Bertus Smit makes an emotional return to Royal Porthcawl Golf Club, the scene of his fairytale maiden European Senior Tour victory, when he defends his Ryder Cup Wales Seniors Open title this week.
The South African held off challengers including home favourite Ian Woosnam, the former Ryder Cup Captain and World Number One, to finish four strokes clear of the field 12 months ago after weekend rounds of 68 and 69 in testing windy conditions.
That triumph was the culmination of a fairytale journey for Smit who only turned professional in 2000 at the age of 47 after 30 years as a wheat farmer and who also suffered a stroke four years ago which left him partially sighted in one eye.
“There will be always be great memories of Royal Porthcawl for me and I have the Ryder Cup Wales Seniors Open trophy in the middle of my lounge at home,” said the 57 year old. “The win helped me finish in the top ten on the Order of Merit which was a fantastic achievement for me. I’m proud of that.
“I never thought that I would win because my confidence and co-ordination had gone after the stroke. It happened to my dad as well – he had a stroke when he was 65 and he was a five handicapper. He had to stop playing golf because his co-ordination was totally gone. In a lesser sense that happened to me.
“I’m still struggling. When I was an amateur and when I first joined the Senior Tour I had good rhythm, now I’m struggling to get it back but I feel like I’m getting close. I just need it to click in and I’ll be back. I feel that somewhere down the line I’ll get my old swing back – maybe it might be this week!”
Smit believes the famous links course at Royal Porthcawl suits his game, having grown up playing in the wind in Cape Town.
“It’s my first time defending a title on the Senior Tour so I’m very anxious to go back and play well,” he said. “They talk about horses for courses and maybe this course suits me to the core.
“The greens are fast, which I like, and the fairways are very firm which makes the par fives reachable for someone like me who can run the ball up.
“It was a great tournament to win last year and I’m very proud to have my name on that cup and to beat someone like Woosie.”
Former Masters Champion Woosnam, who finished in a tie for third last year, has been in the final group for the past two Ryder Cup Wales Seniors Open - losing to Smit last year and Peter Mitchell in 2008 - and he will again have the home support behind him.
The 2008 Senior Tour Order of Merit winner has been struggling for form so far this season, without a top ten finish in 2010, but he is hopeful he can turn it round on home soil.
“I get some great support from the Welsh crowds and I would love to repay them by claiming the title,” he said. “That was certainly the case last year at Royal Porthcawl, which is one of my favourite courses in the world and somewhere I have good memories of.”
Joining Woosnam in the field will be another former Ryder Cup winning Captain, Sam Torrance, who beat his rival to the 2009 Order of Merit crown, as well as a number of former Ryder Cup players including Des Smyth and Gordon Brand Jnr, who won the Welsh Golf Classic at Royal Porthcawl in 1981 and 1982 respectively.
Brand Jnr is in fine form having captured his maiden Senior Tour title in the Matrix Jersey Classic a fortnight ago and finished tied ninth in last week’s Handa Irish Senior Open presented by Fáilte Ireland.
Thailand’s Boonchu Ruangkit, the current Order of Merit leader, continues his attempt to win the John Jacobs Trophy while the Senior Tour’s latest champion, Marc Farry of France, will seek to join him as the only back-to-back winner so far this season having claimed the silverware in Ireland last week.
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