Van Rooyen wins in Mexico, with heart and mind on best friend in Minnesota

Nov 6, 2023 | Featured, South Africans abroad

Erik van Rooyen made a 16-foot eagle putt on the par-five closing hole on Sunday to win the PGA Tour’s World Wide Technology Championship, a day after Matt Kuchar squandered a six-stroke lead with a late meltdown.

Playing alongside Kuchar at Tiger Woods-designed El Cardonal at Diamante on the tip of Baja California, van Rooyen played the back nine in eight-under 28 in a nine-under 63. The 33-year-old South African finished at 27-under 261 for his second PGA Tour victory, two strokes ahead of Kuchar and Camilo Villegas.

Kuchar and Villegas each shot 66, with the 45-year-old Kuchar parring the final four holes. Tied for the lead on 18, Kuchar – after van Rooyen and Villegas hit fairway-wood second shots near each other on the green – hit his approach left of the green and chipped 20 feet past the hole.

On Saturday, Kuchar was six strokes ahead at 24-under when he pulled his drive on 15 left into dense bushes and made a quadruple-bogey eight. He then bogeyed the par-three 16th, and ended up tied for the lead with Villegas.

Van Rooyen opened play Sunday with a bogey on the par-five first and made birdies on two and six. In his back-nine charge, he birdied 10, 11, 12, 14, 16 and 17 and closed with the eagle. He also won the 2021 Barracuda Championship.

Bu Van Rooyen just wanted to see his friend. That was who was on his mind: Jon Trasamar.

Van Rooyen first met Trasamar when the former made his way from South Africa to Minnesota to attend college.

“As a 19-year-old, when you leave your home country, it’s never easy, and I left South Africa back in 2009. I grew up in a really small town. The golf course was not great. So leaving home wasn’t easy,” Van Rooyen said Sunday after rallying to win his second PGA Tour event. “Jon and his family lived about two hours away from Minneapolis. I arrived in Minnesota in September of 2009 and they were there at the airport to meet me, to say hi, because he was going to be my roommate and teammate soon after. We obviously became best friends.”

Van Rooyen, Trasamar and Alex Gaugert were Golden Gopher teammates. Van Rooyen made his way onto the PGA Tour, winning two years ago at the Barracuda Championship. Gaugert became Van Rooyen’s caddie.

Trasamar forged a professional career as well, playing on the mini-tours. In April of 2022, the week of the Heritage, as Van Rooyen recalls, Trasamar sent his former roommate of three years some good news. It had nothing to do with golf; rather, it was a picture of a scan showing Trasamar was cancer-free.

“That was an incredible moment for all of us,” Van Rooyen said.

“Not long after, it came back.” Stage four melanoma.

Van Rooyen said he knew his best friend, the best man at his wedding would be facing an uphill battle. But it was more dire than he imagined, which he learned this week.

“On Tuesday, he sent us a text; he’s got six to 10 weeks left [to live],” Van Rooyen said. “They did a bunch of scans and cancer was in all his organs, everywhere.”

And that’s why, at 125th in FedExCup points, with his PGA Tour card in the balance and a career redefining day ahead, van Rooyen wasn’t stressed out over what lay in wait on Sunday.

He just wanted to see his friend. But, he knew he had to take care of business, first.

Van Rooyen entered the par-five 18th tied with Matt Kuchar for the lead, Villegas one back. The South African ran a three-hybrid from 304 yards to within 16 feet of the hole, then made the putt for eagle, a back-nine 28, and a two-stroke victory.

After securing the win – with Kuchar and Villegas still to finish – van Rooyen embraced his caddie, the normally stoic Gaugert, who needed his boss, former teammate and friend to support him.

“I just consoled him, to be honest,” van Rooyen said. “It’s been – like everybody knows now, it’s been a heavy week for the both of us. To win, just it all came out, consoling him and hugging him, yeah.”

Van Rooyen was grateful for his victory. It had been a difficult year, on the course, evidenced by his tip-toeing around the tour-status line entering this event. He said he began working with swing coach Sean Foley the week of the US Open and that “started turning things around.”

He left Mexico with nearly $1.5-million, a ticket to the Masters (among several other prominent events) and a two-year tour exemption, which was set to expire at the end of the fall series.

His next stop, though, is the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. To see his best friend, which, now that business has been taken care of, is all he wants to do. Almost all.

“We’ve texted. I’ve just told him how much I love him and how much I miss him,” van Rooyen said. “All I want is to go play nine holes with him somewhere, you know.”

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