Van der Merwe books 152nd Open berth in Africa Amateur

26 February 2024 – Altin van der Merwe held his nerve under the greatest pressure to secure the Africa Amateur Championship in a sudden-death playoff, and with it a spot in the 152nd Open Championship at Royal Troon later this year.

The 27-year-old GolfRSA No 1 had been hoping to cap off an outstanding amateur career with a strong finish this week, but may need to hold off on turning professional for a little longer, as the win includes exemptions into The Amateur Championship, The Open, the Alfred Dunhill Championship and the Waterfall City Tournament of Champions.

“I can’t wait to play in the Open,” Van der Merwe said. “It’s links golf as well, so I’m going to be licking my chops out there with just a little sting 2-iron all day, and I can’t wait until the time comes.”

It took some clutch golf for Van der Merwe to get there, although it’s fair to say the GolfRSA National Squad member has been delivering under pressure for the past 12 months. Seven days earlier, he holed an unlikely bunker shot on the closing hole at Houghton Golf Club to win the inaugural GolfRSA International Amateur Championship in a tense playoff with Dutchman Jack Ingham.

Just a week later, Van der Merwe seized the moment once again.

Starting the day three shots back, he saw numerous putts shave the edge of the hole but kept his nerve to crucially birdie the par-five 18th hole twice in succession – first in regulation play and then in the playoff against compatriots Christiaan Maas and overnight leader Ivan Verster.

“The two competitors I played with are two great friends and we went back and forth. throughout the day,” said Van der Merwe. “I think all three of us had the lead at one stage. On the last hole I just pulled a blinder of an approach out and in the play-off, I made a good two-putt. I can’t describe the feeling; it means everything to me.”

Van der Merwe has been the hottest player in South African men’s amateur golf for the last year, rising to the top of the GolfRSA Open Amateur ranking on the back of four wins and five other top 10s in his last 20 starts. The Ernie Els and Fancourt Foundation member also finished as the leading amateur in the South African Open.

“It’s awesome to be the new Africa Amateur Champion. It’s an unbelievable feeling but I don’t think it’ll kick in until later,” he said.

The three South Africans were deadlocked on 13-under-par after the regulation 72 holes. Van der Merwe had the best final round of the trio, signing for a two-under-par 70, while Maas finished with a level-par round of 72 and overnight leader Verster shot 73.

Verster got off to a nervy start, dropping shots at the third and the seventh, and making a double bogey at the fourth. However, birdies at the 11th, 12th and 15th saw him return to the top of the leaderboard, before making a costly bogey at the par-three 16th.

“I’m heartbroken just now,” said the 20-year-old from Southern Cape Verster, also a member of the Ernie Els and Fancourt Foundation, after the playoff.

“I mean, I played unbelievable golf for the first three rounds, so I have to be happy with my performance in some ways. I’ve enjoyed everything about this week and The R&A has been absolutely incredible. It’s been a really special week at Leopard Creek and it’s my favourite place in the world to be.”

For Maas, it was another near miss at the iconic venue.

“Today wasn’t a good performance,” he said. “I had a couple of unlucky breaks early on so I couldn’t get momentum. I felt like I could have made a lot more birdies on the back nine and holed the putts. This stuff happens though and that’s why we play golf. The way Altin finished was unbelievable.

“I love this place and Mr Rupert has always been nice to me with this place, so hopefully one day I can come down here and become a champion.”

Maas also lost his share of the course record he equalled in the third round, as Zimbabwean Keegan Schutt produced the round of a lifetime to sign for a 10-under-par 62 that included eight birdies and an eagle.

“I’m buzzing, words can’t express it,” said Shutt, who finished in a tie for eighth. “I don’t know how I kept my nerves today, especially coming up to the closing holes. I’m just really glad that I held it together. This is my best round of golf competitively and a 62 at this amazing course at Leopard Creek tops everything. Before the day, I would never have imagined being in this position. I’m just so happy that I managed to do it.”

PHOTO: Altin van der Merwe held his nerve under the greatest pressure to secure the Africa Amateur Championship in a sudden-death playoff, and with it a spot in the 152nd Open Championship at Royal Troon later this year; credit GolfRSA.

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