South Africa wins welcome but domestic prizes are yardsticks

Scottish Golf's latest annual trip to South Africa ended on a high with a successful team title defence and Liam Johnston claiming individual glory in the African Amateur Championship at Leopard Creek. Both victories are praiseworthy, particularly so Johnston's as he got a monkey off his back, but there are a number of reasons why they need to be viewed with some perspective.

Liam Johnston claimed his first individual title triumph with victory in the African Amateur Championship. Picture: Ernest Blignault
Liam Johnston claimed his first individual title triumph with victory in the African Amateur Championship. Picture: Ernest Blignault

For starters, the event was the last of four out there for the Scottish Golf squad, so, with a month’s worth of playing and practice under their belt in the South African summer, it should be almost expected that some of our leading players should be getting in the mix in such a tournament. Looking at another country, it was similar for Cameron John when he won the Scottish Open Stroke-Play at Gullane last summer in the middle of a lengthy trip abroad with several of his Golf Australia colleagues.

The point I’m trying to make is that Johnston couldn’t have had better preparation as he recorded the biggest win of his career, the same applying to Craig Ross, Craig Howie and Connor Syme, though to a lesser extent given that he only linked up with the squad for the last event, as they joined forces to keep the Leopard Trophy in Scottish hands. Equally pleasing was a Scottish 
1-2-3 in the individual event, achieved by Johnston, Syme and Jamie Stewart, one of the youngsters included in the squad on this occasion and sure to benefit enormously along with the likes of Eric McIntosh and Sam Locke from such a wonderful opportunity.

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It’s Johnston, though, who comfortably made the biggest impression on this trip, having hinted that such a win was just around the corner when tying for fifth in the South African Stroke-Play Championship then reaching the quarter-finals – he lost at the third extra hole – in the South African Amateur Championship. The Dumfries & County player performed consistently throughout the visit and, in the end, got his reward.

It was the 24-year-old’s first individual title triumph after “coming close so many times”, notably, of course, in the 2011 Scottish Boys Championship at Dunbar. He’d have been a worthy winner that week and should really have emerged as the national under-18s champion after being eight up after 15 holes and seven up with 18 holes remaining, yet ended up losing out to Troon Welbeck’s David Wilson at the second extra hole.

Painful though that undoubtedly was and it probably knocked him back a year or so in terms of his development, Johnston has been steadily improving over the past couple of seasons. He used a spell at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga to strengthen his overall game, which proved good enough, incidentally, to get him through the first stage in last year’s European Tour Qualifying School, and now looks as though he could go from strength to strength.

It’s ironic, of course, that he wasn’t among the six Scots named in the initial Great Britain & Ireland squad for this year’s Walker Cup, though that doesn’t mean to say he won’t be considered by the selectors, headed by captain Craig Watson, for the match in Los Angeles. Form will be the main factor over the coming months and more of the same can certainly see Johnston be in the frame for that ten-man team.

The same applies to Peebles player Howie, who also produced some strong performances in South Africa, with the aim now for the likes of him, Johnston, Syme, Ross and Robert MacIntyre, who was on Spanish Amateur duty last week but failed to qualify at El Saler, to produce the goods where it really matters – in events like the Lytham Trophy, Brabazon Trophy and St Andrews Links Trophy.

With all due respect to the South African Amateur, an event won by a Scot four times in the last six years, and the African Amateur, these are the tournaments that attract the top-class fields and are the ones that are used as the proper yardsticks in terms of how players are shaping up.

This latest South African success will certainly do nicely for starters and hats off to Johnston for landing that elusive victory. Let’s not get carried away, though, because we’ve been in this exact same position before at this time of year, yet seen players who’ve achieved similar notable success on that trip fail to kick on back on the domestic scene.