Two years ago, unheralded Wilco Nienaber hit the South African amateur junior circuit like a tidal wave. Swing problems forced the Golf RSA National Squad member off the golfing radar, but on Sunday, the Free State tsunami underlined his comeback to the top tier with an emphatic seven stroke victory in the Northern Cape Open.
Over six days in January 2015, Nienaber racked up a hat-trick of titles that included a 10 stroke victory in the Nomads SA Boys U-15 Championship at Rustenburg Golf Club, an eight stroke triumph in the Clarence Junior Open and a play-off win in the Nomads National Order of Merit event at Durban Country Club.
The latter came after he had to fight his way back into contention after pencilling a nine at the par five eighth hole on his scorecard. Tied for the lead with former number one junior Kyle McClatchie and rising star Luca Filippi, Nienaber chipped in for eagle at the first play-off hole to seal the win.
Then a sudden growth spurt saw Nienaber shoot up to nearly 1.9 metres. It’s not uncommon for youngsters to ‘lose’ their swing when they grow very quickly and the 25 centimetre height gain over 12 months played havoc with his swing.
The Grey College scholar announced his return with a top 10 finish in the Dimension Data Junior Open at Fancourt and a four stroke victory in the Nomads SA Boys U-17 Championship at Kingswood in July last year and he edged closer to the top 10 in the Junior Rankings with a trio of top 10 finishes.
In January 2017, he broke the barrier with victory in the season-opening Nomads Inland National Order of Merit at Benoni Country Club and earlier this month, Nienaber rocketed to fifth in the standings when he defeated the country’s number one ranked Garrick Higgo for the Curro SA Juniors International title at Durbanville Country Club.
This weekend, the 16-year-old Bloemfontein golfer fired rounds of 69, 68, 68 and 70 at Kimberley Golf Club to seal a first victory this season on the national Open Amateur.
When Nienaber was fitted for new clubs last year, Ping put him through a series of tests that determined that he ranks second in driving distance to fellow Ping player and Major champion Bubba Watson. He carries his driver 315 metres, but with the added distance, came more problems.
“Most of the time I have about 100 metres into the green on the par fours, but I really struggled with my irons and wedges,” Nienaber said. “I battled with distance control and it’s something I constantly work on with my coach Quintin Williams.
“There has been a lot of improvement, though, and now my main goal at every tournament is to try to shoot the lowest score the course allows. I was really happy with four sub-par rounds at Kimberley Golf Club because the grainy greens worried me.
“If you have a long putt, like around eight metres, the grain could change three times. You have to position yourself well off the tees to try to get your irons and wedges close to have birdie chances.”
The big swing certainly contributed to his wire-to-wire victory in the Northern Cape Open.
Nienaber erased a bogey start in the first round with back-to-back eagles and racked up two more eagles during the second round. He held a four stroke lead over fellow Bloemfontein golfer Therion Nel at the half-way point and left two-time Northern Cape Championship winner a distant second at six under at the end of regulation play.
“I hit a hybrid from 270 metres pin high right and made an eight metre putt for the eagle at the second hole in round one,” Nienaber said. “At the third, I hit driver, 9-iron to tap in distance for the second eagle. The eagled the third again in round two and I holed a bunker shot at 18 for the last eagle. It definitely helps to have a big swing, but your short game has to be on, too.”
Buoyed by the Northern Cape Open win, Nienaber will target a hat-trick of Nomads SA Boys titles at the Under-19 Championship at Langebaan Golf and Sports Club next week.
“The win definitely boosted my confidence,” said Nienaber. “It was great to have a tournament right before the SA Boys. The swing feels great, the short game is good and I enjoyed pushing myself.
“I won by a pretty big margin, but Therion also had four sub-par rounds and I played with Hayden Griffiths from KZN, who shot two 69s on the weekend. KZN’s Luke Mayo came into some good form on the weekend and the local junior Joshua Edwards tied for eighth. It definitely helps to go to Langebaan with some confidence because those guys could all pose a challenge next week.”
The Nomads SA Boys U-19 Championship Stroke Play Qualifier will take place from 3-5 April and the Match Play follows from 6-8 April.
Northern Cape Open Result (top 10)
275 Wilco Nienaber 69 68 68 70
282 Therion Nel 71 70 71 70
285 Hayden Griffiths 72 75 69 69; Luke Mayo 72 72 68 73
287 Philip Kruse 75 74 70 68
289 Tom Watson 75 70 75 69
290 Christopher van der Merwe 73 73 71 73
291 Joshua Edwards 74 75 70 72; Nico (Jnr) Jacobs 72 71 73 75
293 Michael Kok 76 71 73 73
– LALI STANDER