Riekus Nortje: Gentle and generous

Sep 8, 2017 | Features

In the madness that follows a win in any tournament – and is magnified when it happens in an African one – Riekus Nortje didn’t even have a chance to call anyone to share in his triumph after the Mopani Redpath Zambia Open.

But the tournament director, who comes from George where Nortje’s father is a clergyman in the Nederduitsch Hervormde Kerk there, rang him for Nortje and that was the first call he was able to make.

“I couldn’t call him immediately after I won, because of the whole rigmarole around the prize-giving in Zambia,” he recalls. “Then Reinard Kilian called my dad for me on his phone. It was quite emotional. My dad was first on the list to contact, and second was the girlfriend.”

His father, with all that the job of being a pastor entails, has been an important influence in making Nortje the gentle, generous person he is.

“It’s a very interesting job that he does,” he muses. “The big thing is he doesn’t just look after his family in a lot of respects. He looks after a whole congregation. There are about 300 people in the congregation. When they need help, they phone the reverend. My dad always has to go out to help people in tough situations. He helps people deal with death, births – everything. My dad is always there.”

And he’s there for his son too. “My dad has always been into sports. I started playing golf with him from a young age. At one stage he played off a two handicap so we had a good rivalry going.

“I speak to him every day after the golf. He’s been there for me a lot of times, put a timely word in my ear. He really tried to motivate me when things were tough.”

Things were very tough back in 2015 for Nortje. Golfing tough, though. Not life tough. But when golf’s your life, that’s difficult.

So he decided to give up on touring golf after three years of really poor results, and threw himself into coaching with the Buhrmann Du Toit Golf Academy. But there was something that drew him back to try his hand on the tournament circuit again.

“I think both the experience coaching and the fact that I was able to draw a line under those three bad years played a big role in my return,” he recalls. “Drawing a line – you think that the dream is over. All of a sudden, the dream was back on my pages. I think that helped a lot with my mindset.

“The coaching helped me quite a bit too. It made me understand the swing a lot better. It was much easier for me to work on my own swing. I also learnt how to practice which changed things around for me completely, seeing that I didn’t have that much time to practice while I was coaching.”

And so he dipped his feet back into the water in the 2017-18 Sunshine Tour season. Things started well enough with cheques earned in the Zimbabwe Open and the Zambia Sugar Open.

But there was nothing which seemed to indicate a win was just around the corner. “To be honest, I didn’t feel the win in Zambia was on the cards,” he says. “I was hitting the ball nicely but just not scoring. In the first couple of events, I hit the ball pretty well but still had a couple of rounds every tournament that killed me, got me out of contention. I thought if I could get four rounds together, I could have a good chance. I could get into contention. But the win was a little bit of a surprise. I felt good about the way I handled it throughout the week. I was calm from the first hole and that helped a lot.

“It was quite a big thing going back to tournament golf ahead of the win in Zambia. The nice thing about it was I went in with no expectations. I went in with a clear head. I didn’t have three bad years behind me during which I played shockingly. It was a completely new frame of mind.”

He’s smart enough to know that winning a golf tournament – anywhere – is pretty much like trying to bottle lightning. There are good players all over the show, and golf is a maddeningly frustrating game that gives very little to you when you chase perfection.

“I’m very happy with my consistency after the win,” he says. “It shows the win wasn’t just a flash in the pan. I definitely feel I can chase another win now. The way I’m hitting the ball at the moment, I think I can get another one under my belt. I just need to get the game sharpened up a little bit more.

“I’ve also broadened my ambitions a bit. I’ve got Kazakhstan on the Challenge Tour coming up in a couple of weeks. I hope I can get into a couple more events overseas and try my hand in bigger tournaments.”

And then, as the winter season on the Sunshine Tour really picked up a head of steam, life intruded once more. “The last few events were quite interesting,” he says wryly. “I lost my grandfather during that stretch, and then we had a run of tournaments in strong winds. But overall, I think the way I’ve handled it is pretty good.”

He’s clearly deeply affected by the loss of his grandfather, but not in an overwhelmingly emotional way. And he knows that dealing with it the way he has is testimony to the kind of caring life his father has held up as an example.

“There were quite a few people involved in helping me cope with the death of my grandfather, but the three most important were my dad, my mom and my girlfriend,” he says. “The family that my grandfather built for us is amazing. When you have a little bit of trouble, you can call anyone – they’re always there for you.”

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