CARNOUSTIE, Scotland -- If the American stranglehold on golf's majors is to be broken at Carnoustie this weekend, then South Africa is well-placed to be the nation that does so.
You have to go back to Sergio Garcia's Masters win in April 2017 for the last non-American major winner and as far back as The Open in 2012 for the last South African victory, when Ernie Els triumphed at Royal Lytham. But there is a group of Els' fellow countrymen who are spurring one another on to end those runs.
"Us South Africans, we feed off each other's confidence," Zander Lombard said after he matched fellow South African Erik Van Rooyen's early pace on the baked-out, bleak plains of northeast Scotland. Both men carded 4-under 67s, while compatriot Brandon Stone was 1 shot further back.
In total there are 12 South Africans among the 156 competitors at The Open. It is an effort originating from the Western Cape, from the foothills of the Magaliesberg mountains and the Gauteng province but with friendships built on the circuit, and coming to the fore here on the Angus coast.
The three have been bubbling nicely on the links courses this summer. Van Rooyen, the eldest of the group at 28, shot a 63 at the Scottish Open and led going into the final round of the Irish Open by 4 shots. Lombard, the youngest at 23, finished tied for fourth in Ireland. Stone, 25, arrives the hottest of the lot after winning the Scottish Open last weekend by 4 shots, just missing out on a historic final round of 59.
Van Rooyen's debut season on the European Tour has been met with challenges around mental strength and fine-tuning his putting. He has benefited from the help of Sherylle Calder, a world-renowned vision awareness coach who has her own sporting claim to fame: she was part of the management team for back-to-back Rugby World Cup-winning teams, England in 2003 and South Africa in 2007.
Calder, who has also worked with Els, will visit Van Rooyen on Thursday evening to help him prepare for Friday. "She's been massive, she'll be with me for the rest of the weekend," Van Rooyen said. "She asked me about my putting, but she's also a performance coach, so getting you in the right mindset and ready to go. She's got a programme called EyeGym that literally exercises your eyes and helps you judge distance better, better depth perception, and it's been great."
While Van Rooyen has reaped the benefits of mental training, Stone was helped along in his round by Lady Luck. On the 18th he stuck his second shot into the grandstands, designated as out of bounds, but the ball bounced out and onto the green where he walked away with par. "When you get breaks like that, you know you're going to have good weeks," he said afterwards. He also earmarked a change in mental approach as one reason behind his promising form, while a change in putter has seen him find the best form of his life on the green.
The Open has been won 10 times by South Africans, and this year's tournament marks 50 years since Gary Player won here at Carnoustie in 1968. Player's pick for this year's Open is Rickie Fowler, but he also namechecked Stone, citing that Scottish Open triumph as a reason for optimism. "I was in awe of his talent," Player said of his time captaining Stone at the Rio 2016 Olympics.
Player was also quick to highlight those in the shadows. He spoke of Els' nephew Jovan Rebula, who won the British Amateur competition but struggled mightily in his first round at The Open, and Wilco Nienaber. Then on Thursday, 16-year-old Martin Vorster, a member of the Louis Oosthuizen Academy, won the Junior Open on the Eden course at St Andrews.
At Carnoustie, you have those in the twilight of their careers who have majors to their name like Oosthuizen, Charl Schwartzel, Retief Goosen and Els. But the apprentices are looking to overtake the masters. "We always try to follow in their footsteps," Van Rooyen said, but now as they play the same course, the collective willpower of the 20-somethings is leaving the older guard in their wake.
"We're all good friends," Lombard said. "It's nice seeing each other play well. Hopefully, we can motivate each other to get the win."