Players 2020: Rat poison, anxiety and failed drug test haven't stopped young South African

The PLAYERS Championship - Round One

Matt Sullivan

PONTE VEDRA BEACH — Say it with me: "Buh - zay - din - hote." If golf is going to be the only sport on television this weekend, it's a pronunciation you're going to want to become familiar with.

The actual spelling is Bezuidenhout, as in South Africa's Christiaan Bezuidenhout, who shot a first-round 65 Thursday in his first-ever round of the Players Championship. Impressive stuff. Even more impressive is the story of how the 25-year-old got to this point.

In a player blog posted to the European Tour's website last March, Bezuidenhout revealed the harrowing tale of the time he inadvertently drank rat poison as a baby. "I was two and a half years old and I was playing outside when I picked up a random Coke bottle," he wrote. "I took a drink of it thinking it was indeed Coke, however it actually contained rat poison. It was a moment which would change my life forever."

Bezuidenhout was rushed to the hospital, where doctors pumped his stomach. He survived, but the poison spread throughout his nervous system. He is still affected by the incident 23 years later—most noticeably in the way he stutters when he speaks.

"It's just my stuttering—it just affects my speaking and stuff, nothing else, really," Bezuidenhout said after his bogey-free first round. "On the course, everything's fine, all my nerves and stuff, and control."

It wasn't always that way. His stutter led to him developing severe cases of anxiety and depression. When Bezuidenhout was 14, a doctor prescribed him medication to treat those issues. He didn't know it at the time, but that would lead to more issues in the not-so-distant future.

In 2014, Bezuidenhout was randomly selected to take a drug test after the first round of the British Amateur at Royal Portrush. The medication to treat his anxiety contained beta blockers, causing him to fail the test. He was given a two-year suspension that was later reduced to nine months.

"It felt like my life was over," he wrote in the blog.

Bezuidenhout was able to pick himself up, winning the Sunshine Tour's Sun Fish River Challenge in 2016 and eventually capturing Rookie of the Year on the Sunshine. That earned him membership on the European circuit, which he has made the most of in the past 12 months.

At the 2019 Oman Open last March, Bezuidenhout was 576th in the Official World Golf Ranking. He's currently 48th on the strength of seven top-10 finishes on the European Tour, including a victory at the Andalucía Masters last June.

His standing in the OWGR earned him a spot in the Players Championship, marking his fifth start on the PGA Tour. Last week, Bezuidenhout flashed on the leader board on Thursday and Friday at Bay Hill, eventually finishing in a tie for 18th. This week, he's two strokes back of Hideki Matsuyama, who shot a course-record-tying 63 on Thursday.

With everything he's been through, the 17th tee at Sawgrass should hardly register on the "nerves" scale. But he'd be lying if he said he wasn't feeling some.

"I was pretty nervous, in between clubs there. It's never good to hit a half shot there, you want to just go straight to the tee and commit to a full shot. Great to walk off there with a 3. Hopefully I can do the same over the next couple of days."

More of the same from Thursday should keep Bezuidenhout in the mix on the weekend, which would get him one step closer to a trip to the Masters. To get in, he needs to be among the top 50 on the OWGR on March 30.

"Yeah, it's obviously in the back of my mind," he said. "But it's a goal for me starting the year off to finish the end of the season in the top 50 in the world to qualify for next year's Masters, so if I do it now it's obviously a bonus, and I'll obviously try and keep on playing well to give myself that opportunity to be there."

If and when he gets into the Masters field, he'll certainly be a name to watch in the season's first major. Just make sure you know how to pronounce it first.