Richard Sterne won the Joburg Open at Royal Johannesburg and Kensington Golf Club on Sunday by a record seven strokes, with a record low total of 27-under 260 – a display of measured, top-class golf that was notable for its precision.
The 31-year-old dropped just a single shot in 72 holes and a faultless final round of eight-under 64 saw him pull clear of Trevor Fisher Jnr, who held a share of the lead with Sterne heading into the final round but fell back to tie for sixth place with a disappointing 73.
The East Course was more hospitable than usual, with not as much rain having fallen and therefore more run on the fairways, and a relatively settled wind, but Sterne’s effort in beating Charl Schwartzel’s former record low of 23-under when he won by six strokes in 2010 was remarkable.
The manner of Sterne’s triumph was clinical. He was brilliant off the tees, hitting 12 of 14 fairways, and immaculate with his irons as he hit 17 greens in regulation on Sunday and missed just seven the whole tournament.
The shy, but genial Pretoria-bred golfer admitted it had really been a special week in Johannesburg.
“It was quite special, especially the way I finished today. It was probably my best final round ever. To shoot 64 on the East Course is always good, especially in a final round.
“My swing felt good and relaxed, I hit the ball really well and I was conservative so I was never really in any trouble. I made the putts that mattered and I drove the ball really well,” Sterne said after his triumph.
Sterne’s 260 72-hole total was the best in a co-sanctioned event in South Africa and only five golfers have gone lower in European Tour history – Ian Woosnam, David Llewellyn (both 258), Tiger Woods and South Africans Ernie Els and Mark McNulty (all 259).
Els’s 29-under to win the Johnnie Walker Classic in Australia in 2003 remains the lowest winning score in terms of par, with Sterne now joint second with Jerry Anderson and Louis Oosthuizen, whose 27-under 265 to win the Africa Open in East London last year was the previous lowest winning total in a co-sanctioned event in South Africa.
The win was Sterne’s first in just over four years, his triumph in the South African Open at Pearl Valley in December 2008 being his last before a serious back injury struck him down, required surgery and kept him off the professional tour for the better part of two years.
“I have three bulging discs and at one time they were quite bad and it was a year before the pain eased. For sure you then have those thoughts that you might not play professional golf again. You think you’ll never win again or get back to that level, so this win is really special after all that hard work and injury.
“The key was to be patient and not come back too early. I tried to come back once, felt pain and immediately took the next eight months off and didn’t touch a club. Some people have played through the pain, but it affects your confidence,” Sterne said.
Fisher did not have a good final day, despite starting in style with an eagle on the par-five first hole.
“Trevor eagled the first and I thought ‘here we go’. But I knew he had not won before on this sort of stage and I knew I would have to just keep on finding greens,” Sterne said.
It was a tight battle up until the sixth hole, with the final threeball (Jaco van Zyl was the other golfer) reaching the long par-five down to the bottom of the course with Sterne just one stroke ahead of Fisher.
Fisher was two feet short with his birdie putt, while Sterne was lying three and 10 feet away but facing a curling putt.
Astonishingly, Fisher missed his par putt and the crystal trophy was on its way back to Sterne, who had won it in a playoff in 2008.
By the time the pair reached the ninth hole, Sterne was six shots clear after three successive birdies, while Fisher was left to rue not only the short missed putt but then a wayward drive on the seventh that landed under a tree and led to another bogey.
“Things started to go my way on the sixth. He tried to finish up and missed a short putt, while I had a sneaky 10-foot putt, which was a really important one to make. To then make birdie again on seven and on eight… I knew I had hurt him,” Sterne said.
Fisher came back with a birdie on the ninth, but the winner had been clearly identified for most when he double-bogeyed the 11th. Having pulled his drive way left in the third round, Fisher pushed it far right on Sunday and could not clear the water hazard in front of the green with his second.
The 33-year-old Fisher was now seven strokes behind and Schwartzel was now Sterne’s nearest challenger, six shots behind.
But Sterne continued to play clever, accurate golf and three more birdies on the back nine sealed a convincing, hugely impressive triumph and signalled his return to full fitness and his stature as one of South Africa’s most talented golfers.
Schwartzel, who missed the cut last year after defending his title in 2011, had to fight hard for second place.
Portugal’s Ricardo Santos shot a brilliant 64 to soar to 19-under-par, starting his round with an eagle and finishing with three successive birdies, but Schwartzel replied with a solid 66, including birdies at the last two holes to finish on 20-under.
George Coetzee finished in the top three for the eighth time since 2011, in a tie with Santos and Chile’s Felipe Aguilar, after a 67 – an incredible effort considering he could barely sink a putt in the last two rounds.
South Africans Keith Horne, Thomas Aiken and Fisher were in a tie for sixth on 18-under, while Italian Lorenzo Gagli and South African Garth Mulroy, who had roared into early contention with four birdies and an eagle in his first eight holes, were in a tie for ninth.
For Sterne, the triumph not only leaves him cosily positioned atop the European Tour’s order of merit – the Race to Dubai – but it also catapulted him into the top 60 on the world rankings.
Having been 165th before his second-place finish in last week’s Dubai Desert Classic, Sterne now qualifies for the WGC Accenture Matchplay Championship in Arizona from February 20.
Judging by his display on Sunday, it is company in which he should be comfortable.