PORTRUSH, Northern Ireland (AP) — From developing a stutter and anxiety issues after drinking rat poison as a toddler to getting banned from golf for taking beta blockers, Christiaan Bezuidenhout has overcome plenty on the way to his first major championship.
It has been quite the journey to this week’s British Open for the 25-year-old South African. That it takes place at Royal Portrush brings so much of it back.
“It almost feels like revenge,” Bezuidenhout said.
It was at Royal Portrush where he took a doping test during the British Amateur in 2014 that briefly sent his career off track.
Bezuidenhout was taking prescribed beta blockers at the time to cope with a severe case of anxiety brought on by a stutter, which made him scared to answer the phone or simply answer a question. He was depressed and “basically living in my own world.”
He had been dealing with the affliction ever since he was 2, when he picked up a soda bottle in the street and drank from it, unaware it contained rat poison. He had to get his stomach pumped, but the poison affected his nervous system and would give him a stutter.
Two months after that doping test in 2014, the results came back positive and he was banned for two years by the International Golf Federation. He was inconsolable, even saying he felt like his “life was over.”
“I don’t have great memories from here,” Bezuidenhout said just off the 18th green at the end of a practice round at Royal Portrush. “But it’s actually a story that can inspire people to follow their dreams.”
Bezuidenhout got the ban reduced to nine months after it was determined he hadn’t used beta blockers to enhance his performance. He turned pro in 2015, earned his European Tour card in 2017, and won his first tournament at the Andalucia Masters at Valderrama in June.
It qualified him for the British Open. Perhaps it was destiny that it will be staged at Royal Portrush, which hasn’t hosted golf’s oldest major since 1951.
“It’s weird,” he said. “When I was walking down the 18th at Valderrama and it was pretty much done, I thought, ‘This will be revenge for me for what happened five years ago.’ It is quite funny but it’s nice to be back. Hopefully I can make better memories than five years ago.”
Bezuidenhout doesn’t take anything to combat his stutter now. He is more accepting of it, and is more confident giving interviews.
“That’s who I am,” he said.
Certain people have helped him along the way. His family, of course, but also Ernie Els, the most famous South African golfer of this generation.
Bezuidenhout was the 93rd player to join the Ernie Els Fancourt Foundation, set up in 1999 to help develop talented young golfers from families of limited resources and get them playing tournament golf. He was in the foundation for seven years and became close to Els.
“He supported me throughout the whole ban and the people working for him helped me through it,” Bezuidenhout said. “He phoned me once a week just to encourage me to keep on going. Every time I see him, we will go out and play.”
So it was no surprise to see Els and Bezuidenhout playing a practice round together at Royal Portrush on Monday.
After a few words of advice from Els, Bezuidenhout dropped himself into a greenside bunker at the par-4 17th hole and splashed his ball out and straight into the hole. Els looked at him and nodded.
As Bezuidenhout followed Els to the 18th tee, they both stopped to sign autographs books and soccer balls.
Bezuidenhout, ranked No. 140, said he is determined to enjoy himself this week with his caddie, Zack Raswego, who was on the bag for Louis Oosthuizen when he won the British Open at St. Andrew’s in 2010.
After the issues early in his golfing career, Bezuidenhout sees this as his second chance.
“It doesn’t matter how difficult something is, you can always turn a situation around,” he said. “I think it has helped me to become a better person and not to take the small things for granted in life. Being a better person on the course also helps. I just enjoy doing something I love.”
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Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80