The greatest of opportunities lost as the van Rooyen express derails

Eric Van Rooyen’s justified reputation as a rising talent in the professional game would have done little to prepare him for his final round at the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open yesterday, writes John McHenry.

The greatest of opportunities lost as the van Rooyen express derails

Although twice a winner at home on the Sunshine Tour and on the European Challenge Tour, that was B League stuff compared to one of Europe’s most prestigious tournaments. But such was his masterful 66 on Saturday to establish a four-shot lead that it appeared the stars were aligning nicely for him to win his first European Tour title.

When thinking about Van Rooyen on Saturday night, my mind went back to my own experience when sharing the 54-hole lead in the Irish Open in 1993 at Mount Juliet and 1998 in Druid’s Glen.

Travelling to the final round 25 years ago I mis-timed my arrival time due to heavy traffic, resulting in me getting there 20 minutes late. Already tense, I allowed my own stupidity to agitate me, and in my mind, it contributed to my poor performance that day.

In 1998 at Druid’s Glen, I had returned from Canada to gratefully take up a sponsor’s invitation. On a course that really didn’t suit my eye, my good game management had put me in a position to win on the final day. It was a big moment. A strong performance would secure my card for the following year. A win would give me the security of a two-year exemption.

For all of Van Rooyen’s experience going into yesterday’s round, the opportunity to win such a prestigious title definitely takes you out of your comfort zone.

Firstly, there is the additional media and public attention, then there’s a racing mind that tries to process the enormity of the opportunity – making simple tasks like eating or sleeping difficult. The term “staying in the moment” is of little use when you are chasing your maiden title.

Starting out with a four-shot lead yesterday Van Rooyen was in a strong position to control his own destiny. Ahead of him were a bunch very talented golfers, some of whom he would have known were going to mount a charge but Van Rooyen mission should have been to not allow them into his own headspace.

After an impressive start, which included three pars and a birdie, it appeared all was fine but his slow pace of his play indicated that mentally he wasn’t fully in control of his emotions, and so it proved with a silly three-putt on the sixth and a poor bogey on No 7 allowing things to unravel quickly. Fighting himself, you could almost feel the chasing pack sensing his vulnerability. Suddenly it was game on.

Having rarely been in this position before, it was now about how he reacted. With everything magnified, his scrambled brain needed to remember that at that time he was still ahead.

He didn’t need to be perfect on a course built to frustrate but he did have to play his shots and trust his processes.

Van Rooyen’s body language suggested, however, that he was vulnerable and so it proved as one by one the likes of Ryan Fox, Jorge Campillo and Russell Knox caught and passed him. The greatest opportunity of his young professional career had passed him by.

In that moment, there are no words to accurately describe just how badly you feel as a player. There’s the anger that you haven’t delivered. Then there is the analysis as to why you didn’t deliver and if that wasn’t bad enough then there is always someone else to freely offer their opinion. There are no hiding places so you just have to suck it up, pick up the pieces and constructively move on.

In contrast to Van Rooyen, Russell Knox’s play-off victory was a triumph for tactical brilliance over power.

In an era where he increasingly cannot compete with power, links golf courses offer the opportunity for his silky skills to shine. Over the brilliant Ballyliffin track, Knox was a model of consistency, when navigating his way around a course littered with penal bunkers his opponents could fly. He was also ruthlessly efficient and calm when the moment first came to get into the play-off and then win the championship.

Van Rooyen could learn a lot from the steely wee man from Scotland.

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