Golf | 03 Feb 2018 | By Michael Vlismas
The Asian Tour - Go East, Young Golfer!
After packing away his club, Nico Van Rensburg now works with his good friend Ernie Els as his Business Development Manager.
For some it was the best-kept secret in golf. It didn’t matter that you couldn’t speak the language or that the restaurant menus looked more like a list of marine animals to be found at your local aquarium. Asia spoke the language many golf pros understand – money and opportunity.
In January, Lyle Rowe became the latest South African professional to secure his playing privileges on the Asian Tour.
He does so after Shaun Norris made comfortably more than R10 million there last year and topped the Asian Tour Order of Merit briefly early this year. Keith Horne and Jbé Kruger have also found it a happy hunting ground.
But before them, the men who pioneered the Great Trek to the East were Nico van Rensburg and Des Terblanche.
Nico Van Rensburg in particular won three times on the Asian Tour between 1995 and 1999. He even won a house over there.
“I won the tournament and the owner of the estate gave me a house on the property. It was worth more than my prizemoney,” says Van Rensburg.
The big South African who grew up playing alongside close friends Ernie Els and Retief Goosen says his initial decision to try Asia was out of necessity.
The very definition of being a professional is your ability to earn a living from your profession, and professional golf for all its emotion and the grandiose world-number-one dreams of so many young kids is no exception.
And in the late 80s and early 90s, Van Rensburg had to make a hard choice.
“We couldn’t play anywhere else in the world politically. While on honeymoon in Asia, I met a guy by the name of Don Robertson. He was one of the Americans to come over and play in South Africa in those years, along with Tommy Tolles and Tom Lehman. He said you’ve got to come and play in Asia because there’s good money to be made. So in 1992 I decided to make a serious move to try and play outside South Africa.”
Van Rensburg watched as the career of his good friend Els was on the rise, and knew he had to make a very realistic decision about his own career.
“Some guys are just that much better and can get the shine. But not everybody can be Ernie Els or a great player like Louis Oosthuizen, Charl Schwartzel or Branden Grace. I had to make a conscious choice to earn a living for my family, so I went overseas. You go where you can make a living.
“There is a lot of money in Asia to be played for, but you must be prepared to get your backside off the seat and travel. You can play for $500 000 and more every week in Asia. You must be able to take the risk.
“I sold everything I had and holed a five iron from 200 yards out to get the last card at the Asian Tour Qualifying School, and by the end of that year I had $50 000 in my bank account. I went from being broke to taking chances and winning three times there.”
Van Rensburg also didn’t treat himself to the luxury of too much time off while over there.
“I was playing for 10 to 15 weeks in a row. Today’s pros are crying when they play four weeks in a row. One year I played 18 weeks in a row. It was an opportunity to play.”
It’s no surprise then that when George Coetzee had just turned professional and missed his card on the European Tour at his first attempt, Van Rensburg was quick to tell him not to wait to try again the next year.
“I told him to get over to Asia, learn his trade and then move on to the bigger tours. Not everybody in this game goes straight to the main show on the PGA Tour or European Tour. I told Shaun (Norris) the same thing.”
That advice radically changed Norris’s career. While Norris was a solid Sunshine Tour player with some good wins in the Africa Open and Nashua Masters, a combination of events had led to him considering giving up golf for good.
“My dad was diagnosed with cancer and I spent a lot of time at home helping my parents,” Norris told me in an interview for Compleat Golfer magazine.
“You can’t explain in words how rough it is to go through cancer and chemo and so on. It shows you that there are more important things in life than worrying about a golf tournament. We’re a very close family so it was really rough on all of us.
“Back then I wasn’t playing the greatest golf and was getting to a point of really being over this. Then my dad got better, and the first thing he said was, ‘When are you going to start practising again?’ That kind of restarted the clock for me, and I decided to push even harder.”
And that’s when Van Rensburg also advised him to try the Asian Tour.
Norris took the opportunity and won the Japan Golf Tour Championship, the flagship tournament on that tour, to qualify for his first Major – the Open Championship at Royal Birkdale.
There he made the cut and finished tied 62nd, including a third round of 65 which was only three shots off the record 62 posted by Branden Grace later that day.
“Nico also told me how good the quality of golf is out there,” said Norris.
“It’s really just a case of getting used to their golf courses. A lot of them are coastal-type courses with Bermuda greens, so that takes a bit of getting used to. I feel comfortable out there now.”
Van Rensburg is not surprised Norris has settled so well over there.
“Asia is perfectly suited to Shaun’s game. The new stadium golf courses they’ve got there are perfect for long hitters, which many South Africans are."
“The weather conditions are very much like Durban in January. And it wasn’t expensive then and still isn’t now. It’s still fairly cheap for South Africans compared with playing in Europe. It’s a well-structured Tour with transport from hotels to golf tournaments and so on. It’s much cheaper than travelling in Europe.
“For South African golfers it’s perfect.”