Schwartzel wins with a little help from his friends

By Larry Fine

AUGUSTA, Georgia (Reuters) – Charl Schwartzel said he had a lot of help on his way to winning the Masters and the modest, 26-year-old South African put it all together to perfection for the thrill of slipping on the green jacket.

Relying on a simple swing taught to him by his father, lessons on how to attack Augusta National from six-times winner Jack Nicklaus, and practice tips from Nick Price, the rail-thin Schwartzel staged a memorable charge to claim his first major.

He moved up among the Sunday leaders after a long chip-in for birdie at the first and a wedge shot from the fairway that dropped in for an eagle on the third hole, and clinched his triumph with birdies on the last four holes.

“It’s a dream for me,” said Schwartzel, a six-times winner on the European Tour. “It’s obviously the highlight in my golfing career by a long way.”

Schwartzel attended Ernie Els’s golf academy back in South Africa, won his first European event at age 20 and was tabbed by compatriot Gary Player as a player to watch this week.

The 140-pound (63.5 kg) Schwartzel won his Masters on the 50th anniversary of Player’s 1961 title that marked the first at Augusta National for an international competitor.

CHICKEN FARM

Schwartzel grew up on his family’s chicken farm outside Johannesburg and learned golf from his father, a talented amateur who became a teaching pro.

“When I was four years old, I played my first nine holes. He told me from the word go the right grip, the right stance, rhythm, posture, balance. There’s five key things that we always worked on,” said Schwartzel.

“Whenever something goes wrong, it will be one of those five that have gone haywire somewhere.”

His encounter with Nicklaus came over lunch last year during a charity pro-am competition organised by Els.

“I’d never met Jack. I was really excited. I knew he sort of liked hunting a little bit. That’s the way I got the conversation going, just by talking about hunting.

“He actually took the time to take me through all 18 holes the way he used to think around Augusta and the way he used to play it, which flags he used to attack.

“The big thing for me was I had never, ever seen Augusta. Now, he’s taking me through how to play Augusta. And now I’m in the presence of Mr. Nicklaus, and it’s such a big awe.”

Schwartzel, who tied for 30th in his Masters debut last year, also said he got a helpful tip from three-times major winner Price of Zimbabwe.

“Last year I had problems with the putting,” he said. “I found the greens were just so quick. I’ve never hit the putts so soft from 40 feet and I struggled with that,” he said.

“Nick said he used to find the fastest putt on every green and practice that. That’s what I did for the last three weeks.

“Every tournament I went to, I just practiced the fastest putt I could find … to learn to hit the putts that softly. It really paid off. I felt so good on these greens this week.”

BRITISH INSPIRATION

Schwartzel added British Open champion Louis Oosthuizen to his list of helpers.

“We grew up together from a young age. We played every single team event, tournament against each other,” said Schwartzel, who rented a house in Florida with Oosthuizen as he prepared for Augusta.

“We basically are the best of mates. To see him win there was just such a big inspiration. Just to see him do it made (me) realize that it is possible.”

Even a fellow competitor helped him out.

“I’ve never been in sort of a situation like that in a major, and I felt surprisingly very calm,” he revealed. “Justin Rose said, ‘You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.’ Just sort of calmed myself as much as I could and from the word go on the first hole, things started going for me.”

It sounded like Schwartzel had everything worked out.

Only one detail remained. When asked what menu he might set for next year’s champions’ dinner, Schwartzel said: “I’ve got to find some way to bring biltong (dried meat) into this country.”

(Editing by Frank Pingue)

Schwartzel wins with a little help from his friends