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A toast to Richard

Boarding a flight from OR Tambo to East London on Monday, I suddenly found myself in a daze. It may have had a bit to do with the archaic-looking propellers spinning around as I climbed the steps onto a plane which must have been at least 40 years old. But a much bigger factor was that Richard Sterne had just brutalised the Royal Johannesburg and Kensington Golf Club to amass a 27-under par final score of 260 at the Joburg Open. 27 under!

The remarkable standard of golf in the modern era means that a score like this isn’t a rarity, and winning scores of 25 under or more in PGA events are commonplace. It can leave us numb to feats like these; even expectant.

But a bit of context rightfully glorifies what Sterne accomplished last week. In 2010, Charl Schwartzel posted a phenomenal 26-under total of 261 in the same event. He also beat second-placed Darren Clarke by six shots to cap off a record-breaking week of domination. Last week, Sterne went one better on each count.

“It was quite special to finish the way I did today,” the 31-year-old said after his win. “Especially after last week (the Omega Dubai Desert Classic) when I didn’t get the job done. I really wanted to get it done today. I hit the ball really well and played conservatively where I had to. I was just never really in trouble and I made the right putts at the right time.”

The West course was without question there for the taking. The shorter of the two courses, it offered friendly pins on day one, and Sterne, along with many others, took full advantage. An eight-under 63 set him up nicely, and earned him a share of the lead.

But it was his efforts the following three days at the 7 000-metre “Beast from the East” that turned heads. This is a course with two par fours, the 10th and 11th, which collectively measure just under one kilometre, and at one stage were the longest consecutive par fours in the world. Clearly this statistic was little more than an afterthought for the diminutive Sterne, who made two birdies and four pars on these. In fact, his only blemish of the tournament came at the 15th hole on day three, and he scarcely looked like making any others. Rounds of 65, 68 and 64 on that course to close out the win understandably pleased a rampant Sterne.

“I think it’s the best final round I’ve played. To shoot 64 round the East Course is pretty good on any day, especially on the final day when I knew that I was tied for the lead. I don’t mind finishing second if I get beaten, but I want to at least play well,” he said.

And play well he certainly did. The win was the eighth of the Pretorian’s distinguished career – his sixth on the European Tour. But it also ended a victory drought in excess of four years, in which time a back injury put his career under severe threat. Three bulging disks and a complicated series of ailments restricted him to just ten events between 2010 and early 2012.

“At one time the injury was pretty bad and it did cross my mind that I wouldn’t play again, but you’ve just got to be patient. That was key - when the pain came back I just took off eight months until it was completely healed. It was important to do that, because a lot of guys keep playing through an injury and eventually your confidence can go. I didn’t touch a club for eight months,” he recalled.

The emphatic win quashed any doubts over his future as a professional, but also earned him free passage into next week’s WGC Accenture Matchplay Championship in Arizona. While it sadly robs us of the privilege of seeing him play at this week’s Africa Open in East London, it’s just reward for a special performance in Johannesburg.

“I think the schedule will be changing for the next few weeks, but it’s good. It’s nice to go to Arizona and it’s a long way, but if I do the right things I’ll show the Americans that South Africans can do well. There are 10 South Africans in that field, so it will be like playing at home!” he joked.

Sometimes amidst the hype around the likes of Ernie Els, Retief Goosen, Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel, the name Richard Sterne fades into oblivion. You might even be forgiven for thinking he is a journeyman by comparison. But he isn’t. He is a talented superstar who still hasn’t come close to the limit of his potential. His career has been more than satisfactory thus far, but last week was a glimpse of how good this guy really is. Make no mistake – he isn’t going to the States next week to make up the numbers. Ask Joburg Open runner-up Schwartzel, who could “only” manage 20 under.

“It’s a good tournament for me, but Richard’s run away with it. If it was anything else I might have won,” he said.

Can’t really disagree with the former Masters champion there. Watch out Arizona… Richard’s on his way.

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