Matt van Niekerk back in hunt

matthew_van_niekerk

Matt van Niekerk cautions during a phone conversation that he may sound “funny’’ on a telephone line.

The influence of the Afrikaans language is noticeable as the native of Johannesburg, South Africa, speaks, but it is difficult to laugh at the words that come from him.

“He’s very much in the moment,” Harley-Allendale Columbia atheltic director and assistant golf coach Nate Merritt said. “At the first hole, it’s go up to the first tee box, hit a good tee shot.

“Things don’t really rattle him, he has a maturity that is beyond his years.”

Beginning Saturday, van Niekerk is back at Robert Jones Golf Course in Ithaca, site of perhaps his most impressive and most stunning finish in high school golf, for the state championships through Monday.

As a sophomore at Allendale Columbia School in Pittsford, van Niekerk was one stroke short of a playoff with Pittsford Mendon graduate Gavin Hall for the state title. An eagle on the 18th and final hole by Hall did in van Niekerk.

Wait until next year, right? Well, the 2012 season came and then went on without van Niekerk, when he fell one stroke short of qualifying for states.

“With this game you don’t let your pride rise too high,” Van Niekerk said. “I’m just going to focus on beating the course.

“It was a great event, it was something I really enjoyed. It was disappointing (last year), I really wanted it. To be playing well enough to play there again is great, and it really feels cool.’’

In order to make this return to the course at Cornell University, van Niekerk endured the up and downs in 2012 that seem to come with a swing overhaul. How many people would have pointed the finger of blame at their swing coach?

“Jeff (St. John) has become a family friend,” van Niekerk said. “I believe in what he says.

“You are going to go through tough times, but I still trust him. Life is going to go up and down whether I’m with him or the next guy. It taught me a lot, it kind of accelerates your learning. On the golf course, you better know you are the only one swinging the club.’’

One clue that the issues with van Niekerk’s swing would not linger into 2013 came in April at Ravenwood Golf Club in Victor. Scores of 78 and a 4-under par 68 gave van Niekerk the victory at the International Junior Golf Tour tournament event.

Not only has van Niekerk found his swing, but a place to play in college. He shared plans in November to study and play at the University of Rochester with the school’s golf coach, Dan Wesley.

“When I left the school after my visit I said, ‘That’s it, I don’t have to visit any other schools,’ ” van Niekerk said. “I’m really excited, and I get to play at Oak Hill. That’s a great perk.

“I’m so glad that I got in, and that’ll I’ll be a part of the team. I didn’t have the best year (as a junior) so they (Division I coaches) all stopped. I think it’s a blessing in disguise.”

When van Niekerk played at the state championships as a sophomore, he remembered how good he felt before the two-day tournament and how he was a surprise leader after the first round.

“I think he’s in a nice place right now,” Merritt said. “He’s confident. When he’s confident, good things happen.

“There’s no real pressure on him this year. Being relaxed in golf is kind of the key to success.”

[Source: http://www.democratandchronicle.com/article/20130530/SPORTS08/305300082/Pittsford-Matt-van-Niekerk]