Birthday-boy George does Madiba proud at Hoylake
On the day South Africa's greatest leader - indeed it's greatest man - in history would have turned 96, a golfer 68 years his junior by the name of George William Coetzee did his country proud, as he defied the adverse conditions at Royal Liverpool on the morning of day two to post a second-round 69, and storm to within a stroke of leader Rory McILroy at the 143rd Open Championship.
It really is quite a story for a man whose qualification for the Open was only secured by virtue of his win at the Joburg Open in February, and his efforts at a blustery Hoylake this morning would no doubt have got a massive thumbs up from former president Nelson Mandela.
"It's always been awesome to share my birthday with Madiba," a smiling Coetzee told supersport.com after his round. "He was such an incredible man, and has always been a hero of mine. It's great though, as my birthday is always in the same week as the British Open too, which is my favourite event. It gives today a whole lot of extra meaning, and that extra bit of specialness about it."
The round, in itself though, was special. After posting a 70 in the latter stages of day one, the 28-year old produced some flawless ball striking to reach the turn in level par for the round. But it was on the second nine that he really clicked into gear, as birdies at the 10th, 13th and 14th holes got him to within one of the lead.
He then made the step up to the top on the very next hole, as he dispatched his tee shot to within three feet of the pin at the short 15th, and duly converted to find himself at the summit of golf's oldest major. An unfortunate three-putt at the 16th preceded a messy bogey-five at the penultimate hole. But just as it appeared the burly Coetzee's cage had been rattled, he got up and down for a crucial birdie at the 18th to put him in a share of second place with Italian Matteo Manassero.
"That birdie on 18 definitely gives me that extra bit of confidence and momentum going into tomorrow," he noted. "But to be honest, I would have been quite happy with four under because it was really tough out there this morning. I feel like I'm playing well, and it's a great position to be in going to tomorrow."
He continued: "I think 69 is a hell of a good score today in that wind, and I'm just thrilled to be in contention at such a special event. The weather was a bit rough before we teed off, and there was a bit of rain about too. But I really got it going on the back nine today - a bit similar to yesterday really, and it seems that I enjoy that side of the course."
For a man who made his Open - and major - debut just three years ago, it certainly represents uncharted territory. And in a season in which his form, like many of his countrymen, has tailed off since his win at Royal Johannesburg five months ago, the pressure at the top is especially hard to cope with.
"It was obviously a very special feeling (to lead walking down the 16th); so special in fact that I made two bogeys after that!" Coetzee laughed. "I wouldn't say the pressure got to me, I think I just got a little bit over excited when I saw my name at the top of the leaderboard there. You can't win it on a Friday though, and I told myself to keep going, stay patient, and try keep myself in the mix until I get to Sunday."
Having flown his girlfriend and mother up to Hoylake for his birthday week, it would be a remarkable feat if Coetzee, a lifelong Liverpool FC fan, was able to become the fifth South African to lift the Claret Jug, and the first to do so at Royal Liverpool. However, he proved at the Joburg Open that he knows how to win, and with the wind continuing to blow this afternoon, his lunch will no doubt go down even better.