Look out Ireland, Wilco Nienaber is coming.
Fresh off making the cut in his major championship debut at the US Open, golf’s newest long-driving savant from South Africa is heading next to the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open at Mount Juliet Estate, Co Kilkenny. He hopes to finish high enough in Ireland or at the following week’s Aberdeen Standard Investments Scottish Open to snag one of the three spots on offer at each to the Open Championship at Royal St George’s.
“The Irish/Scottish is a stretch of events I always wanted to play as a kid,” he said. “I like Ireland a lot and played there quite a lot as an amateur the last few years and I’m excited to go there.”
What fans at Mount Juliet will see is a display of natural power unlike anything golf has seen before. Nienaber (pronounced knee-nobber) is a lanky 6-foot-2, 175-pound 21-year-old whose hands move in a blur through impact despite a swing that looks almost as effortless as countryman Louis Oosthuizen’s.
“It’s stupid stuff, I had to laugh a couple of times today,” said Jason Gore, who played in the final Sunday pairing of the 2005 U.S. Open with Retief Goosen but on Sunday got to play as a non-competing marker in the first group out with Nienaber. “It’s not a lash. He’s got long levers with his arms and legs and his hands are so fast.”
Nienaber’s legend is just starting to emerge on the global golf stage. He’d already broken the European Tour record last November at the Joburg Open when he launched a 439-yard drive that lost a few yards when it ran out of fairway on the 597-yard par-5 at Randpark Golf Club in Johannesburg, South Africa.
“Oh my goodness,” the broadcast announcer muttered. “That is borderline obscene.”
In his PGA Tour debut two weeks ago at the Palmetto Championship at Congaree, Nienaber averaged 367 yards on the measured holes (only 340 when you factored in every drive he hit). Zach Sucher, a decent hitter who played the first two rounds with him, was quoted saying, “I felt pretty bad about myself, to be honest. Getting outdriven by 70 yards on every hole will make you feel awful.”
We shouldn’t be shocked anymore at such borderline obscene things in the Bryson DeChambeau era, with videos of DeChambeau chasing 190- to 200-mph swing speed with his bulked-up body and ferocious lashes that make your back hurt just watching.
But Nienaber doesn’t do that. He doesn’t drink protein shakes. He does little more than flexibility training. He doesn’t lash at the ball, deploying a rhythmic swing similar to PGA Tour resident bomber Cameron Champ — only longer.
Despite all that, Nienaber already hits the same 190- to 200-mph swing speed DeChambeau seeks.
“He doesn’t even look like he’s swinging it that hard,” said Kevin Kisner, who played a practice round with him at Torrey Pines and often found his own drives settling a full football pitch behind Nienaber’s.
“I’d say it’s pretty natural,” Nienaber shrugs, saying he’s been a long hitter as long as he can remember. “I’ve never worked on trying to hit it far. My hands are pretty quick and I’ve got a pretty ideal build for hitting it long. That’s about it. I never really work on it. … I do wonder why I’ve never had to work on it. I’m very blessed.”
Part of it may come from the fact that Wilco’s father didn’t think he needed to use driver until he was 13 years old, so he learned to hit his 3-wood further to avoid getting frustrated when anyone in his group hit driver past him.
While he doesn’t have to work obsessively to do the things DeChambeau does, he absolutely respects what the 2020 US Open champ has accomplished in the last year.
“What’s Bryson’s done is really cool,” he said. “What I really like of him is he says he’s going to do something and he backs it up with hard work. What he’s done, I really admire it.”
Like Bryson, Nienaber does not shy away from his strength. He pulled out the driver on every hole at Torrey Pines except the par-3s, hoping to exploit his advantage at every turn.
“I gain a lot with my distance, and especially on this golf course it would be stupid not to use it,” he said.
His average driving distance this week at Torrey Pines was 346.8 yards, tops in the field and well ahead of the 305.7 field average. He blasted one drive 370 yards on No. 4 in the first round. He played fairly consistent golf except for Saturday, when his aggression got him into some trouble in making three double bogeys on the front side en route to an 80.
“It was definitely a special week playing my first major and making the cut,” he said. “Playing 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, that was just the way the tournament and the course had to tell me, ‘Hey, this is the US Open.’ Saturday I hit probably three bad shots and it shows you what happens.
“I’m pretty proud of myself playing the way I did (Sunday) after yesterday, it’s pretty easy to just give up. All in all a special week and I hope to do many more.”
Nienaber — who won his first professional event in the European Tour co-sanctioned Dimension Data Pro-Am in South Africa in May and qualified for the US Open by leading the Sunshine Tour Order of Merit — said his primary goal is to make it to the PGA Tour.
He finished T14 in his PGA Tour debut at Congaree, behind his friend and countryman Garrick Higgo. The American crowds certainly responded to their first look at his brand of power.
“I haven’t played in front of people in Europe because of restrictions,” he said. “It was really cool to hear some of the comments and have a laugh. It was a lot of fun. I enjoyed it. A lot of ‘What a beast.’ I’m definitely expecting ‘Mashed potatoes!’ because that’s the only thing you hear when I lie on the couch back home,” he said. “I have no idea how they get to that. What they come up with is pretty interesting and it makes me laugh.”
Among the things he’s learned in the last two weeks is that there’s an American band called Wilco (his pro-am partner at Congaree told him). His parents were not big fans of the Jeff Tweedy fronted alternative rock group. Nor were they military, naming him after the shortened jargon for “will comply.” Where does his unique name come from? It’s a mash-up of his first and middle names – Willem Jacobus.
“I don’t expect anyone to try and pronounce that especially with my surname, so I’m happy with Wilco,” he said.
Fans will certainly become familiar with his name, because his length will draw a lot of attention.