JOBURG Open 54-hole leader Wilco Nienaber has led the long driving stats on the European Tour this year, regularly hitting booming tee-shots over 400 yards. In round two in the Joburg Open on Randpark’s Firethorn course on Friday he averaged a mammoth 416 yards with his “bombs”.
The Free State flier carded a four-under-par 67 Saturday and is on 16-under-par 197 for the tournament, just one ahead of Denmark’s Joachim B Hansen, who posted a day’s best seven-under 64 to be on 198.
Brandon Stone (64), Shaun Norris (69), England’s Richard Bland (68) and overnight leader Jacques Blaauw (73) lie tied third on 202.
But, judging Nienaber’s delicate touch with the “flat stick” in hand in round three on a wet Saturday, the 20-year-old sensation from Bloemfontein may be not far from No 1 when it comes to putting too.
Yes, the big drives were there again – earning him, for instance, birdies at the 400-yard par-4 sixth hole and 381-yard par-4 ninth hole where, although he wasn’t exactly on the putting surfaces, he was right next to the two greens and was able to up-and-down for his threes. At the 547-yard par-5 he smashed drive-wedge to about 15 feet and two-putted for birdie to move to 16-under and go two clear.
But if his drives were impressive, Nienaber was deadly with the putter too – never really missing a beat, holing pretty much everything that mattered, or making sure he two-putted when he was a long way from the flagstick. Silky touch? Definitely. His 25-footer for a birdie three at the 13th, never looked like missing and was just one example of his artistry.
The tall, young pro from Bloemfontein Golf Club isn’t a bad bunker player either – hitting a sensational long trap shot from 20 yards out which almost found the bottom of the cup for an easy tap-in for birdie at the 597-yard fourth hole, where on day one his drive measured a mind-numbing 439 yards, and he needed no more than a gap-wedge to find the green.
Denmark’s Hansen impressed Saturday, with a purple patch from hole No 4, which he eagled, to No9. He played those six holes in six-under to quickly move into the lead on 14-under with an outward loop of just 29 strokes. But he dropped a shot at the 11th and when Nienaber birdied the par-5 12th he was up front on 14-under.
Firethorn showed its teeth Saturday, with the rain coming down for most of the day, the air “heavy” and the ball not flying as far as it had in previous rounds. And it wasn’t easy hitting golf balls out of the wet rough. Grass and water between clubface and ball is never ideal. A good many players drifted to over par rounds, but Brandon Stone didn’t seem to notice that conditions weren’t as perfect as they were on day one and two when the sun shone.
Stone equaled Hansen’s day’s best seven-under-par 64, despite a bogey at No 3. He then eagled the par-five fourth hole and then reeled off six birdies – at holes 6, 7, 9, 12, 14 and 15 – coming home. At the long, tough par-4 18th his tee-shot found the fairway and he found sand with his approach as well. But he got up and down from there to save par and his dream of capturing South Africa’s big three events co-sanctioned with the European Tour remains intact. He’s won the South African Open and the Alfred Dunhill Championship so he needs the Joburg Open to complete the hat-trick and he’s in with the chance in the final round here. And he knows how to go low, having shot 60 in the final round at Gullane in 2017 to win the Scottish Open. Stone is on 11-under-par 202 on the Firethorn course which has been changed form a par-72 layout to a par-71 for this week, the second hole becoming a par-4 instead of a par-5.
If Nienaber wins tomorrow, he will be the third youngest South African to win on the European Tour after Dale Hayes and Charl Schwartzel.
Written by Randpark member Grant Winter.