The weekend of the SA Open at Blair Atholl played out similarly to a major championship, such was the difficulty of a demanding course playing firmer and firmer as temperatures soared in Gauteng. What an absorbingly different contest, one of the best modern Opens in terms of suspense. And we have not been short of memorable ones. Gary Player will have been pleased with the championship emphasis on course setup.
Only the new champion, Dean Burmester, finished in double digits under par for the 72 holes, and that was because his 65 on Saturday was something of an anomaly. He had teed off at 7.14 in cooler, softer conditions to the leaders who went off much later.
Few golfers have won a big tournament having made the cut on the number (those records are not available for the SA Open), and it also meant Burmester pulled off one of the largest 36-hole comebacks in the history of the championship. He trailed Jesper Svensson by 9 shots, and beat the second-placed Swede by three.
The last 9-shot weekend comeback was by Richard Sterne in the 2008 Open at Pearl Valley. The 36-hole leader on that occasion, Spain’s Michael Lorenzo-Vera, had got off to a flier with 67-65, then crashed.
Blair Atholl was by no means the toughest SA Open venue in the modern era – that will likely forever remain The Links at Fancourt in 2005 – but coastal venues cannot be compared to championships played in highveld conditions.
Blair Atholl averaged an unremarkable 72.9 for the four days – by way of reference, St Francis Links averaged 75.08 at the PGA – but on the weekend, with the best 71 players left, it still averaged 72.73. There were only 14 rounds in the 60s. That’s the highest weekend average of any highveld Open since the championship became part of the European Tour in 1997. And it has been 30 years since only the winner finished in double digits under par in Gauteng.
The sheer length of Blair Atholl at 7 527 metres played into the hands of the prodigious-hitting Burmester, but it was as much his supreme course management and command of his game that took him to victory. Over the four days he had 21 birdies and 10 bogeys. He played the 20 par-5s in 10-under, and even made a 6 on one of them.
Burmester had played in every SA Open going back to 2013, and four top-5 finishes in 2017, 2020, 2021 and 2022 had earmarked him as a potential champion. He is the first Zimbabwean-born golfer to win since Mark McNulty in 2001. Both were the same age, 33, in claiming their first Open trophy. (McNulty won his second at age 48.)
The only other player to match Burmester’s 21 birdies was Ryan van Velzen, 22, who gave such a strong showing under an intense spotlight to finish T-2. Last year he had failed to qualify for the Open, and in 2021 at Sun City had comfortably missed the cut. He looked the most composed of our younger local stars, and his attacking flair makes him an exciting golfer to follow.
The weekend of this Open was an excellent stage to judge our “future” stars, those we are hoping will carry the flag internationally in majors in the years ahead. Jayden Schaper handled himself exceptionally well, in the final round staying in the mix by twice bouncing back from bogeys with birdies. Wilco Nienaber narrowly missed out on a Top 10, having 19 birdies, but remains prone to making costly doubles. Casey Jarvis surprisingly imploded over the weekend under the spotlight. He was 20 shots worse than Burmester on Saturday and Sunday. The two highly-rated amateurs, Christo Lamprecht and Christian Maas, disappointed in not making the cut.
Interestingly, the 2023 SA Amateur champion, Frenchman Martin Couvra, 20, now a pro, showed his potential by finishing T-12 with Nienaber.
Note: Since Ernie Els won his fifth SA Open in 2010, there have been 13 consecutive first-time winners.