All-Greater Rochester Player of the Year

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Rochester, NY – As Matt van Niekerk navigates the course, his dad, Schalk, is in tow, tracking every hole of every round of every match.

Matt’s grandfather Jan is doing the same from halfway around the earth.

Tumult in South Africa threatened to tear the van Niekerk family apart.

The game of golf has brought it closer together.

“My parents made the biggest sacrifice imaginable for my brother and I and it’s amazing. Life can be unfair for everyone,” Matt said. “Our situation might seem different but everyone goes through ups and downs. It’s about how you respond.”

The recent Allendale Columbia graduate responded by becoming the All-Greater Rochester Golfer of the Year.

When Schalk and his wife, Sharon, who was pregnant at the time, were held at gunpoint and carjacked in 1992, they told themselves that the next violent incident in South Africa would be the last.

In 2006, Matt’s uncle was shot and killed at a barbeque with friends to watch a World Cup game. An intruder scaled the 15-foot wall protecting the home. He fired two rounds. One hit the uncle in the chest. The criminal grabbed a cellphone and ran away.

“When you realize your lives are worth a cellphone you become very insignificant,” van Niekerk said of the dissension in his native country. “You feared for your life and lived in constant threat. My windows looked like jail with a bar fence. You had to go through three gates to walk from our driveway to the house.

“We packed up everything and were gone in two months. We didn’t know where we were going. We just knew we had to leave.”

Schalk was an IT consultant and executive at a college and Sharon worked at her sons’ school. The van Niekerks resided in an affluent neighborhood outside of Johannesburg. They had a private banker, a line of credit, things you work your whole life for.

“The pain of leaving a place of comfort with friends and family brings a huge fear of the unknown,” Schalk said. “It was a very dramatic break and painful first couple of years in the U.S. We didn’t have visas, jobs, a plan, anything.”

But they had each other.

Sharon’s brother-in-law offered her a job working at The Father’s House church in Chili, but Schalk wasn’t allowed to work for nearly a year while waiting for his papers to be processed. He invested the time into fatherhood.

“It was critical that I was there for our sons. I didn’t want to look one day and say, ‘Man, I wasn’t there enough for my kids.’ What’s more important if you really think about it?” Schalk reflected.

“He’d be home after school and we’d spend so much time together,” said Matt, a 4.0 student who will play at the University of Rochester in the fall. “The relationship my brother and I have with our dad strengthens the family. We found a way to support each other. Our golf journey together is very important.”

What a journey it has been.

Golf became an escape for van Niekerk, who played cricket, soccer and rugby in South Africa, and he grew up just as quickly on the links as in life. A late starter, van Niekerk made up for lost time with a steadfast approach. He’s been known to play Locust Hill, where he’s the club’s first junior member, in winter rain and snow.

“You see everything as a privilege,” Schalk said. “Perception at home is that these dreams are unreachable and you can’t imagine playing on the courses you see on TV so you appreciate and respect every opportunity.”

van Niekerk was a relatively unknown name when he burst onto the scene as a sophomore with a Class C title and second-place finish at the New York state championships. He took third at the state and Federation tournaments in the spring.

“Not many kids have the total package like Matt,” UR coach Dan Wesley said. “He’s a fantastic student and person but competes with the heart of a lion.”

“He’s got to this point pretty fast in three years. That’s nothing I’ve done. It’s internal determination,” said his swing coach Jeff St. John. “His mental fortitude is stronger because of what he’s been through. I’ve never seen anyone work as hard as he has. He’s always at the golf course. He hammers balls all day. He wants it bad. That’s the sign of a champion.”

Now he has the hardware of a champion. van Niekerk shot a 4-under 68 at Ravenwood to win his first International Junior Golf Tour event in May and immediately phoned Jan to celebrate. Schalk punches Matt’s scores into an app on his phone, allowing Jan to follow along in real time.

“He’s a very big fan. We were in the car one other day and my grandpa doesn’t know he’s on a hands-free device. He said, ‘I can’t believe what’s going on here. He should be playing better.’ I’m like, ‘Hey, grandpa, I’m still here,’ van Niekerk laughs. “It’s cool we can keep in touch. My grandpa is definitely the lifeline that keeps us connected back to the country.”

The van Niekerk’s went back to the country in January for Matt’s grandmother’s final days. The 46-hour journey included a drive to New York City and connecting flights to Holland, Amsterdam and Kenya. While there were moments of trepidation, it was a testament to how far a family that was so unsure where life would take it when it uprooted seven years prior has come.

“Our family decided we’re going to find a way forward,” Schalk said. “Our children have opportunities we never experienced in our lives. That brings a parent great satisfaction. We were optimistic. Dream big and go for it. Life is inspiring.”

[Source: http://media.democratandchronicle.com/agr/main/article/28]