Journeys
November 29, 2020

Christiaan Bezuidenhout was once banned from amateur golf. Now he’s a two-time European Tour winner

Photograph by Jensen Larson

Editor's Note: This article first appeared in the Issue 10 (November Masters preview) of Golf Digest. On Sunday, Bezuidenthout rallied to win the Alfred Dunhill Championship in his native South Africa, his second career win on the European Tour.

CHRISTIAAN BEZUIDENHOUT (PRONOUNCED BA-ZADE-NOTE)
EUROPEAN TOUR
AGE 26
LIVES DELMAS / SOUTH AFRICA

I was 2 years old when it happened. My memory doesn’t go back that far, but I’m told I was in the grocery store with my parents, and there was a soda bottle on the ground. I picked it up and drank from it. It wasn’t soda, it was rat poison. When my parents turned around, I was already unconscious on the ground. They rushed me to the hospital, and I spent weeks in the ICU. The doctors said I almost died. That rat poison affected my whole nervous system. Ever since, I’ve had a stutter.

The stutter made things at school hard. I didn’t like to speak. I didn’t want to get made fun of. It was also a challenge with golf. I started swinging a club when I was 4 and playing tournaments when I was 8. At tournaments, you have to talk to people. And if you won, you had to speak in front of everyone. In those situations, I’d tense up, hit a blank and not be able to get words out. The anxiety it created was awful. My doctor put me on beta blockers to help keep me calm in situations like that, and it helped. But it derailed my golf career.

At the 2014 British Amateur, I took a drug test, and they found a substance in the medication that was banned for golf. We obviously didn’t know it was illegal. I had been using the medication for 10-plus years and had no idea. I got banned for two years from all competitive golf. It was a shock. I was hurt and confused. I’d stayed amateur that year just to play for the Eisenhower Trophy for South Africa. I worked my entire amateur career for that tournament, and then I couldn’t play it.

I was heartbroken. I took a couple weeks off to reflect on what happened, to try to sort it out with the national team and clear my name. That was the worst part, being treated like I was a cheater when I didn’t even know what I did was against the rules. Luckily I had the right people on my side, we got my name cleared and my ban shortened to nine months. I was 21 years old, and I turned professional. I gave my game my full attention, did a lot of short-game work, kept my play sharp. I knew I would return. When I came back to competitive golf, I wanted to be ready to try to dominate. My first event back was an event on the Big Easy Tour, a mini-tour in South Africa. I won by five.

That winter I got my card for the Sunshine Tour, a developmental tour in South Africa. I also played some Challenge Tour events in 2016. That’s where I hit a tough patch. I was there for seven months, traveling alone, week after week, driving to tournaments in the middle of Europe. I didn’t know the places, the people, the language, the golf courses. I was staying in some pretty average hotels. I made like one out of nine cuts. I spoke to my management company and told them: “I need to go home. I’m losing my game here. I’m in a bad frame of mind. I need to go back home, reset, work with my coach, see my family, get myself back.”

Two months later I went to qualifying school and got my European Tour card. Looking back now, it was a great decision to leave in the middle of the season. Even though there were 10 tournaments left, I know when I have to listen to my body and mind, when to keep going, when to stop.

I kept my card after that first season on the European Tour and got my first win in 2019. I was playing in the Andalucia Masters in Spain and had a five-shot lead over Jon Rahm when we started the final round, playing together. I was leading by seven at one point, and five holes later I had a two-shot lead. I remember feeling the momentum shift toward him, and then after I made a big putt to maintain the two-shot lead, I felt it move back to me. It didn’t shift again after that putt. To win your first European Tour title under that kind of pressure, against one of the best players in the world, in his home country, was a huge boost to my confidence.

Ben Walton

When it happens, it happens fast. A few good tournaments on the European Tour, and your World Ranking shoots up. I’m still just a member of the European Tour, but I’m getting starts at PGA Tour events and an invitation to the 2020 Masters. These dreams I’ve had my whole life—big, difficult dreams—are coming true faster than I ever imagined.

The build-up and the hype for PGA Tour events, the way the tournaments are run, the courses, it’s a different environment from the European Tour. I love the States. I would really like to play here and base myself here. I’m not playing as well as I know I can. My game is just starting to feel right again after the lockdown ended. I was home in South Africa for three months after the Players. I live on a golf course and couldn’t use any of the facilities. I’m happy to be back in Florida playing again.

I haven’t taken the beta-blocker medication since that drug test result back in 2014, and honestly, I don’t feel a diff erence in myself. Speaking to reporters and things like that with my stutter don’t bother me like they used to. I can finally function without it. —WITH KEELY LEVINS