If Ernie Els were to hand over the South African Open trophy he has won five times to Charl Schwartzel in the prizegiving ceremony at Glendower Golf Club late on Sunday afternoon it would be entirely fitting and not unexpected given that the country’s highest-ranked golfer will be taking a five-shot lead into the final round.
But there is a chance that the closing ceremony won’t feature Els metaphorically handing over the baton as South Africa’s pre-eminent golfer, but rather the rise to stardom of Matthew Fitzpatrick, the former world number one amateur playing in his rookie season on the European Tour.
Schwartzel fired a brilliant six-under-par 66 on Saturday to go into the final round on 13-under-par, leaving overnight leader Andy Sullivan in his wake as the Englishman struggled to a 74 and is eight shots behind the world number 31.
But other Englishmen rose up to replace Sullivan as strong challengers for the title, most notably Fitzpatrick, who stole some of Schwartzel’s thunder with an astonishing back nine of just 30 strokes for a 67 and eight-under-par overall.
While most 20-year-olds would be going into the final group of the world’s second oldest national open with wide eyes and huge trepidation, Fitzpatrick seems to have a very level head on his shoulders. But the rising star who has already made two cuts in the Majors is also realistic about his chances.
“I can’t say I’ve been in this position before and I’m just going to try and do what I’ve been doing: hit as many fairways as possible, make greens in regulation and steer away from any trouble near the flag. Just give myself a chance for birdie, even if it’s 20-25 feet away.
“There’s always a bit of pressure associated with being the number one amateur and there was a lot of hype after the majors, which I would love to be able to live up to,” Fitzpatrick said.
For his part, Schwartzel is certainly not feeling uncatchable with a five-shot lead.
“Five shots sounds like a lot, but I still have to play well, although I’d much rather be where I am than where the guys chasing me are. I was driving the ball very well today on the front nine and I’d like to play the same way tomorrow, to stay aggressive. This course can catch you even if you’re trying to protect your score, so I won’t change my game plan. I want to stick with driver because if I have a good day with it then it will be difficult to catch me,” Schwartzel said.
Schwartzel took control of the tournament with a blazing start, picking up birdies on the first four holes, proving what a difference a new year can make. The 2011 Masters champion ended 2014 wanting to disown his swing, but he looks much more like the old Charl Schwartzel at Glendower.
It was a torrid 2014 on the course for the 30-year-old, partly because he and his wife Rosalind started a family, but Schwartzel looks ready to transfer the joy in his private life into his workspace.
“I have swung better in the past, but I’ll definitely take the swing I’ve got now because a couple of months ago I didn’t have anything. 2014 was my worst golf year for a long time, but my best year personally, our daughter coming along was fantastic. But it takes a real adjustment and then I started playing badly and it just snowballed,” Schwartzel said.
Fitzpatrick and friends will have to hope Schwartzel falters in the final round, but he showed little sign of that on Thursday, not allowing bogeys on the par-four seventh and a three-putt bogey on the par-five 13th to halt his momentum. He added to his wonderful start with further birdies on eight, nine, 12 and 14.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better start with the field pretty bunched up. I wanted to try and separate myself and I’m very pleased with the way it went. It was a whole mixed bag – some spectacular shots, some really bad shots, some great putts and some bad putts. But I was chipping very well and after the start I had, I was able to just grind out a good score,” Schwartzel said.
Scotsman David Drysdale joined Fitzpatrick on eight-under with a 68, while Englishman Lee Slattery produced the round of the day with a 65 that sent him soaring into fourth place on seven-under-par.
Ernie Els started superbly with a front nine of 31 to roar back into contention on five-under-par, but then faded on the back nine as his putting woes returned and he finished the third round with a 69, 10 strokes behind Schwartzel.