Christiaan Bezuidenhout returns to Royal Portrush with a large measure of redemption.
Bezuidenhout, a 25-year-old South African, captured his first European Tour event last week in the Andalucía Masters at Valderrama when he outplayed Jon Rahm in the final round and turned a five-shot lead into a six-shot victory.
That earned him a spot in the British Open, and it brought into view how much he has overcome.
It started when he was a toddler and took a swig from a soda bottle, unaware it contained rat poison. He was rushed to hospital to have his stomach pumped, but the poison affected his nervous system. That led to a stutter, which led to a severe case of anxiety. He became withdrawn, fearful kids would make fun of his stutter.
A psychologist prescribed beta blockers to cope with anxiety. In a blog he wrote for the European Tour earlier this year, Bezuidenhout said he was slowly able to regain his confidence and enjoy life again. He became the No. 1 amateur in South Africa.
That led him to Royal Portrush in 2014 for the British Amateur, where Bezuidenhout was selected for drug testing. He told officials he had been on beta blockers since he was 14 because of anxiety from his poisoned nervous system and thought nothing of it.
Two months later, while preparing to represent South Africa in the prestigious Eisenhower Trophy, he was told the test came back positive and the International Golf Federation banned him for two years.
“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,” he wrote. “To be told two days before the event that I couldn’t go because of a two-year drug ban was simply too much for me to take in. It felt like my life was over. … 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,” he said. “I was banned from playing the only thing in the world I loved, the game of golf. I was inconsolable.”
After an appeal, the ban was reduced to nine months and officials confirmed he was not taking the medication to improve his performance.
He turned pro, and battled his way through mini-tours, the Sunshine Tour and then his European Tour card. Now in his second full year, Bezuidenhout already has five top 10s this year, including a runner-up finish in the Qatar Masters and his victory in Spain.
Bezuidenhout still speaks with a stammer, but he spoke with confidence during his post-round interview on television . His caddie the last four months has been Zack Raswego, who was on the bag for Louis Oosthuizen when he won the claret jug at St. Andrews in 2010.
The Open will be Bezuidenhout’s first major — at Royal Portrush, no less.
“It’s been a dream since I started playing golf to play in a major championship, and to play The Open … just makes it even more special,” he said.
FASSI AND OCHOA
Lorena Ochoa, Mexico’s greatest golfer, doesn’t always carry herself that way. Maria Fassi discovered that on their way to a clinic in the Mexican state of Coahuila.
“We were both flying from Mexico City to Torreon,” Fassi said. “She’s married to Aeromexico’s CEO (Andres Conesa), so she’s flying in first class, and I’m flying coach, as it should be.”
Waiting to board, she said Ochoa asked for her seat number. Fassi told her, and that was that.
“Weird question, but cool,” Fassi said. “We get on the plane, I go to my seat. She didn’t board at first. Boarding continues, and then she comes and sits next to me. I said, ‘What are you doing here?’ She said, ‘There wasn’t space for you in first class, so I had them switch me with the guy who was sitting next to you.’
“I mean, who does that?” Fassi said. “That’s the kind of person she is. Those are the things that inspired me more than watching her win. Those are things I want to be like. Those things say a lot more about her than however many times she won. It’s pretty special to have someone like her at my side.”
The last 10 years of major championships reveal a list of usual suspects when it comes to contenders. Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth have had at least a share of the lead after any round 17 times, the most of anyone over the last 40 majors. That includes the final round (four for McIlroy, three for Spieth).
They are followed by four-time major champion Brooks Koepka (13) and Dustin Johnson (11), the only other players in double figures.
Kevin Kisner has been atop the leaderboard six times in the last eight majors but never the final round. He had at least a share of the lead after the opening three rounds at Quail Hollow for the 2017 PGA Championship and at Carnoustie for the 2018 British Open.
The other side of the equation features Justin Thomas, Danny Willett, Ernie Els, Webb Simpson, Charl Schwartzel and Y.E. Yang. They have had the lead in majors just one time over the last 10 years, but it was the most important round — the last one.
With just under two months left in Solheim Cup qualifying, Lexi Thompson, Danielle Kang and Nelly Korda have clinched spots on the U.S. team.
The top eight from the U.S. standings after the Canadian Women’s Open on Aug. 25 automatically make the team for Scotland, along with the top two available players from the women’s world ranking. Juli Inkster then gets two captain’s picks.
Brittany Altomare finished fifth last week in Arkansas, moving her up to No. 8 in the standings, and bumping Cristie Kerr.
Kerr has played in every Solheim Cup dating to 2002, and one more appearance would break the U.S. record she shares with Inkster. Still to come in the final seven events are two majors, the Evian Championships and the Women’s British Open.
Also missing from the standings are Stacy Lewis and Gerina Piller, who each missed a big chunk of time to start a family. Piller holed the pivotal putt in Germany four years ago in Inkster’s first time as captain.
“They have certainly played well enough in their returns to get my attention,” Inkster said.
Subscribers to “GOLFPASS” will be able to get live streaming of Rory McIlroy from all four rounds of the Scottish Open next week. McIlroy in February launched the direct-to-consumer subscription program. GOLFPASS members in the United States, Canada, the UK or Ireland will have access to four hours of livestream each round and can follow McIlroy in a featured group. … The 3M Open in Minnesota has a $6.4 million purse. Only three other PGA Tour events that offer full FedEx Cup points have a small purse. Amazingly, the 3M Open still managed to attract Brooks Koepka, Phil Mickelson, Jason Day and Bryson DeChambeau. … . According to the 15th Club website, the 1,895 birdies at Detroit Golf Club were the most of any course on the PGA Tour this season.
STAT OF THE WEEK
Zach Johnson dropped to No. 103 in the world, his first time out of the top 100 in the world ranking since his first PGA Tour victory 15 years ago.
“Do I know that I have the links golf experience? Yes. Do I think I could do well here? Absolutely. Does that mean anything? No.” — Russell Knox, who defends his title in the Irish Open at Lahinch Golf Club.