Farmhand Schwartzel reaps what he has sown

4/11/2011 4:44:21 PM
2010 Champion Phil Mickelson (L) shakes hands with the new champion, Charl Schwartzel   (Getty Images)
2010 Champion Phil Mickelson (L) shakes hands with the new champion, Charl Schwartzel (Getty Images)

From driving tractors as a youngster on the family farm in South Africa to slipping on the famous Green Jacket after winning one of the most absorbing Masters Tournaments in recent history, Charl Schwartzel’s route to becoming a Major Champion has been rather unconventional.

Along the way, he has eagerly sought advice from some of the game’s greats, including Jack Nicklaus, Nick Price and his hero and mentor Ernie Els, who took a fresh-faced Schwartzel under his wing as an affiliate member of his junior golf foundation – which is also where he first crossed paths with his close friend and now fellow Major Champion Louis Oosthuizen.

But the person most responsible for making Schwartzel the player – and indeed man – he is today is his father George who, after rising at dawn to feed the chickens, collect their eggs and harvest the corn crop, would take his young son with him to their local club some 40 miles east of Johannesburg.
   
As much as Schwartzel enjoyed ploughing the fields on his tractor, he relished the thrice-weekly trips to the golf course even more.    

The 26 year old recalled: “My Dad was a big golfer – he used to play on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, just about every single week. I used to caddie for him on the Wednesday and Saturday competitions and played with him on the Fridays, so that’s how it started.

“He put endless time into my game – it was never an effort for him. He taught me my golf swing. He made it very simple for me, which I believe is a fantastic recipe – when you get too technical, things can become difficult. As simple as possible works under pressure.

“He taught me from the word go the right grip, stance, rhythm, posture and balance. They’re the five key things that we always worked on. I kept repeating that to myself during the final round, and it helped to keep me calm. So I’d like to dedicate my win to my Dad, because I owe him so much.”

One of the highlights of Schwartzel Senior’s relatively moderate golfing career was when, in 1987, he partnered Els to victory in a better-ball tournament held in their native South Africa.

As Charl was just three at the time he was unable to personally witness his father’s crowning glory, but George recounted the story numerous times on their annual outing to the Gary Player Country Club in Sun City to watch the Million Dollar Challenge, where Charl met Els for the first time.

Schwartzel freely admits to feeling starstruck during his first encounter with his idol, whose swing he had tried to mimic through watching endless hours of videotape. When Els saw Schwartzel play for the first time he immediately recognised his potential and, aided by his association with the Ernie Els Foundation, the youngster soon made rapid progress through the junior ranks.

Speaking of Schwartzel last year, Els recalled: “He was such a good kid, and still is. He hasn’t really changed much – he’s just a really, really straight, down-to-earth guy. He doesn’t do any crazy things, and he’s always been a very hard worker. He used to ask a lot of questions, which I liked, because it showed he was always so keen to learn.

“He won everything as a junior, and so was very similar to Trevor Immelman in that respect. But if anything he’s probably even more impressive than Trevor, because he’s longer. Even as a youngster, he always hit the ball a really long way. Even back then, you could tell straight away that he had so much natural talent. But he also had the passion to back it up. As a junior and an amateur, he used to travel to tournaments with our Foundation kids. Louis [Oosthuizen] was also in our Foundation at the time, so those two were probably our star performers. You could tell that they were going to go far, as long as they applied themselves the right way. And boy have they done that.”

Last year, the master and his protégé went head to head on the final day of the WGC-Cadillac Championship and, although it was the more experienced Els who eventually prevailed by four strokes, the champion predicted that his young charge would soon be following him into the winner’s enclosure at a Major tournament.

“He can play – and win – anywhere in the world now,” a prescient Els said at the time. “I think you’re going to see him win some really big tournaments – he’s got that much talent. He’s definitely one of the new stars in world golf. He’s really started making his mark, and is going to be a real force to be reckoned with.”

Just over 12 months later, Els’ prophecy was fulfilled in spectacular fashion, as Schwartzel brought Augusta National’s fearsome closing holes to its knees with a degree of panache which suggested that more Major success is more than a possibility – it’s a distinct probability.  

Speaking after his victory on Sunday night, Schwartzel – whose humility is as impressive as his golfing ability – expressed his surprise, and even a degree of embarrassment, that he should be fitted out for a Green Jacket before his mentor.
       
“Ernie’s given us some fantastic Masters performances in the past,” he said. “But a couple of times it’s maybe been stolen from his hands almost. Sometimes that’s the way it goes. But he won two US Opens and The Open, so it’s not like he hasn’t won any Majors. And he’s still more than capable of winning more, if things go his way. But I never thought I would be putting on a Green Jacket before him, not in a million years.”

That he managed to do so was due in part to a lengthy conversation he had last year at the Els for Autism Golf Challenge with fellow hunting enthusiast Nicklaus who, given that he has won the Masters Tournament a record six times, might know a thing or two about Augusta National’s unique idiosyncrasies.

The final piece of Schwartzel’s masterplan was provided by Price, who won both The Open Championship and the US PGA Championship in 1994 which, coincidentally, was also the last time none of the four Majors were held by Americans, as Els and José Maria Olazabal had already won the US Open and the Masters Tournament respectively.
   
Schwartzel explained: “Nick gave me a really good tip – he said that whenever he came over for the Masters, he used to find the fastest putt on every green, and just practise putting from there. So that is what I did for the last three weeks. Every tournament I went to, I just practiced the fastest putt I could find – even if they were only from five feet sometimes – so that I got used to hitting my putts that softly. And it really paid off for me – I felt so good on the greens all week.”

Having married his partner Rosalind at the start of the year and now added his name to the illustrious roll call of Major winners, Schwartzel’s professional and personal life has changed forever.

But whatever he goes on to achieve in the game, you get the feeling that a small piece of farmland near Johannesburg will always hold a special place in his heart.