In this week’s Player Blog presented by Enterprise Rent-A-Car, Wilco Nienaber reflects on his first year as a professional, his recent form on the UK Swing, and getting advice from Louis Oosthuizen
The first European Tour event I ever played in was in South Africa in 2018 as an amateur, and it really helped me with my decision to turn professional. I remember walking down that first fairway and I was so nervous because it was my first event, it’s the SA Open and I’ve got friends, family and supporters coming to watch. I am and will be forever grateful to my dad for driving me all over as a kid, and he was caddying for me that week. I remember asking him if he thought I’d ever get used to it, because I was shaking so much my putter face didn’t want to stay square. I started feeling a little more at ease after 13, but I realised that as much as I could prepare myself through the amateur game, there was nothing that was going to prepare me better than playing in these events as a professional.
It had always been my plan, but it does make you think a little longer about it when colleges begin to approach you and paint the picture of how nice it is. At the end of the day though, I felt like there was not really much more for me to do as an amateur, because I had already achieved all of my goals – with the exception of winning a big event like the Amateur Championship.
I actually played with Louis Oosthuzien, who won the tournament, in a practice round that week, and I asked him for advice. He asked me if I had any questions, so I asked him about turning pro, about college, and what he thought. He was really kind, helpful and honest, which I really appreciated, so that was a great opportunity for me to play with him while I was still an amateur.
He said I should experience places outside of South Africa on my own, and that way I will grow up quicker. He said that playing in South Africa is great because everything is normal and you feel at home, but playing in other places at the start of your career will get you outside of your comfort zone, and that will help you when you need it. I’m really experiencing that now.
I turned professional at end of June last year, and although I would describe it as a tough learning year for me, I’m happy about the decision I made. Besides my couple of good finishes lately I feel like I could have done a whole lot better, but I’m really happy about how my first year turned out, because I can see improvements and I’ve learnt how to deal with the growth curve of being out here quite early. I was happy with finishing second on the Challenge Tour in the first event this year because I played sensibly. There was a big difference in points between second and third, and I think I displayed that week I was actually thinking of the bigger picture. Obviously, I would have liked to have won, but I believe that will come eventually.
The biggest thing I’ve learnt in the past year though is how to be on my own. Back home my family and I are a close unit so being away for so long on my own is tough, and I can’t just fly home when I miss a cut unless I’m playing in South Africa. It’s different too when you change from junior events to being a professional, because as an amateur we would come over to summer events in the UK as a squad – you would do it with mates and coaches. When I turned professional it was just me, and sometimes my dad or mum or coach. It’s not easy, so I’ve had to get used to the solitude.
I’ve been extremely fortunate. South Africa has got a lot legends in the game and while I haven’t spent much time with all of them, I’ve been lucky that the set-up around Golf RSA and the people who look after us are so supportive, and there are a lot of people you can run ideas off. I actually had the opportunity to play with Mr. Johann Rupert – who has been a huge help to me and many other South Africans, not just golfers - in the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship last year. We played with Ernie Els on the third day in St. Andrews which was really special because Ernie is an idol for so many people. I think my dad was more excited than me!
The South African players on Tour have also made me feel really welcome. Louis was great, and I’ve played with Branden Grace too, who has been really helpful. I also knew Dean Burmester before I turned professional because he’s from the same town and we went to the same school, but all of the South African players here have made me feel comfortable. It’s even just small things like playing practice rounds, because it makes you feel at ease. It’s never enjoyable being the new guy, having to introduce yourself all the time, so having that support has been great.
When COVID-19 cancelled events I flew straight home from Qatar to South Africa, and for that first month I didn’t touch a golf club. That’s what I needed, I had my friends around me, spent time with my family and my girlfriend, enjoyed being home. Then as the European Tour started getting the events going I had to get out as soon as I could because of all the isolation periods, so I flew back over to the UK on the 28th June. My manager Mark and I thought if there were guys that pull out and I’m a reserve I will be here and able to play, so I wanted to be here in case I got the opportunity. I was hoping to get into all six of the UK Swing events, but I didn’t get the opportunity to play the first two, so I just did my self isolation and played a couple of mini Tour events. I was playing really well; of the four events I played I won two, came second in one and third in another, so it was good preparation for me when I got the message that I was third reserve for Hanbury Manor that Monday afternoon.
When I got there, I played the practice rounds, not knowing I was playing yet, and I just liked the course, how it set up for me, and I didn’t really think of the top 10. I just wanted to do well. Then I got in and I played pretty decent, and I got into the next week and I just carried on, and here I am five, six weeks later still playing.
It’s funny because I played well, but every time I’m interviewed someone speaks to me about how far I hit the ball. Now I just smile because to me, my distance is just something I’m used to. I do think by hitting it quite far it’s easy not to look at the rest of my game, but that’s not what gets the ball in the hole, so I’d like to think people are appreciating other parts of my game. Obviously it helps, but around Valderrama last week I only hit four drivers each round, so I don’t think many people thought I was going to do well because being long isn’t really an advantage on that golf course. It was a big grind, but I enjoyed the test a lot.
The UK Swing has been huge for my confidence. I think not having the big crowds helped take off pressure in a way at the start of the UK Swing because it just made it feel like more of a normal golf round, instead of going from playing in my garage in lockdown to having people watching. I’m still getting used to it all and I know every week will probably have different challenges to throw at me, but I think it’s just about how I handle it. I don’t think I’m there yet, but I feel like I’m close to getting comfortable out here.
At the start of the year my goal was to get my European Tour card through the Challenge Tour, but now I’m focused on having a really good finish on the Race to Dubai. Obviously everything is a little different and there are no category changes, but I think if I can keep riding the impetus wave of form I’m on, hopefully I can get into Dubai at the end of the year and that will give me good schedule options next year. If I can do that it will be a pretty decent season with everything that has happened, because I would have taken that at the start of the year even without a pandemic. From there, the first thing I want to achieve is getting my Tour card. I’ve got a lot of big goals for my career, but playing on the European Tour, and playing well, will hopefully open more doors for me.