Smidt made a double-bogey six on the last, after birdieing the 17th to slip back into a three-way share of second instead of second on his own.
Grobler closed with a great 68 to get a little closer to the top of the Rookie of the Year race, and Hennie du Plessis sealed a satisfying return from injury with a 68 of his own.
Titch Moore, Estiaan Conradie, Luke Jerling and Jaco Ahlers shared fifth a further shot back at six-under for the tournament, while Neil Schietekat, Jonathan Agren of Sweden, Jacques Blaauw and Merrick Bremner rounded out the top-10.
For Hugo, who edges closer to John Bland’s 21 Sunshine Tour victories in fifth place on the list of most wins, this was as good as it has ever been for him in his career. “This feels just as special as the first one,” he said. “I’ll remember this for a long time. It was the first one for a long while, and it was the toughest, actually.
“I’ll just take my career as it comes from now. I’ve put a lot of pressure on myself for the last three or four years to keeping adding to the trophy cabinet. If I was off my game today, I could easily have lost it.
“If you give yourself a challenge and you pull it off, it’s quite satisfying.”