Charl Schwartzel lived up to his reputation as one of the most exciting talents to come out of South Africa in recent years when, in front of his home supporters, the 20 year old beat England’s Neil Cheetham at the first hole of a sudden-death play-off to win the dunhill championship at the Leopard Creek Golf Club to claim his maiden victory on The European Tour International Schedule.
Watched by European Tour Executive Director Designate George O'Grady (pictured above with Johan Rupert, Chairman of the Board of the Sunshine Tour, Johan Immelman, Commissioner of the Sunshine Tour, and Ernie Els), both players ended regulation play on seven under par 281 after an enthralling final afternoon on the Gary Player-designed course which borders the Kruger National Park in Mpumalanga, Cheetham carding a 73, while Schwartzel posted a 71. But when they returned moments later to the 541 yard 18th, it was the South African who was celebrating.
Ironically it was Cheetham, who bravely eagled the final hole in the Qualifying School Finals at San Roque last month to get his card for the 2005 season and who had led going into the final round, who produced the perfect drive, straight down the middle, while Schwartzel just managed to avoid the trees after he pushed his tee shot to the right.
The Englishman played first and found the left half of the green before the South African just managed to stop his ball before it rolled into the water at the back of the putting surface. Cheetham putted up to eight feet but missed his birdie putt, leaving Schwartzel, who had pitched to five feet, to hole for the title which he duly did.
“It was a good chip shot there in the play-off considering I was as nervous as hell!” admitted Schwartzel, who picked up €120,576 (£83,330) to move to the top of The European Tour Order of Merit. “But shots like that and positions like that are what you practice for, so I am very, very happy.
“It is a wonderful feeling to have won and especially to do it here in front of so many of my friends and family. To get my first win in South Africa is just unbelievable.”
The new champion became the second first time winner of the 2005 season and, incredibly, the sixth first time winner in succession of the dunhill championship, following in the footsteps of Anthony Wall, Adam Scott, Justin Rose, Mark Foster and Marcel Siem.
Schwartzel had the chance to win the tournament outright in regulation, but he three putted the 17th to make bogey five and also three putted the 18th for par. Cheetham meanwhile, looked to be slipping out of contention when his hesitancy on the pace of his putts saw him three putt both the 15th and 16th holes for bogeys.
However, the 37 year old, who was last on Tour in 2001, redeemed himself in style on the 72nd hole. Having left his putt for eagle eight feet short, he belied what had happened before with a confident strike into the back of the hole for a birdie four to ensure his place in the play-off.
The duo finished one shot ahead of three players, qualifier Warren Abery, pre-tournament favourite Ernie Els and England’s Oliver Whiteley with defending champion Marcel Siem and David Frost a further shot adrift on five under par 283.
But it was appropriate that the denouement featured Cheetham and Schwartzel who, throughout the afternoon in the co-sanctioned event with the Sunshine Tour, had been permanent fixtures in the highest positions on the leaderboard. Turning into the back nine, they stood two shots clear of the field and although several players tried to close the gap on the run for home, none succeeded.
First to try was Whiteley, who missed his card by one shot at the Qualifying School Finals in San Roque last month, but who performed stoically throughout the final afternoon for a 71.
Birdies at the tenth and 14th moved him to within a shot of the lead but when he drove out of bounds at the 15th, his chance looked to have gone. But the 27 year old bravely parred the next two holes and had an eagle chance at the last to book his place in the play-off, but the putt stayed above ground.
Abery, the former South African amateur champion, who came through the Monday qualifying tournament at the Centurion Country Club, had not really featured on the upper echelons of the leaderboard for most of the day, but birdies at the 15th and 18th gave him a 70 and elevated him to a share of third.
Completing the trio in that position was the heavily-backed pre-tournament favourite Els, who nearly gave his supporters the win they wanted with a closing round 70.
Everyone around the Leopard Creek course expected a last day charge from the World Number Three but he simply could not find the range and distance with his putts in the opening stages of the final round.
The winner of the Volvo Order of Merit in both 2003 and 2004 was two over par for his round through 11 holes and six shots off the pace and although he did mount somewhat of a recovery on the inward half it was too little too late.
Five birdies in his last seven holes gave him a chance but a bogey four at the short 16th, where he found a greenside bunker with his tee shot and failed to get up and down, ultimately cost him a place in the play-off.