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Ken Borland

Coetzee charges past Aiken & Walters

Posted on February 09, 2014 by Ken

Overnight leaders Thomas Aiken and Justin Walters were overtaken by charging fellow South African George Coetzee, who sealed a long-awaited maiden European Tour victory with his three-shot triumph at the Joburg Open on Sunday.

The first nine holes at Royal Johannesburg and Kensington’s East Course were the key for Coetzee as he started the day four strokes behind Aiken and Walters, who began the final day on 17-under-par. The 27-year-old also had to contend with South Korea’s Jin Jeong on 15-under, Finland’s Roope Kakko on -14, and Scotsman Alastair Forsyth, who was level with him on 13-under-par.

Coetzee birdied the short par-five first hole and picked up further strokes on the par-four fourth and the two par-fives on the sixth and eighth.

“I knew I had to play well and the plan was to be four-under on the front nine. I got that and then thought that anything else from there would be a bonus. Two more birdies on the back nine was good enough. But if I had not gone four-under on the front nine, then I wouldn’t be sitting here,” Coetzee said at the final press conference with the crystal trophy beside him.

Having been a nearly man for so long on the European Tour with eight top-three finishes in the last three years, Coetzee shocked many when he showed no great relief at notching his breakthrough victory.

“Sitting here with the trophy is not that important, playing your best out there on the course is what matters. It’s the mindset you’ve got to have otherwise winning becomes too important.

“When I won the Telkom PGA Championship in 2011, I said it was bloody hard to achieve which actually made it very hard for myself to win again. It actually wasn’t that difficult and a couple of tournaments I’ve lost in, I actually played better than I did today,” Coetzee said.

But any inspector of Coetzee’s faultless scorecard, a brilliant six-under-par 66 to win by three after being four behind, will find it very hard to believe the Pretoria golfer did not play very well indeed.

“I just kept believing and tried to stay focused. I told myself Thomas and Justin were making birdies, so I had to keep positive and stay aggressive. I kept telling myself that anything on the greens could go in for birdie. In my last three events, I’ve had one or two bogey-free rounds in each of them, so I’m comfortable doing that. There’s a lot less to handle if you’re doing that,” he said.

It was always going to be a stiff ask overtaking both Aiken and Walters, but Coetzee was helped by his compatriots both shooting over-par on the final day.

It’s become run-of-the-mill for Aiken to shoot low on the East Course in recent years, but, after playing the first seven holes in one-under, his game started to go down the drain, possibly due to the scoreboard pressure Coetzee was exerting with his thrilling charge.

Some wonkiness off the tee and some really poor iron play were the obvious problems, leading to five bogeys from the eighth hole; birdies at 14 and 18 did not stem the bleeding as Aiken finished in a tie for fifth on 15-under after a 74.

It is one of just five over-par rounds Aiken has played in the 26 times he has gone around Royal Johannesburg and Kensington in the Joburg Open and, having been the favourite of many to win the title, he didn’t even manage to claim one of the automatic places in the British Open that were up for grabs.

Walters, the USA-based 33-year-old, finished in the three-man group tied for second on 16-under, the par-fives on the eighth and 18th proving the thorn in his side as he bogeyed both of them.

On the last tee-box, he was still in the running, needing to eagle the 504-metre par-five, just as he did on the third day, to force a playoff with Coetzee. But his tee-shot found the second fairway bunker down the right and his second, from the up-slope, was hopelessly short of the green.

One of the rounds of the day came from the 22-year-old Englishman Tyrell Hatton, who matched Coetzee with a 66 that lifted him into a share of second place, the European Tour rookie earning € 101,097, the biggest cheque of his fledgling career.

Jeong, the Australian-based winner of the Perth International towards the end of last year, was very much in contention after successive birdies on the seventh and eighth holes lifted him to 16-under, but the putter deserted him on the back nine and he could only add one more birdie, despite hitting the ball close to the flag several times.

But the real momentum was with Coetzee and he proved unstoppable, adding birdies on the par-four 10th and 15th holes.

He admitted the three on the 15th was the product of some great good fortune as he pulled his drive towards the water, but his ball hit a tree and bounced back into the fairway, from where he found the green and then the cup.

The calm and methodical way in which Coetzee seized victory on Sunday mirrors his approach to his career.

“I will take it one step at a time and just focus on the next box I want to tick. Winning a co-sanctioned event was kind of the next step – as a youngster I always said I wanted to win the junior club champs, the club medal, the senior club champs, a professional event, a Sunshine Tour winter tournament, a big Sunshine Tour event and then one of the co-sanctioned ones.”

Asked what the next box he wants to tick is, Coetzee said “It’s my box, not yours” as he preferred not to make his goals public.

There is no doubting Coetzee’s force of will, he was well-nigh unstoppable on his march to victory on Sunday and the floodgates could well open now for the highly-talented South African.

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