When Erik van Rooyen was awarded Graduate of the Year in November, it was testament to an incredible breakthrough season that saw him finish 38th in the Race to Dubai and earn more than a million euros in prize money – not bad for a first crack at the top level. Just over a year ago, I interviewed the ecstatic South African in Oman following his tied-third finish in the NBO Golf Classic Grand Final to secure his Tour card from the Challenge Tour. Who would have predicted his meteoric rise on the European Tour since then?
The 29 year old wasn’t the least bit fazed by his rapid progress from the Challenge Tour. He looked hungry and well-primed to compete as he made four cuts in his first five events after making the step up to the European Tour, including a runner-up finish on home soil at the Joburg Open to raise a few eyebrows among his fellow countrymen, which helped him earn an exemption for the Open Championship – a major achievement in his maiden season.
“It was a great year all round looking back,” says Van Rooyen when we catch up during the Desert Swing. “The Open was the standout moment of my season by a mile, a tournament that I’d only ever dreamt about being part of. I went to practice in Scotland a month before the Championship at Carnoustie just when they were starting to put up the grandstands.
“Once I arrived there the weekend before and I saw everything set up I was amazed. Walking through the tunnel onto the first tee still gives me goosebumps thinking about it.”
The 6’3” rookie rose to the occasion once again shooting four under par in his opening round to stand one off the lead.
Rounds of 71, 71 and 73 followed to help him finish tied 17th ahead of the likes of: Rickie Fowler, Patrick Reed, Henrik Stenson and Brooks Koepka in his first Major.
Just a couple of weeks prior to his remarkable performance, he was in contention to win an elusive first European Tour title at the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open hosted by the Rory Foundation.
After impressive rounds of 71, 65 and 66, Van Rooyen took an emphatic four-shot lead in to the last round at Ballyliffin but fell short at the final hurdle, making four bogeys and just two birdies as the chasing pack of Ryan Fox and eventual winner, Russell Knox, closed in. Van Rooyen learnt some key lessons from performances like that, which should help him prosper in the future. “I gained lots of experience from my maiden season and being able to establish myself at this level and knowing that I’m good enough to compete with these guys was huge. When you know that you were in contention at an event and were only one or two shots off being a European Tour champion, that gave me a lot of confidence.”
⛳ Greens in Regulation leaders in 2018:
— The European Tour (@EuropeanTour) March 14, 2018
From 2013 to 2017, Van Rooyen played on the Sunshine Tour before deciding he was ready to make the switch to the Challenge Tour, which proved to be the perfect move. In his inaugural campaign, he had six top 10s as well as a victory in the Hainan Open to secure his European Tour playing rights at the first time of asking.
This was the ideal platform for Van Rooyen to nurture his game ahead of competing with the elite in the sport. “The Challenge Tour is an excellent breeding ground for players,” he says. “It’s so competitive. Before then I was only used to playing in South African events because that’s where I grew up, whereas the Challenge Tour involved travelling all over the world, playing on different courses every week and fending for myself away from home. It was a great way to prepare for what life is like on the main Tour.”
His inaugural season on the European Tour was one to remember. It included a runner-up finish, four top-tens, four top-20s and just six missed cuts in 24 starts.
He ended his season on a high, representing his country at the 2018 Melbourne World Cup of Golf alongside his old friend Dylan Frittelli, which opened up new horizons, especially on home turf.
“I now get recognised far more back home which is kind of strange! It’s weird going into a restaurant in Joburg and strangers come up and say ‘Hey, what’s up’, It’s always fun meeting fans.” If his career stays on this elevating path, he’ll soon become accustomed to this recognition.
— Erik van Rooyen (@FredVR_) November 22, 2018
Van Rooyen has followed Nacho Elvira, Byeong Hun An, Brooks Koepka and compatriots Dylan Frittelli and Justin Walters as Graduate of the Year, which is testament to the benefit of the Challenge Tour – between them they have won three Majors and four European Tour titles. There’s a huge chance Van Rooyen will add to this tally in the near future.