Christiaan Bezuidenhout on the frustrations of being in the form of his life before lockdown
"The shutdown happened at a really bad time for me, but it's the same for everyone. I was in a really good place with my golf, and everything else, but I've not seen a ball-flight for seven weeks"
By Keith Jackson
Last Updated: 07/05/20 5:30pm
Christiaan Bezuidenhout was on a roll. Guaranteed a Masters debut, he was starting to make waves on the PGA Tour and shot 65 in his first ever round at TPC Sawgrass. Now, he is one of the most frustrated pros in the world.
There will, undoubtedly, be many claimants for that particular title, but how many of those were in the form of their lives when the coronavirus pandemic forced a global shutdown of golf - and sport? Do any of them live on a golf estate but are not permitted to play golf? How many climbed from 576th in the world rankings and broke into the top 50 in less than a year?
Bezuidenhout achieved that with some high-quality performances throughout 2019, including his maiden European Tour title at Valderrama, and he took that momentum into 2020 and came within a whisker of pinching the Omega Dubai Desert Classic crown away from Lucas Herbert, who would prevail at the second extra hole.
The sweet-swinging South African star landed his second Sunshine Tour victory at the Dimension Data Pro-Am, where he opened with a sensational 61, acquitted himself well in Mexico in just his second start in a WGC field, but his first taste of the Florida Swing on the PGA Tour was curtailed after five rounds.
Bezuidenhout was in contention in brutal conditions at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and enjoyed being paired with world No 1 Rory McIlroy for a final round which did not go to plan for either of them, and it was Modest Golf stablemate Tyrrell Hatton who laid claim to the title of "Most Recent PGA Tour Champion" - a distinction he will hold until June at the earliest.
"The final day at Bay Hill was really tough," said Bezuidenhout, whose amazing back story came out shortly after his victory in Spain as he opened up about how he has dealt with anxiety and a stammer since accidentally drinking rat poison as a toddler.
"I played with Rory McIlroy, and both of us just couldn't get it going. It was just one of those rounds where we couldn't play well enough to keep ourselves in contention. And when you're playing in conditions that tough, it's easy for everything to just get away from you far quicker than it normally would if you aren't quite on top of your game.
"But I put it behind me as I headed to Sawgrass for the first time, and as soon as I'd played a few holes there I remember telling my coach that I really liked the course and I was going to have a good week, and I certainly got off to a really good start."
I'd say that is a contender for understatement of the year so far. Bezuidenhout birdied four of the first six holes and picked up three more shots on the back nine, keeping a bogey at bay in his first competitive round at the Stadium Course to end the day - and the tournament - at seven under par.
And I can testify that his classy, elegant swing and pure, crisp ball-striking was attracting plenty of attention behind the viewer-friendly practice range at Sawgrass, but that is embraced rather than feared by the current world No 47, who celebrates his 26th birthday mid month.
"I've always been pretty level-headed in any situation, so it's actually exciting to have a few extra people behind my on the range or following me on the course. When that happens, you know you must be doing something right. It's nice to feed off the crowds and, when you're playing well, you can use that energy and turn it into momentum."
That 65 would ultimately be stricken from the record books after the PGA Tour's flagship event was abandoned after one day, and Bezuidenhout made the lengthy journey back to his home on the Serengeti Golf Estate on the outskirts of Johannesburg.
A few days later, Bezuidenhout whisked his girlfriend, Kristen Hart, off for a break to the Delaire Graff Estate in Stellenbosch, where she would soon become his fiancee before the newly-engaged couple were forced to return home when South Africa's strict lockdown rules came into effect.
"I've just been chilling out, hitting balls into a net, and that's about it. I haven't really practised my short game much, I've focused on keeping my body moving by hitting full shots into a net each day. The lockdown rules in South Africa have been very strict. I actually live on a golf estate, so not being allowed to go onto the course is very frustrating.
"The shutdown happened at a really bad time for me, but I can accept it's the same for everyone. I was in a really good place with my golf, and everything else, so I'm trying to do something every day to keep myself sharp and hopefully be in the same place when we're ready to go again."
There is one further frustration for Bezuidenhout to consider, as he faces the uncertainty of when he will be able to resume competition in the United States amid the prospect of travel restrictions still being in place when the PGA Tour restarts in Texas in June.
"I'd love to be there playing, but at this moment I just don't know if I'll be permitted to travel by then, so there's a good chance I'll have to miss a couple of tournaments that I really want to play in.
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"All the pros just want to get back out playing again, with or without spectators. Obviously it will be different not having any fans and it will take some getting used to, but it's better to have the excitement of being back out there competing.
"I just want to get my game and my swing back to where it was before lockdown. I've not seen a ball-flight for seven weeks because I've only been able to hit balls into a net. It's been frustrating for all of us, but I'm looking forward to getting to events, seeing all my friends again and just enjoying being a professional golfer."