HOW ironic in the first round on the European Tour since an anchoring ban came into place on 1 January that one of the game’s leading lights should suffer another attack of the dreaded yips.
Two-time Open champion Ernie Els, the tournament host, had been three-over-par with three holes to play at Glendower Golf Club in Johannesburg on the opening day of the BMW SA Open before igniting his chances of a sixth success in the event with a birdie at the seventh then an eagle at the par-5 eighth.
However, the 46-year-old finished his round on a sour note by three-putting the ninth, his final hole, for a one-over-par 73, after failing to touch the cup with his par effort from 18 inches.
It was a repeat of his horror show at one hole in the Dunhill Links Championship last October, having reverted from the belly putter he used to claim a second Claret Jug at Royal Lytham in 2012 to a short one ahead of the worldwide anchoring ban being implemented by the R&A and USGA.
“I knew what it felt like and it was a thing of disaster,” Els said at the time of his Carnoustie episode that went viral on the internet. “If anybody has ever seen the yips, that was the perfect yip stroke.
“In the game of golf, you’re going to do some silly things when you play it long enough and I had my moment there. Hopefully I won’t have too many of those again.”
That sentiment was shared by Andrew Coltart as he offered his view on Els’s putting in his role as a Sky Sports pundit. “It’s brutal,” said the Scot. “He is a lot more comfortable from 15-20 feet; the expectation level is lower, no pressure on himself and he can breathe normally and just go through the stroke no problem at all. You come into the three- or four-foot range and things are completely different.”
All in all, it was a day of strange goings on as the sport started up for another year. There was the sight of Englishman David Howell, for example, stripped to the waist as he played a shot from close to a water hazard at the tenth.
“It was all a little bit ironic really,” the former Dunhill Links champion told his local newspaper, the Swindon Advertiser. “We’d normally keep the waterproofs in for any eventuality such as that, but today I happened to say ‘leave them out I’m sure we’ll be fine’.
“I had my brand new t-shirt on with two new sponsors, thinking I was looking a million dollars. I knew I was going to get covered in mud. Ernie (Els) offered me his waterproofs to put on but I didn’t fancy covering them in oily black mud so I thought the best thing was to strip my top off and give it a hack.”
His compatriot, Andy Sullivan, also suffered one of the most incredible horse-shoes ever witnessed as he started his title defence with a sluggish 75. “Frustrating day,” wrote Sullivan, a three-time winner in 2015 on Twitter. “A bit of rust to get rid of.”
On a day when the morning starters enjoyed the easiers conditions before the wind got up in the afternoon and play was eventually suspended for the day due to lightning, the clubbhouse pace had been set by on-form South African Jaco Van Zyl.
Ever since he opened with a 61 in the Turkish Airlines Open in November and ended up second to Victor Dubuisson in Belek, Van Zyl has been playing some of the best golf of a career that has seen him rack up 13 wins on the Sunshine Tour.
It seems only a matter of time before he makes the breakthrough on the European Tour and the world No 65 got off to a flying start in this co-sanctioned event by carding an eagle, six birdies and one bogey for a pace-setting seven-under-par 65.
“I had a couple of weeks off spending time with the family and had my share of whisky and Christmas pudding, so it was really nice to get off to a good start,” said South African Van Zyl. “It was not like I was holing it from everywhere. I hit a couple close early on, managed to capitalise there and just kept it together the last few holes.”
Of the four Scots in the field, amateur Daniel Young was the only one to complete his round, the 24-year-old Craigie Hill man describing his iron play as “brutal all day” as he signed for a seven-over-par 79 that included three double-bogeys in a row from the third.
“I just had a bad spell in the middle of my front nine and that’s what really cost me,” said Young, who earned his place in the field through winning the South African Amateur Championship last March.
“A couple of careless bogeys also halted any momentum was getting on the back nine. That was disappointing as I felt like after I made birdie on eight I could push on and have good back nine.
“It was definitely much winder in the afternoon, but that’s the way it goes. It’s supposed to be similar tomorrow so I’ll be looking to try to get some red numbers up there early.”
With three holes to play, South African specialist David Drysdale is lying joint-fifth on four-under, having followed a birdie at the 13th with an eagle at the long 15th. Also still to finish, Craig Lee is level playing the last and Jamie McLeary two-over with two to play.
Sullivan wasn’t the only player in the field to discover that a new year can bring different fortunes. Irishman Paul Dunne, who shared the 54-hole lead in the Open Championship at St Andrews last summer before winning his card at the Qualifying School in Spain, was forced to withdraw due to a stomach complaint.
“Not the best timing to get food poisoning/tummy bug,” he wrote on Twitter before later revealing that he is hopeful that a “viral infection” should clear up in time for him to play in next week’s Joburg Open.