Thomas Aiken has been watching the Nedbank Golf Challenge at Sun City since he was seven years old and now he will finally be playing in the event following his nailbiting triumph in the Sunshine Tour’s Order of Merit in the final event, the South African Open, at Glendower Golf Club at the weekend.
Aiken faced a terrifying two-putt from about 90 feet on the last hole for par to ensure a top-10 finish in the SA Open and enough of a payday to overtake Danie van Tonder in the final Order of Merit, and the 31-year-old left himself with a knee-wobbling 10-footer, which he curled into the hole.
The three-time winner on the European Tour eventually finished in a six-way tie for fifth and earned R430 000, while Van Tonder shot a 75 in the final round to finish tied-55th and made R52 500. That meant Aiken beat Van Tonder to first place on the Order of Merit by just over R157 000, but if he had bogeyed the last hole, that one stroke would have left him R1300 behind his young compatriot.
“I didn’t want to know the permutations but I knew a top-10 finish may be enough, so I was aiming top-five to make sure. With three holes to play, I knew I was tied eighth or ninth, so I said to myself that the worse-case scenario was three pars.
“I made good putts on 16 and 17, but then a really poor iron shot on 18, because I was trying to be too safe. I was far enough from the hole that I couldn’t see it and then my second putt was a good 10 feet away. It was maybe worse than having a putt to win a tournament, but I managed to make one of my best putts ever,” Aiken said.
“Winning the Order of Merit is something I’ve been looking forward to since I started playing on the Sunshine Tour in 2002. I’ve been close before and it’s nice to finally get it under the belt. Winning the Sid Brews Trophy is very nice and winning the money-list is obviously a feat because this is one of the five main tours in the world. But it also comes with substantial perks that can make your career – I’m into the British Open, the Memorial, three World Golf Championship events and the Nedbank Golf Challenge, which I’ve dreamed about playing in since I was a kid in the early 90s,” the born-and-bred Johannesburger said.
Winning the Sunshine Tour Order of Merit means Aiken, who has a full card on the European Tour, must have sacrificed to so strongly support his local tour and he said it was because he loves the grand old courses that so many of the co-sanctioned events are played on.
Glendower is certainly one of those and Royal Johannesburg and Kensington, where he will tee it up in the Joburg Open from February 26, is too, but he will sadly miss out on the Africa Open at the old-style East London Golf Club because of his qualification for the WGC Cadillac Championship at the Blue Monster in Florida at the same time.
When Van Tonder shot 78 in the first round at Glendower, his Order of Merit hopes seem to have been dashed, but he birdied his last three holes in the second round to make the cut and Aiken said this typified the gutsy youngster.
“Danie has played extremely well all year, there are few 23-year-olds that can be that consistent all year and he’s had multiple wins. He’s a very tenacious young man and he has the fiery spirit to make it, he grinds through when the chips are down, he has BMT – like he showed when birdieing the last three holes to make the cut,” Aiken said.