15 Jul 2021

Wilco Nienaber – Making his mark

Rising South African star, Wilco Nienaber, first made his mark on the international golf scene late last year when he launched a 439-yard drive at the Joburg Open. The slender Springbok isn’t built like Bryson, but a fast, smooth action has him regularly reaching ball speeds of 190mph, and he has the short-game talent to back it up as he demonstrated in style when he clinched his first professional Tour win on his home soil in May. Todd Staszko spoke to the 21-year-old, who is close friends with another young hot-shot – Garrick Higgo.

Wilco Nienaber and Garrick Higgo – friends since they were in their early teens – will never forget May 9th, 2021, as they both entered the winners circle in different parts of the world.

Nienaber had wrapped up an impressive victory at the Dimension Data Pro-Am, a co-sanctioned Challenge Tour/Sunshine Tour event, with a play-off win over Sweden’s Henric Sturehed and later watched as Higgo won his third European Tour title in Spain.

“I had finished first, and when I got home I asked ‘How’s Garrick doing?’ and was told that he was about to win – with a couple of holes left,” said Nienaber. “I decided to send him a text the next day because I knew he would get a lot of messages immediately after, and mine would just drop somewhere in the middle. So I congratulated him, and he said he had predicted that both of us would win – what a week that was!”

Competing at school

New talent emerges from South Africa on a regular basis and the recent exploits of Nienaber and Higgo – both of whom made their Major debut appearances this summer – shouldn’t come as any surprise. The big-name Springboks seem to come in tandem, with Ernie Els and Retief Goosen claiming multiple Major wins each and Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel following suit, winning their Majors in a 12-month span.

No pressure then, with Wilco and Garrick, who first met 10 years ago when they were schoolkids competing against each other.

“I would say the first time I met Garrick I was in Grade 5 – so I was 11-years-old, and we were drawn together in the Ernie Els Primary School Tournament – which was my school (Grey College) against his school (Paul Roos).

“Besides the rivalry between the two schools we attended, they became battlegrounds for a variety of other sports. It was certainly a case of inter-schools combat on a wide sporting scale. It was probably one of the most common activities we shared – having that inter-school rivalry. We were very competitive across all sports, especially rugby, but we saw each other for the golf and the whole weekend was just a sports festival and was pretty cool.

Nienaber first met good friend Garrick Higgo when they were schoolkids competing against each other.

“I can’t recall when I first met Garrick but it started becoming a regular thing when I was about 14 – seeing him at events and competing against him.”

The pair share the same aspirations to reach the highest level in the game, and while Higgo has gone on to win a PGA Tour title, Nienaber is happy with the progress he is making as he looks to secure a European Tour card at the end of this season.

“There have been numerous occasions when I’ve stayed at his place for tournaments, and vice-versa, and it always comes up when we’re chatting when the golf is on the TV. We would say to each other, ‘wouldn’t it be good if we could play at that golf course or a particular tournament,’ and things like that. So it’s cool to see that what we now speak about the goals we set each other. He has achieved more than I have at this point, but it’s great to see that we’re both on the path to where we want to be.

“My goal this season is to earn a European Tour card and I should do that if I achieve my other goal – which is to reach the top 100 in the World Ranking at the end of the year. Another goal was to play in a Major and I did that through qualifying for the US Open via my ranking as leader of the Sunshine Tour Order of Merit.”

Maiden Major

Nienaber spent two weeks in the United States last month after receiving an invite to the Palmetto Championship (won by Higgo) where he finished 14th. The following week at Torrey Pines he made the cut on the number but struggled on the Saturday with an 80 before shooting a 72 on Sunday to round out his maiden Major appearance in 68th place.

“It was definitely a special week playing my first Major and making the cut,” he said. “I played really well the first two days. The second day I made a really stupid double bogey but that can happen so easily, especially at a US Open. I was playing so well until that stage, but that was just the way the tournament and the course had to remind me, ‘Hey, this is the US Open.’

“On Saturday I hit probably three bad shots and my score showed what can happen. I’m pretty proud of myself, playing the way I did in the final round after such a disappointing Saturday, because it’s pretty easy to just give up. All in all, it was a special week and I hope to play in many more Majors.”

While the US Open was his first taste of Major golf, Nienaber did play in this year’s Dubai Desert Swing alongside the world’s best and enjoyed the trio of events, despite some early logistical problems.

“I was really excited to play those events, but looking back I do think I was maybe a little bit overwhelmed to be playing them at that moment,” he said. “I felt like I could compete, but I wasn’t at my best and had a few problems with travel arrangements and my bags not arriving.

“So, it was a really cool experience to play, but also an interesting one that I won’t forget. It should have been a simple trip from Joburg to Dubai but it took 32 hours, all in all, because I had to wait for my luggage.

 

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“The tournaments were great because it was the first time I’d played in such strong fields. The courses in Abu Dhabi and Dubai felt very modern. They were long with big greens, and we were hitting mid-to-long irons into the par-4s. I definitely enjoyed the Saudi event more because the slopes on the greens meant you could be creative with your approach shots, and there were par-4s where you had to hit shorter irons, or even wedges.”

Rubbing shoulders with the stars

Nienaber is still in the very early stages of his European Tour career, playing on an exemption this year as a Challenge Tour winner, but he has enjoyed his journey so far and has rubbed shoulders and learned from some of the best in the game.

“Last year’s Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in Scotland stands out as my most memorable event so far – it was just a special week,” said Nienaber. “I was partnered with Mr. Johann Rupert and the pairings we had were incredible.

“The whole atmosphere with the dinners in the evenings and the half-way houses on the courses, the legendary town of St Andrews – it was just an all-over great experience. I played with Tommy Fleetwood, Ernie Els and Branden Grace – and it was special to see them play on those courses was magnificent.”

Wilco Nienaber with his father, Johann Rupert and Ernie Els.

With a growing reputation on Tour, Nienaber is keen to watch and learn as he goes and has picked up plenty from playing with some of the stalwarts of the game.

“I’ve played with Nicolas Colsaerts a few times and it’s really cool to see how he goes about his business. You can tell he’s been out here for a while and he just does his own thing – and does it well most of the time. I also played with Rafa Cabrera-Bello in Saudi and it was the same thing – he’s so solid.”

The youngster has a game that travels too, and it’s not all about hitting bombs off the tee and trying to wedge it close from wherever it lands. Last year he finished sixth at the notoriously narrow Valderrama in Spain.

“That was great and I think I amazed a lot of people because I don’t think many would have given me a chance around there – especially my first time,” he said. “But it was good to prove to myself that although I can hit it long, I can also use other aspects of my game, so it was really nice to see.”

As Nienaber continues to find his feet at such a high level, don’t be surprised to see his name popping up on the world’s leaderboards again in the not-too-distant future.


Quickfire

Last movie you watched: Angel has Fallen

Favourite sports teams: Liverpool FC – and my old school’s rugby team!

Golfing icon growing up: I had a few in South Africa – Ernie Els, Retief Goosen and Louis and Charl. I also really like Henrik Stenson  – he looks really cool.

Best swing on Tour: Louis Oosthuizen

The Masters or The Open: The Open

Biggest influence on your career: My dad

Who is joining you in your dream fourball: Tiger, Ernie and Rory

If you and Garrick played head-to-head tomorrow, who would win? Ha-ha! I’d like to say me – but we all know what golf is like so we’d have to see!

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