Christiaan Bezuidenhout returns to Royal Portrush with a large measure of redemption.
Bezuidenhout, a 25-year-old South African, captured his first European Tour event last week in the Andalucía Masters at Valderrama when he outplayed Jon Rahm in the final round and turned a five-shot lead into a six-shot victory.
That earned him a spot in the British Open, and it brought into view how much he has overcome.
It started when he was a toddler and took a swig from a soda bottle, unaware it contained rat poison. He was rushed to hospital to have his stomach pumped, but the poison affected his nervous system. That led to a stutter, which led to a severe case of anxiety. He became withdrawn, fearful kids would make fun of his stutter.
A psychologist prescribed beta blockers to cope with anxiety. In a blog he wrote for the European Tour earlier this year, Bezuidenhout said he was slowly able to regain his confidence and enjoy life again. He became the No. 1 amateur in South Africa.
That led him to Royal Portrush in 2014 for the British Amateur, where Bezuidenhout was selected for drug testing. He told officials he had been on beta blockers since he was 14 because of anxiety from his poisoned nervous system and thought nothing of it.
Two months later, while preparing to represent South Africa in the prestigious Eisenhower Trophy, he was told the test came back positive and the International Golf Federation banned him for two years.
“I had spent my whole amateur career working to get into that Eisenhower side to represent my nation. It was a huge goal of mine to be selected in the team,” he wrote. “To be told two days before the event that I couldn’t go because of a two-year drug ban was simply too much for me to take in. It felt like my life was over. ... A lot of nasty things were said and I was known as the guy banned from golf for a drug-related incident.
“I was aware of how labels like that are hard to shake off and I reached a very low point in my life,” he said. “I was banned from playing the only thing in the world I loved, the game of golf. I was inconsolable.”
After an appeal, the ban was reduced to nine months and officials confirmed he was not taking the medication to improve his performance.
He turned pro, and battled his way through mini-tours, the Sunshine Tour and then his European Tour card. Now in his second full year, Bezuidenhout already has five top 10s this year, including a runner-up finish in the Qatar Masters and his victory in Spain.
“We’ll hear from him again,” Rahm said.
Bezuidenhout still speaks with a stammer, but he spoke with confidence during his post-round interview on television. His caddie the last four months has been Zack Raswego, who was on the bag for Louis Oosthuizen when he won the claret jug at St. Andrews in 2010.
The Open will be Bezuidenhout’s first major — at Royal Portrush, no less.
“It’s been a dream since I started playing golf to play in a major championship, and to play The Open ... just makes it even more special,” he said.