VEREENIGING, South Africa — Charl Schwartzel stands in the middle of the 10-by-12 bedroom where he slept for more than 20 years.
In the year since he moved out of his parents’ farmhouse, the modest space has been rearranged to serve as his little sister’s study. One of his few personal items left is the picture of the 14-year-old Schwartzel holding a rifle and standing next to the hanging carcass of a trophy kudu he bagged.
The kudu is one of the largest antelopes, with spiral horns up to 5 feet long, pale coloring that blends into the landscape, keen senses and the speed and agility to jump a 2-meter wall of brush and disappear into the bush.
Schwartzel flashed the same toothy smile in the picture that he wore 12 years later on the 18th green at Augusta National Golf Club. He enthusiastically explains the challenge of hunting one of South Africa’s most suspicious and elusive plains game.
“The kudu is a familiar face in South Africa,” he said with wistful admiration. “They call it the gray ghost of Africa.”
Outside the bedroom is a hallway filled with pictures and trophies from his golf career. The foyer of the one-story home is blocked with the clutter of golf equipment and hunting trophies. Outside the window is the yard where he and his younger brother, Attie, would hit balls toward holes they had dug in the corners.
Beyond the yard are the chicken houses that are central to the family business. Surrounding cornfields provide the feed for the self-sufficient egg-producing operation.
Schwartzel’s true heart resides a few hours north of Johannesburg at his grandfather’s bushveld farm near Thabazimbi, where he shot the kudu. That is where he retreats when he’s not traveling the world playing golf.
“There’s something about being in the bush,” Schwartzel said. “There’s nothing like the smell you get in the African bush. The perfect smell to the air. Sitting by the fire, it’s peaceful. No cellphone signal, so you actually cut away from the world. It’s not all about the shooting. It’s about being in the bush.”
‘This is for Augusta!’
Three weeks before the 2011 Masters Tournament, Schwartzel got his last fix of the bush on the weekend before leaving for the United States.
With him on the trip were three of his closest friends – Richard Maree and the Van Zyl brothers, Gerrie and Divan – and their wives. They enjoyed a traditional braai, the South African version of a barbecue.
“A perfectly fine evening around the fire,” Schwartzel said. “Then it started to get a little bit rough.”
The “rough” began when Maree broke out a coffee liqueur and started pouring shooters he called ponchos. Schwartzel isn’t much of a drinker.
“I don’t like to get so that I don’t know where I am,” he said. “I don’t like the feeling of it. I always pace myself.”
Still, Schwartzel couldn’t resist a toast to a nice weekend, then another toast to his recent repeat victory at the Joburg Open.
“I said ‘I don’t want any more,’ ” Schwartzel said. “The evening went on. I said ‘OK, we’ll have one more’ and ‘I’m going to win the Masters.’ ”
Die Een Is Vir Augusta – “This is for Augusta!”
“The rest of the night, everything was for Augusta,” Gerrie Van Zyl said.
The next thing they knew, the men ended up at the stables. Maree screamed the battle cry of the evening – Vir Augusta! – then jumped off the dam into the cow pool. Before long, they were all ankle-deep in cow dung and toasting the Masters.
“They threw me in there ‘For Augusta!’ ” Schwartzel said.
Said Van Zyl, who lost his cellphone that night in the cow pool: “Like farmer boys do at this side of the ocean. As youngsters in deep winter, that’s the only place to warm up your feet is to stand in the warm cow dung. I supposed that night, with a few drinks, it all became natural again.”
Four weeks later, Schwartzel slipped his arms into a green jacket.
Schwartzel is often invisible – which is some feat for a Masters champion ranked among the top 10 in the world.
“Charl is a bit under the radar,” said his father, George.
Reporters from around the world have been wearing ruts into the roads of Northern Ireland chasing every move of Rory McIlroy, but few have ventured to South Africa to comb through Schwartzel’s roots. None of that bothers him.
“I don’t look too much into how famous I am or how much attention I get,” he said. “Saying that, I’ve always thrived on proving people wrong. It motivates me in a way sometimes to say that other guys get all the attention and saying they’re going to win. It’s not a thing that I have sleepless nights. It is what it is. They are more in the spotlight than us.
“My dad always had a saying, ‘Let the clubs do the talking.’ At the end of the day, that’s what I do and carry on with what got me to that window and climb on through.”
Anyone who overlooks Schwartzel is grossly underestimating his stature and potential among the game’s elite.
Since the young South African broke into the top 50 and qualified for his first Masters in 2010, only he and Phil Mickelson have made the cut in every major the past two seasons. Only Schwartzel has finished in the top 18 in each of the past seven majors.
“I think people sometimes look past how consistent I played,” he said. “I sort of thrive on consistency. That’s my biggest goal. To me, seeing that stat in the majors just shows you that they can say what they like but that was no luck winning at Augusta. I play well in those big events. To me, it’s a great comfort, a sense of achievement.”
Call of the wild
A boma is a traditional ringed enclosure around a fire pit in South Africa. Schwartzel built one just outside the new Blair Atholl home that he and his wife, Rosalind, have overlooking the rolling hills of Gary Player’s family estate. He relaxes there almost every evening he’s home and listens as a jackal’s howl pierces through the chirps of the frogs and crickets.
“The sound of the jackal is very common – it’s a beautiful sound,” he said. “They call each other. Like a howling. Reminds me of the bush.”
It’s the bush that quickens his heart most. He contributed half the money for building a thatched-roof home amid the trees on his grandfather’s bushveld farm, which has 2,500 acres loaded with game including kudu, impala, warthog, gemsbok, red hartebeest and two young giraffes named Charl and Ros.
Is he more comfortable on the golf course or the bush?
“Probably in the bush. He loves the bush. He loves nature,” said Albert Kruger, a teammate of Schwartzel and Louis Oosthuizen on South Africa’s junior teams.
“That’s where we always go whenever Charl is back – that’s our first priority,” Van Zyl said of the Thabazimbi retreat. “We’ve gone there since youngsters. We go there and go hunting. We would fly up side by side and enjoy two nights in the bush without tents or anything. If Charl was playing the PGA in South Africa, he would be there every weekend.”
Schwartzel is a driven and skilled hunter with strict principles that anything he kills not die in vain. If he shoots a dove on the farm or a warthog in the bush, he makes sure the meat goes to the locals, who will use every part of it.
“Even if I don’t shoot, I love just being in nature,” he said. “Sometimes I just take my rifle and walk into the bush. Find a line and off I go. All day. Sunup to sunset.”
Said Van Zyl: “He’s an enthusiastic walker and stalker. When he likes something, he really likes it. And he’s in it 100 percent.”
Schwartzel is as focused in the bush as he is coming down the stretch of a tournament. He’ll take his shoes off to walk softly through water to sneak up on a warthog.
“That’s adrenaline standing there with a bow and arrow,” he said. “There’s nothing like getting within five meters of something without him knowing you’re there. It’s beating him in his own environment. What’s the fun of shooting something from 200 meters? If you can get within five meters, then you’ve beaten him in his own environment.”
Which sport is his favorite – golf or hunting?
“That’s a hell of a toss-up,” Schwartzel said.
Said Van Zyl: “When he’s hunting, that’s like on 15 and 16 at Augusta. He’s in that mode and will kill anything that comes in his way. Never seen anybody as enthusiastic about anything that he’s doing, whether it’s flying or hunting or golf.”
A chicken farm is an unusual incubator for a Masters champion.
Schwartzel grew up playing and working on the 32,000-acre farm that has been in his family for three generations. There are no fences separating the property, which has been divided among family members from the original tract his maternal grandfather accumulated.
From age 4 through winning the Masters, this was Schwartzel’s home.
“I love being on a farm,” he said. “Used to drive the tractors and do all of those things when I was a youngster. That was just something that I liked.”
Said his father: “Charl has done everything on the farm. I could leave the farm to him, no problem. He knows everything.”
The farm has a capacity for 43,000 chickens producing about 34,000 eggs a day. It’s entirely self-sufficient, with 15,000 acres of corn providing all the feed. Schwartzel’s father, George, raises two batches of 6,000 new chicks a year to replace the unproductive older hens, which are sold live locally for food.
The Masters champion is as comfortable behind the wheel of a tractor plowing rows in the soil as he is hitting out of a bunker.
“He’s never had a fear of these big farm tractors,” said his father. “He’s always loved to get on them.”
Schwartzel’s contributions to the farm were more along the lines of daily chores that balanced his hours spent at Maccauvlei Golf Course or water skiing on the Vaal River. The elder Schwartzel placed limits on his son’s manual labor, keeping him from some of the more labor-intensive tasks such as grinding corn and mixing it into feed.
“Being a golfer, he has to be careful what he does, losing a finger or something like that,” his father said.
Learning from his father
Being a golfer is the other family trade. George Schwartzel was a pretty fine golfer himself and is a former pro. He competed against many of South Africa’s best in his era, including Dale Hayes and Simon Hobday. He once was a partner with a young Ernie Els and carried them to a victory in a four-ball match before Els set out for international stardom.
“On the first nine holes, Ernie didn’t help him once,” Schwartzel said his dad claims. “Then he came to life on the back nine.”
George was a better amateur than a pro, so he regained his amateur status. By the time he and Lizette started having children, he was a farmer and a recreational golfer.
Charl followed his father to the golf course, playing his first nine holes at age 4.
“My dad was a big golfer, and he used to play golf Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays, just about every single week,” Schwartzel said. “And I used to caddie for him on the Wednesday and Saturday competitions and played with him on the Fridays, and that’s how it started.”
Presidents Cup partner Geoff Ogilvy said of Charl Schwartzel’s swing, “If it’s not the best swing on tour, it’s in the top two or three.” If there is an architect of that swing, it’s George Schwartzel.
“My dad taught me from the start,” Charl said. “He’s put endless time into it. It was never an effort for him.
“He told me from the word go the right grip, the right stance, rhythm, posture, balance. There’s five key things that we always worked on. Whenever something goes wrong, it will be one of those five that have gone haywire somewhere. He always kept it simple.”
The elder Schwartzel occasionally took his son to other teaching pros to look at things on camera and get a second opinion, but as soon as they started to tinker too much, the father and son left. George’s simple philosophy was forged with advice he once got from Otway Hayes, the teaching pro father of Dale Hayes.
“I went to old man Hayes and said I had a problem with hitting it left,” George said. “He said, ‘Well, aim a bit more right.’ That philosophy was keep it simple. What do you want to go and start changing things for?”
Schwartzel dedicated his Masters victory to his father and said he wouldn’t have been able to do it without him. His dad takes no credit in Charl’s achievements.
“I think every parent that has a child that plays sport, you dream of something nice happening and they’ll become champion. It actually happens to very few,” his father said. “People don’t understand that every specific person has something unique that makes them a champion, not how they’ve been coached. Some of the best players in the world, the greats, their sons have never become what they were. Who knows? It comes from anywhere.
“People come from this background without exposure to what you think they should have, and it’s just up to them. How can you teach someone to hole those putts from 15 and 16? It just comes from inside. It’s something special that they have and you can’t teach that.”
Hayes and Hobday are great admirers of Schwartzel’s game and understand well where it came from.
“He got his ability from his father, but there’s no question that he must have got his golfing temperament from his mother because his father was very fiery on the golf course,” said Hobday, who won the 1994 U.S. Senior Open. “He hit a bad shot and three or four clubs got broken. It wasn’t just one. He’d take it out on the whole bag.”
Said Hayes of the elder Schwartzel: “Golf made him crazy. Nothing else. For anything else, he is as cool as anything.”
George pleads guilty as charged.
“It made a monster out of me,” he said. “I’m actually quite a nice guy until I get on the golf course. Then I become a monster. Luckily, Charl’s not.”
The drive to be better
Schwartzel contended in his first tournament in 1997 at age 13. He didn’t win but shot 69 in one round.
It proved to be a taste of what became an illustrious amateur career, with more than 30 individual victories, many team triumphs, numerous scoring records and national player of the year honors.
“You see what he achieved when he was that young,” said his father, who kept a detailed list of his older son’s amateur exploits. “I grew up with a golfer called Dale Hayes. He won a European Order of Merit (in 1975). I used to practice and play with Dale, but I could never beat him. When Charl started, I always compared him to Dale. I thought, ‘How the hell did he do that? You’re not supposed to do that at that age.’ Then I realized, you could see how good he was going to be.”
Charl’s younger brother, Attie, is in many ways the better athlete. He is good enough to have some status on South Africa’s Sunshine Tour, and he holds the family record for the best score with a 59 he posted at Houghton Country Club.
Charl gets as excited showing off his brother’s scorecard on the wall as anything else in the house.
“He shot 26 on the front,” Schwartzel said in a tone of wonder. “He was 14-under through 15 holes. He actually bogeyed 17. Twenty-six! Have you ever seen anything like it in your life? Never. My brother’s better than me.”
It was Charl, however, who consistently displayed the intangibles that made him a winner at an early age and never stopped.
“Winning anything helps you,” he said. “When you win a junior or amateur tournament, at that stage it’s the biggest thing in your life. It keeps going up and up and up.
You’ll never win the Masters without winning any of these other things. You’ve got to build a base somewhere, and that’s where it starts. You don’t just get thrown into the deep side.”
His friends knew from the beginning that he’d accomplish great things in the game.
“He always had something extra in him,” Kruger said. “He always set the example. You just knew.”
Though his swing was always a thing of beauty and rhythm, it was his commitment to honing it that stood out.
“He’s always played excellent golf, and his dedication to the game was always much higher and better than anyone else who played on his amateur level at that stage,” Gerrie Van Zyl said. “When he was quite young he used to stand and putt there until late at night.”
“He’s always been a very hard worker,” he said. “Me and Louis, we always wanted to do something after the round. Charl would always stay a little bit extra practicing while we went off and did something else. He’s
definitely a good role model and somebody that you look up to. Never had that wild side to him. He’s always walked the right path.”
Schwartzel’s motivation was to keep improving.
“Some people are actually happy with an average result. I’ve never been like that,” he said. “I’ve always sort of pushed myself further. I used to stand here at night while everyone else wanted to come off the course and have something to drink. I’d stand there and putt. I always felt like I needed to push to be a little bit better. I need to do a little bit more than the guy that I’m playing against, because how else am I going to beat him?”
Of all the trophies and pictures that fill his parents’ home, one stands out.
It’s a picture of Schwartzel wearing that familiar smile and standing with one of his managers, Mark Bell, on the day he earned his first European Tour card at age 18 years, 81 days – the fourth-youngest player at the time to do so. Scribbled across the photo above the date 20/11/2002 and his signature are the words “Mission Accomplished.”
“Just to get the card was one of the biggest,” he said of his accumulation of prizes. “To play on the European Tour was a dream. At that stage I didn’t know what it meant.”
Schwartzel got through all three stages of the Q-School on his first try. He played as an amateur during the first stage and signed the papers to turn pro halfway through the second stage.
“The final stage, I remember making the cut after four rounds, and if you do you get your full Challenge (Tour) status,” he said of the European equivalent of the Nationwide Tour. “Mark Bell was saying, ‘Well done. You’ve got your full status on the Challenge Tour.’ I was so excited.”
He continued to play well the last two rounds, shooting 66 on the final day.
“I finished birdie-birdie-birdie the last three holes to make it by two shots after six rounds,” he said, still as proud of that closing kick as he was making four consecutive birdies to win the Masters. “That’s where it all started.”
He won his first pro tournament two years later at age 20, winning a playoff with a birdie on the first extra hole of the Dunhill Championship at Leopard Creek.
“Getting your first win, that can become a big thing if you keep getting close but never get it,” he said. “To break through was good.”
Aiming for more
The Masters victory at age 26 came in his 17th major but only his second trip to Augusta.
“I see the questions that Sergio Garcia, Luke Donald and Adam Scott get asked – When are you going to get your first major?” Schwartzel said. “We all are good enough. It has nothing to do with ability. It’s just actually doing it eventually. I think it becomes such a big thing that it becomes harder. It adds more pressure. You come down the last 18 holes with a chance of winning and it adds so much more. You’ve already got enough pressure trying to play the game properly and finish it off to get a win. Now you’re going to get added pressure from everyone.”
With a green jacket among his 11 professional worldwide wins, Schwartzel’s legacy has been stamped with a seal of legitimacy.
“I think at the end of your career, it all goes about wins,” he said. “If you can add majors to those W’s that you got, that’s made you from a good golfer to a great. It’s always going to be that way. If you get a major, all of the sudden if you’ve had other wins as well you will be in a category of a great. …
“Luke Donald, he’s fantastic. Lee Westwood is fantastic. It’s difficult to say that they’re not greats. But a lot of guys, taking those couple out, will always be remembered as good golfers and not greats. Colin Montgomerie was great. Eight Order of Merits, but if you add a major title or two, he’d be a legend. To win a major in golf is the ultimate.”
That he reached that pinnacle by age 26 is no surprise to Schwartzel.
“I think of it as my career is going the way I think it should be going,” he said. “The wins are coming at the right time. In golfing terms, I’m not even going into my best years yet. …
“Winning something like the Masters, if I get into that position again, I use that as a boost. I’ve done it before. A lot of people will turn it around and say you’ve got to try and win two now because they think one is lucky, which is a stupid way of thinking about it. If that’s your thought process, the second one is probably harder to win.”
With Schwartzel taking up his cards on both the PGA and European tours in 2011, time spent in his new home outside Johannesburg or the bush has been limited.
“I follow the summer everywhere I go, except when I go to England, where it’s winter all the time,” he said.
The Schwartzels spend about 25 percent of their time in South Africa, which his wife calls “not enough.”
“It’s tough, it really is,” Schwartzel said. “What it’s meant is a lot more time away from your personal life.”
Following in the global traveling footsteps of South African predecessors Player and Els had not been one of Schwartzel’s goals.
“It never interested me to play in America in the beginning,” he said. “I was very happy with where I was. It was only a couple of years ago that I decided I wanted to start playing world golf.”
With that comes a whole host of logistical difficulties. The shortest one-way flight from Johannesburg to any tournament outside Africa that Schwartzel plays is nine hours to Dubai. It’s 11 hours to the United Kingdom; 10 hours to Perth, Australia; and 16 hours direct to Atlanta. Schwartzel says it takes him three days to fully adjust to his new time zone when he leaves home for the U.S. and about six days after returning.
“You have to be careful about flying across time zones for just one week,” he said. “You’ve got to plan it properly so you’re out there for a stretch. The biggest challenge is not to commit to tournaments because you have to. If you play too many places too many times in a row, your golf actually goes down.”
Schwartzel barely fulfilled his PGA Tour member requirement of playing 15 events and just missed qualifying for the Tour Championship at East Lake.
“I look back and I’ve only played the minimum events in America and it feels like I’ve been out there forever,” he said.
Schwartzel wants to retain his card on both tours but wonders whether it’s worth it. He finished his 2011 season 32nd in the FedEx Cup standings and fourth in the European Tour’s Race for Dubai,
“There’s no point in playing the minimum on both (tours) and hovering in the middle,” he said. “I want to play one where you can actually compete to win the money list – the FedEx or the Race for Dubai, whichever one you pick.”
His golfing idol, Els, often has been questioned about the grueling extent of his world travels and the toll it might have taken on his Hall of Fame career – and Els has long been based in more accessible places such as London and Florida.
Schwartzel sees the lessons of Els’ example but believes he’ll have to learn for himself how to handle the extreme travel.
“Every golfer is quite stubborn,” he said. “People can say it might be too much for him but maybe it works for you. The only way to find out is to do it yourself.”
The entrance sign to the Schwartzels’ farm is in two languages – Afrikaans and one of the Bantu black languages. English was always a secondary language for Schwartzel, making him come across as shy and reserved in early interviews before he became more fluent.
“Living on the farm, everyone speaks Afrikaans,” he said. “So that’s what I grew up with. Anything about golf we change straight over into English. Anything else is Afrikaans. A lot of it will mix. Sometimes if you listen to a conversation it can be very confusing. It’s not on purpose, just by nature of how we talk.”
The most important Afrikaans term for golf fans to understand is groen baaitjie – green jacket. The symbol of Augusta National has become a constant companion of Schwartzel’s as he travels the world.
“It’s become like our child,” Rosalind said.
Said her husband: “We only get to keep it for a year and then you leave it in your locker. Instead of leaving it in South Africa and only seeing it every two months – what’s the point of that? – I just travel with it every week. I see it every day. You obviously don’t put it on every day, but you see it and sometimes you just stare at it for a while.”
Others stare, too.
“It’s amazing how much attention that jacket draws,” Schwartzel said. “We walk around the airport – I’ve still got it as they gave it to me in the same green bag – anywhere you go in the world people know the stature of what that jacket means.”
Schwartzel wears the jacket only to appropriate functions. At the request of organizers, he wore it to the European Tour’s awards banquet, making him stand out somewhat awkwardly at the black-tie affair.
“Most people thought I was a waiter. It’s the right color to go hunting in,” he added with a smile, though rest assured he has never worn it into the bush.
The green jacket was the major bounty he dreamed of since he was a child.
“Darren Clarke said to me that the Open Championship is the only one he ever wanted to win. And he won it,” Schwartzel said. “For me, I come from South Africa and the Masters just stands out to me so much more than any of the others. The Open Championship is an old championship and has prestige and I would love to win it. But there’s only one Augusta. Every spot on that course has got a memory.”
Schwartzel might still be a bit of a mystery to worldwide fans searching for heroes in the new generation of young stars, but he’s not in the shadows at home.
“I had a lot more supporters than I thought,” he said. “Before, when I’d go in my golf clothes people would recognize me. Now I can go with my glasses on and wear anything and people will recognize me. People will always look in restaurants or turn around in shopping malls.”
It’s not just the typical golf fans who recognize him.
“What showed me how big it was?” he said. “In South Africa you still have guys who put in fuel in your car. I wouldn’t think they’d spend their money buying newspapers. I stopped at the fuel station dressed in hunting clothes going to the farm. Had a hat on, a complete different look. Guy looked at me and said I look familiar. I don’t want to make a scene and said that can’t be. He said, ‘No, no. no, you did something.’ I said ‘No, I’m just a hunter.’ He said, ‘No, you’re the one with that green jacket.’ ”
“He knew exactly. For him to know that showed me how much publicity it got in South Africa. It wasn’t just the people who play golf. This was a guy who worked at a petrol station. But he still knew that I won the Masters. I thought, ‘Wow, this is bigger than winning the Johannesburg Open.’”
Schwartzel is gaining recognition in the U.S., where he played a full season as a rookie in 2011 a year after finishing runner-up in a final-round duel against Els at Doral.
“I think last year’s WGC in Doral put me on the map in America,” he said. “People actually recognized me and knew more about me. Obviously, winning the Masters, you couldn’t get much bigger. The reaction I get is huge. It feels like I get a lot of support from behind the ropes. I get a warm feeling there. It shows they’ve accepted you as a golfer and a major champion and a member of the PGA Tour.”
What do they seem to like in him?
“I’m a modest guy,” he said. “Maybe it’s the smile.”
What Schwartzel achieved with that brilliant finish last April sunk in when he saw a replay a few weeks after it was over.
“I actually took a picture walking up the 18th,” he said of seeing himself making that familiar champion’s march. “I’ve seen pictures of Tiger (Woods) walking up there so many times and pictures of Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer and Player. Then you see yourself. It sort of gives a little tingle to your spine.”
He tells all this while standing in that hallway outside his childhood bedroom surrounded by many of the spoils of his career. It is not the achievements gained and the trophies mounted that Schwartzel dwells on, however. It’s the thrill of the hunt that keeps the African ghost engaged.
“I don’t want it to finish there,” he said of the Masters. “I believe that I have so much more in me. I don’t want to make it sound like this is my last one. I carry on. People can take that the wrong way. But to me, I’ve got it. I worked very hard for it. Now I’m at a stage where I want to work to get more. You can’t celebrate on how it was all the time. I’ve set my sights on more.”