146th Open Championship .... enough said.
After a fine start to his career, Jbe’ Kruger has had his share of struggles since. But, five years after making his debut at the Open Championship, he’ll be returning to golf’s oldest major determined to show that the big time is where he belongs, writes MIKE TODT.
It’s fair to say that the rise of James Barry Kruger – fondly known to us all as Jbe’ – has been atypical in many ways. Cutting his teeth on a nine-hole course in the Northern Cape with oil and sand greens will ring true with precious few Tour players. By the time he moved to his comparatively urbanised new home of Kathu aged 15, he was playing off a nine handicap, and seemingly a long way off forging a career as a professional golfer.
But the upward curve has been a steep one since, as he flew down to scratch within a matter of months on his new-found greener pastures. The accolades flowed from there as an amateur too, and his transition to the paid ranks in 2007 was a smooth one. Indeed, he very much held his own on the Sunshine Tour in his first few seasons.
My first close-up experience of watching Kruger in action was at the 2010 Africa Open, where he pushed Thomas Aiken and eventual-winner Charl Schwartzel all the way, with his now-trademark smile ever present that day. It was clear then that, despite his unorthodox swing, this was a player with ample X-factor.
He went on to record a second Sunshine Tour victory in Zimbabwe later that year, but it was in 2012 where he really struck gold, closing out a two-stroke victory at the European Tour-sanctioned Avantha Masters in India. It was a triumph that was cause for much celebration, but also one that confirmed his sense of belonging among the game’s elite. And among the many perks of hitting this €300,000 jackpot was a ticket to his first major championship: The Open Championship at Royal Lytham & St Anne’s.
It’s a week that us South Africans remember fondly, as Ernie Els pulled off an unlikely victory. Kruger, alas, missed the cut narrowly, although he more than held his own, and was all the better for the experience.
“Obviously it was an amazing week, one I’ll never forget,” the 30-year old said in an interview with Compleat Golfer. “I was on form, and actually played well. I'd never really played links golf before that, and it showed on the second day.
“I was a couple-under par after the first day, which was almost leading. Unfortunately, in the second round I started finding the fairway bunkers – six of them in the first nine holes! I then fought back from six or seven over through nine, and still had a chance to make the cut. But I hit it into another bunker on 17, which cost me a double bogey, and although I birdied the last hole, I ended up missing out by one.”
Given the quality of golf Kruger was producing at the time, it seemed a foregone conclusion that his next major appearance would be just around the corner. Yet towards the end of 2012, form began to desert him – notwithstanding a respectable finish at that year’s DP World Tour Championship in Dubai.
He looked to have finally turned the corner in late 2013, going close at the SA Open, before picking up a second Zimbabwe Open title early the following year. But consistency has been elusive since, and it culminated in the loss of his full European Tour card in 2015.
“I haven't had it all my own way in the last five years, and that is to say the absolute least!” he smiled wryly. “Being a Christian, I hold on to the belief that everything will work out for the good. I would love for this game and my performances to always be on the up, but there are going to be constant challenges along the way. Yet having had a lot of lights come on in the past couple of years, I really do believe the ship has turned around.”
Kruger was unable to regain his full playing rights on the European Tour in 2016, and although there were a handful of decent finishes on the Sunshine and Asian Tours last season, he had little cause for profound optimism by the time the Singapore Open came around in January. The fact that there were four qualifying spots available for this year’s Open at Royal Birkdale was a sizable carrot, but one that many would have felt was out of his reach.
Yet he got things together nicely at the Sentosa course, following an opening round 68 with a steady 69 on day two. And after a 70 on moving day, his position was consolidated such that he was in with a shout. But the remarkable, dramatic tale of how the diminutive Kruger managed to get over the line is, quite simply, best told by the man himself.
“It was an emotional final day knowing that it was in my grasp to qualify for my second British Open, especially after years of drought since 2012,” he reflected. “I shot level on the front nine on the Sunday. I was playing well, but just not scoring. I knew I needed something special on the back nine. I birdied 10, but bogeys at 12 and 13 really set me back. Then I made birdie on 16, and had a phenomenal par save on 17 after steaming my first putt eight feet past the hole.
“When I stood on the 18th tee, I wasn't really thinking ‘eagle’ because the leaderboard suggested I needed to pick up three or four shots at that stage. I hit a hybrid off the tee, and, with all the adrenaline, it went a little further than normal. Standing in the fairway, I was just thinking of trying to make a birdie, and securing a decent finish.
“I had 269 yards to the front, and didn't really think I could reach. I was preparing to lay up, and then I heard God’s voice saying, ‘You have nothing to lose, just go for it’. With the flag tucked behind the bunker, some 28 yards onto the green, I probably hit one of the best shots of my life!” Kruger beamed.
He knew it was good, but had no idea how good. In fact, his ball had flown much of the way there, skimmed through the greenside bunker, and finished within striking distance for eagle.
“With the sun reflecting on the water, it was tough to see where it finished,” Kruger recalled. “There was hardly any applause, so I thought it must have finished short of the green, or maybe crept into the bunker. I couldn’t believe it when I saw a ball just short of pin-high, about 15 feet away.
“Glancing up at the leaderboard, I noticed that the players behind me had dropped a few shots, and it suddenly occurred to me that there might still be a chance. Walking around the hole, it was like the line was illuminated. Left edge was all I could see. So ... I made it!”
He continued: "The emotion that followed was obviously huge excitement, but there were two guys that had to finish who could still bump me out. One made a mess on 16 and again on 18. The other hit it to about 20 feet from the hole on 18, also for eagle. Luckily for me, he missed, and I got in. It really was an unbelievable feeling!”
Faith, of course, has played an integral role in Kruger’s life, and certainly the astonishing nature of his passage to the Open would test the resolve of even the most hardened sceptics. Sometimes in golf, there are those moments when science and reason feel insufficient to explain away the extraordinary.
Yet one also wouldn’t want to undermine the immense talent that Kruger himself possesses either, and the events in Singapore demonstrated just why there remains such a high level of expectation regarding what he can go on to achieve.
For now, though, it is a week at Birkdale which awaits, and he goes to the Southport course as a bona fide contender.
“I feel like qualifying for the Open might be God's reward for perseverance,” he said. “I’ve been building nicely towards it too. I haven't played Birkdale before, but I have played in a few links tournaments, and I’ve started to really enjoy links golf, so I am quietly optimistic.
“Besides, even with it only being my second Open, and ranked 255th in the world, if you're not going there trying to win, you shouldn't go. Playing against the best golfers in the world will most definitely bring out the best in me. But, like I always say, it’s in God's hands.”