Dodging cobras, almost drowning, and how to shave 29 shots off your score
Charlotte Austwick tells all about her recent experiences
By Keith Jackson
Last Updated: 20/03/19 9:50pm
When you are playing in your first Ladies European Tour event, shooting 103 is very far from the ideal start, but to come out the next day and shoot 74 represents a remarkable achievement. Yet, for Charlotte Austwick, this was a mere addition to a series of adventurous experiences in South Africa.
Since arriving in Johannesburg a few weeks ago, Austwick has survived a close encounter with a deadly cobra, almost drowned in a near-tragic swimming incident, contracted a form of pneumonia in the aftermath, qualified for her maiden LET appearance, fired 103, and shaved no fewer than 29 shots off that score a day later.
If you scripted all this and pitched an idea for a movie or docu-drama, you might be scoffed at for a lack of realistic integrity!
For Austwick, a 27-year-old Tadcaster native who is clearly bursting with trademark Yorkshire grit and determination, her diary entries over the last couple of months make for inspired, and at-times frightening, reading.
"You could say my time in South Africa has been adventurous," she said with more than a tinge of understatement, more of which to follow. "My first week here, I almost stepped on a baby snake on the golf course. I was keen to take a picture, and it was only when I zoomed in that it became clear the snake was a cobra."
For those with limited knowledge of African wildlife, a young cobra possesses a full head of venom and is likely to be more aggressive when frightened than its parents. "We moved away rather quickly and didn't really think anything of it, but when I shared the picture later we got a fair shock. My mum had googled how dangerous baby cobras are, and gave me quite the telling off!"
But if Austwick thought that would be her only moment of misfortune on this trip, which she self-funded by working part-time as an assistant accountant and also behind a bar at York Racecourse, she would be sadly mistaken.
My first week here, I almost stepped on a baby snake on the golf course. I was keen to take a picture, and it was only when I zoomed in that it became clear the snake was a cobra
After travelling to the east coast ahead of the South African Women's Masters at San Lameer Country Club, a sunset dip in the ocean at the nearby Marina Beach almost had catastrophic consequences.
Having been swept out to sea by the strengthening current, Austwick spent the longest half hour of her life unsuccessfully trying to swim back to shore before her screams were heard by diners in the beach restaurant, the proprietor of which was the first to arrive.
"I had lunch with him a few days later, and he said he could not have lived with himself if he had done nothing. He had stripped off and swam out unaided, just to support me until more rescuers arrived, this time with a torpedo-shaped buoy that I was able to cling onto as I was pulled in.
"I was actually reasonably calm throughout the ordeal, and I didn't really reach panic mode until I was safely back on the beach, collapsed in a heap. I was rushed straight to hospital, where an X-ray revealed water in my lungs, so I was kept in overnight and discharged with a clear X-ray the next day."
That, however, was not quite the end of the ordeal.
"Despite what had happened, I was determined to play that week and get back to business. I went to practise, but I was having breathing difficulties just from walking around normally. I went back to the hospital and paid for a CT scan, and it was lucky I did because I was diagnosed with pneumonitis, a form of pneumonia that occurs when the lungs have been irritated.
"I was hooked up to a drip, fed some more anti-biotics, and I was finally discharged on the Friday."
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Unsurprisingly, and understandably, Austwick described her game as "up and down" the following week as she returned to her day job. "I tried to play, and I played okay in practice, but my head was all over the place and I really struggled to focus properly on my game."
So when she arrived in Cape Town for the South African Women's Open, her prospects of getting through Monday qualifying, in some of the worst rainfall to hit the region for five years, looked bleak, to say the least.
But, in another hard-to-explain twist in this tale: "I managed to shoot five over par and qualified for the main tournament comfortably."
Midway through her Ladies European Tour debut, she could have been forgiven for wishing she had not played so well in qualifying, although Austwick has little recollection of the round which is believed to be the highest score in an LET-sanctioned event.
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"It was all a bit of a blur, and I actually thought I was going to be withdrawn," she said, in reference to the LET regulations which state that if you are 16 over par, or higher, for one round, then you get pulled from the tournament.
"I'm not one to retire, so I thought I'd just carry on playing and see the round out. I wasn't injured or anything, I was just having a bad day! And the fierce winds didn't help.
"There were only two girls under par after round one, and they were in the morning wave when the wind wasn't quite as strong. I was out in the afternoon, in crosswinds, swirling winds, headwinds - basically the worst conditions possible."
Was she driven on by the fear of not breaking three figures?
"Honestly, I never even gave it a thought. I kept trying, but the harder I tried, it seemed the worse it got. Drives which I thought were good would end up kicking off the fairways and into a bunker, or behind a tree, or both!
"I knew my score was pretty high after nine holes (53), but I was determined to claw it back on the second nine. It started okay with a par on 10, but then I doubled 11, parred the 12th, and then took nine at the par-five 13th. That was when I knew there was no coming back.
"I never really thought about what the final number might be until I added it up at the end, and that was a shock. It was just one of those days where I could not do anything right. And my putt on the 17th green summed up the day - a full-on horseshoe."
Austwick made her way to the scorers' hut, where she was prepared to be saved the formalities of adding up her score and signing her card - fully expecting to be excluded from the second round after an opening day in which she "lost a few balls, don't actually know how many!".
"It's not that simple," said the tournament director with a nod towards the window and the sight of trees bending close to snapping point. "We're ignoring the regulations today, have you seen the weather out there?"
I'd wager a sizeable amount of my hard-earned that the (vast) majority of professional golfers in Charlotte's position, being told they were clear to play in round two after handing in a 31-over-par scorecard, would have made their excuses and perhaps blamed an injury - or three.
She considered it a reprieve and a chance to silence the inevitable doubters and critics, not that she faced any direct negativity when she reflected on a tough day at the office with her well-chosen friends.
"I had a chat with a few girls afterwards and everyone had had a bad day, so there was no need to go into details. I got home, had dinner, drank a large glass of wine and slept well.
I never really thought about what the final number might be until I added it up at the end, and that was a shock. It was just one of those days where I could not do anything right.
"I was up and out bright and early on Friday morning, and I honestly had no thoughts of quitting. I'm certainly not one to fake an injury, I've had enough experience of the real thing having missed 2017 after ankle surgery. Oh, and then I was back in hospital having my appendix removed.
"This was a new day, and conditions were much better; sunny and a little breezy, but not even close to the fearsome winds we encountered the day before. I got to the course and had a really good warm-up on the range, and I just thought, 'let's go out and do something'".
She started with a par at the 10th, birdied 11, parred the 12th, birdied 13. Two under par and cruising, "something" was very much on.
"I hit it good, rolled in some great putts, and it was like I was a different person," added Austwick, who now leads the Ladies European Tour in understatements!
"I knew it couldn't get any worse, so I just played with more freedom and I was determined to enjoy it. I probably had a lot of people to prove wrong, but I was spurred on by all the support I've had from a lot of good people over the last few weeks.
"I had a bit of a blip in the middle of the round, but I got it back and I was confident of finishing level par for the day until I pulled a drive left at the eighth (her 17th) and couldn't find it. Obviously, I ripped the next one straight down the middle and made par with my second ball."
When she rattled in a 20-footer for her fifth birdie on her final hole, it was her 74th stroke of the day and prompted an inquiry to the same, possibly baffled, tournament director as to why there wasn't a prize on offer for the most improved player.
Whatever the case, whatever the conditions, whatever the tournament, to shave 29 shots off her first-round score is undoubtedly a comeback that, to my knowledge, has never been heard of on any professional golf Tour, and another addition to the "you couldn't make it up" series of events in Charlotte Austwick's Adventures in South Africa.
So what's in store next? Maybe a hole-in-one, a 59, or some crocodile wrestling perhaps?
"No thanks," she said during the relative monotony of practising for this week's latest stop on the Ladies Sunshine Tour at the beautiful Glendower Golf Club on the outskirts of Johannesburg.
"We'll be trying to avoid anything remotely dangerous from now on. No more snakes, and definitely no swimming, but maybe the odd dip in a Jacuzzi."
You can follow Charlotte Austwick's amazing, incident-packed journey via her own website and social media accounts.