He started the final round of the Estrella Damm N.A. Andalucia Masters five shots clear of the field. And the final margin of victory was six over a five-strong group that included playing partner Jon Rahm. So, a reasonably straightforward day at Real Club Valderrama in Spain for Christiaan Bezuidenhout, no?
Quite apart from the fact his closing 72 was an up-and-down-and-up-again mixture of seven pars, five birdies and six bogeys, the 25-year-old South African’s maiden European Tour victory represents much more than a long-anticipated breakthrough at the highest level. One perk coming his way, for example, will be an emotional trip to Royal Portrush for next month’s Open Championship.
And therein lies a tale of irony and redemption.
Five years ago, Bezuidenhout was at Portrush as a 20-year-old competing in the British Amateur. After his opening round, he was summoned for a drug test, before which he detailed his long-term use of beta blockers to combat anxiety and the effects of a stutter brought on by his accidental ingestion of rat poison as a toddler. Two months later—and two days before he was due to play for South Africa at the World Amateur Team Championship—word came that he had failed the test. Bezuidenhout was harshly banned for two years, although that was later reduced to nine months.
“It was awful,” Bezuidenhout revealed in a European Tour blog earlier this year. “I had spent my whole amateur career working to get into that [WATC] to represent my nation. It was a huge goal of mine to be selected [to] the team. 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.”
Still, the dark times that followed his banishment have been replaced by a bright future for this graduate of the Ernie Els Foundation in his homeland. Boosted by a call from Els on Saturday night, Bezuidenhout was only briefly rattled over the final 18 holes. After starting with a brace of birdies, he stumbled with four bogeys in the next five holes, but steadied when a 10-foot putt for par disappeared on the eighth green. Three birdies in four holes followed, putting the eventual result beyond doubt.
“I am proud of myself, how I hung in there,” Bezuidenhout said after posting a 10-under 273 total, the lingering hesitation in the cadence of his voice still evident. “There was a tough stretch in the middle of the round, but the putt on eight kept momentum on my side. That settled me down. I knew that all I had to do was keep hitting greens and the rest would take care of itself. But this is a difficult course, and anything could happen. I had to hit decent shots just to make pars. And I did. I’m really pleased with how I played. To finish it off like this is unbelievable.”
A little further down the leader board, tournament host Sergio Garcia came up short in his bid for a third successive victory in the event. A final-round 70 saw the former Masters champion pull up alone in seventh place. Not bad. But the Spaniard wasn’t half as happy as former European Ryder Cup skipper Thomas Bjorn. On the course where he made his Ryder Cup debut in 1997, the 48-year-old Dane’s T-8 finish was his first top-10 on the European Tour since August 2014.