Charl Schwartzelwatched his tee shot at the 15th hole bounce barely into the rough during lastThursday's opening round of the U.S. Open. Barely into the rough? At Oakmont,that was the golfing equivalent of Texas Hold 'Em's all-in. Hit a shot anywherein the deep stuff, and you had a problem. "It was the worst lie I've seenin my life," Schwartzel said, laughing one of thoseit-wasn't-actually-funny laughs. The upshot? "I hit a full-blooded lobwedge that went about 10 yards." ¬∂ That was Schwartzel's unofficial Welcometo Oakmont moment, when the course first landed a blow that drew blood. And the15th, which was Schwartzel's sixth hole of the day because he started on 10,wasn't through with him. After he hit his third shot to the middle of thegreen, about 25 feet from the hole, his par-saving putt all but waved bye-byeas it picked up speed and raced 15¬†feet past the cup.
What happened?"I left my sunglasses on," said an embarrassed Schwartzel. "Ididn't see the slope well and hit it completely the wrong speed."
He missed thecomebacker, making a double bogey that put him four over par. That's not howyou want to start the U.S. Open, especially when you're the guy manyaficionados predict will be the game's Next Big Thing. From that point on,however, Schwartzel played like a budding star, salvaging a five-over¬†75and then shooting a 73 on Friday to make the cut with two shots to spare."It's nice to make the cut in the Open," he said, "but that's notmy goal." Schwartzel kept battling on the weekend with rounds of 73 and 76,and finished 30th, second among the South Africans, behind Tim Clark (17th) butahead of Ernie Els and Rory Sabbatini (who were tied at 51st).
A shy, soft-spokenJohannesburg native who turned pro almost five years ago, the 22-year-oldSchwartzel has drawn comparisons with Els. Although Els is three inches tallerand at least 50 pounds heavier than the rail-thin, six-foot-tall Schwartzel,both players have classic, flowing swings and easygoing personalities and havehad successful seasons in Europe. Schwartzel remains in stealth mode in theU.S. even though he won the Spanish Open in April and climbed to 46th in theWorld Ranking, which qualified him for the Players Championship (a 58th-placefinish), the Memorial (62nd), next month's British Open and the BridgestoneInvitational in August. He passed on the Accenture Match Play inFebruary--Schwartzel would've drawn Els in the first round--to return to SouthAfrica and lock up his third straight money title on the Sunshine tour, wherehe has two career victories. "No South African had ever done it," hesays of the three-peat. "I had a chance to be part of history. There willbe more Match Plays for me."
If Schwartzel cantag on a few more high finishes between now and the PGA Championship, he mighteven make what is shaping up to be a terrific International team in thePresidents Cup. After the Open he stood 19th on the points list. "Charl hasalways been destined to be a great player," says his coach, Pete Cowen, whoalso works with world No.¬†7 Henrik Stenson of Sweden. "I first saw himin Durban when he was 15 and playing in the South African Open. At 16 he had aplus-six [six¬†under par] handicap." Says Ricci Roberts, Schwartzel'sveteran caddie, who used to loop for Els, "He has a pure swing and a goodhead on his shoulders. He's quite impressive."
Schwartzel is oneof four young South Africans making noise on the European tour this year. Theothers are Anton Haig, Richard Sterne and Louis Oosthuizen. Haig, 20, is a 6'4" bomber who won the Johnnie Walker Classic in March. Sterne, 25, took theWales Open earlier this month, while Oosthuizen, also 25, has a pair offourth-place finishes and is 47th on the European money list. The foursomelives in Manchester, England, and they could be a fivesome soon if Charl'sbrother, 20-year-old Adriaan, turns pro as expected later this year.
"Anton is 30yards longer than the other guys and has ridiculous potential," says ChubbyChandler, whose International Sports Management agency represents Schwartzel."Richard is long, but not as long as Anton, and has a very assured way ofdoing things. But Charl is the player who's going to get there in the end.They're almost like a rat pack. One steps up and wins, then another, thenanother. They're growing up together, and they're going up together."
The ManchesterFour has an understanding: When one of them wins, he buys dinner for theothers. After his victory in Spain--his first win on the Europeantour--Schwartzel cheaped out by taking his pals to a low-budget Chinese joint.But, he says, "they were nice to me [about it]."
Why not? Therefigure to be a lot more meals on Charl's tab.
Read Inside Golfby Gary Van Sickle at GOLF.com.
After finishing 30th at Oakmont, Schwartzel is ready for other majorchallenges.