BENONI, S. Africa (Feb. 7, 2014) -- All Jason Smith hoped for was a decent result, but the Gauteng North golfer left Benoni Country Club with a lot more after holing a gusty three-footer for birdie at the 18th for a one stroke victory at the South African Stroke Play Championship on Friday.
It was the kind of week that dreams are made of and, as he sunk the winning putt on the last, Smith’s first thought didn’t run to the prestigious trophy or rising to sixth in the national rankings, but to his father, Dave, who missed his greatest moment.
“Throughout my career my dad has been there for just about everything, but this week he had to be in Cape Town,” said the 19-year-old HPC TuksSport golfer after a closing 69 and winning total of 14-under-par 274.
“But maybe it was a good thing, because he is really crying now. And at least he didn’t have to watch me shake like a leaf on the last green. My cap was shaking so much that I couldn’t even see the ball. Luckily it was an uphill putt, so I just had to send it off in the right direction.”
Smith called the day the toughest rounds of his life, but also the most rewarding.
“This is undoubtedly the greatest moment of my career, but it was so tough out there,” he said. “I am absolutely drained, but it was so worth it. And this sure makes up for missing that short putt last year to lose the Ekurhuleni Open in a play-off.”
The Irene golfer found himself in unchartered waters after rounds of 71-66-68 left him tied for third with Nigel’s Stefan Cronje. Smith had earned himself a site in the final match with top international contenders, Scottish Boys U-18 champion Bradley Neil and the 2013 North of Ireland Stroke Play champion, Irishman Dermot McElroy.
“I had inadvertently brought a huge amount of pressure on myself self to win the tournament, because the home crowd were cheering for Stefan and I,” he said. “It was pretty intimidating to play with them, because they have a lot of experience at this level.
“Neither Stefan, nor I had ever been in contention in a tournament of this stature before.”
To his great credit, Smith stood up to a fierce onslaught from the Brits and his countryman.
Neil stayed in the driver’s seat over the first eight holes, but McElroy reeled in three birdies from the ninth to briefly take the lead. Meanwhile Smith endured a see-saw ride of three birdies and bogeys, while Cronje kept up a run of pars.
But the landscape suddenly changed when Cronje aced the par-three eighth and followed with a brace of birdies to take a two shot lead at 15 under.
It wasn’t until he dropped a shot at the 17th that Smith, Neil and McElroy had a chance to edge closer.
Neil and Smith both birdied the par-three 16th edged closer with birdies at 1widen the gap to two shots and, in spite of a bogey at the 15th, stayed in control until the penultimate hole.
Smith and Neil, meanwhile, both birdied the 16th. Neil dropped away with a bogey at 17th, while both McElroy and Smith both boxed their par putts.
When Cronje failed to birdie the final hole, Smith knew he need a four at the par-five to win.
“I wasn’t nervous on the tee, because the tee shot sets up perfectly for me and I executed the approach perfectly,” Smith explained. “I had about four meters to the pin, so I lagged it to about three foot. That’s when the nerves hit me.
“I promise you, I was shaking from head to toe. I was so relieved when the putt dropped that I didn’t even realise at first that I’d won the SA Stroke Play. What a feeling when it hit home!”
Cronje had closed with a par for a 70 to share second with Neil and McElroy, who signed for a 72 and 71 respectively. The 20-year-old, whose runner-up finished vaulted him to ninth in the rankings, was a little saddened, but still proud of his achievement.
“It was the first time I played on this kind of stage, and I didn’t disintegrate,” he said. “I would take a second place in the SA Stroke Play Championship any day.”
Overnight leader Neil from Blairgowrie didn’t hide his disappointment after three bogeys and birdies.
“Sure, I’m pretty disappointed because I played my poorest round on the final day,” said Neil.
“I feel that I let myself down, but all credit to Jason, though. Out there you are trying your hardest to win and Jason held up best under pressure; he was a fierce competitor and deserved the win.”
McElroy chose to be a little philosophical in defeat.
“I played really well, but it was all about putting,” the Ballymena amateur said. “Four birdies and three bogeys were not too bad, but I missed seven six-footers for birdie. When you are putting like that, you can’t expect to win. It was Jason’s day and he was a deserved winner.
“But at least I improved on my fifth place last year; that’s something positive to take home with me.”