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The (astonishingly) long story on Wilco Nienaber

6 Min Read


RIDGELAND, SOUTH CAROLINA - JUNE 13: Wilco Nienaber of South Africa plays his shot from the 12th tee during the final round of the Palmetto Championship at Congaree on June 13, 2021 in Ridgeland, South Carolina. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

RIDGELAND, SOUTH CAROLINA - JUNE 13: Wilco Nienaber of South Africa plays his shot from the 12th tee during the final round of the Palmetto Championship at Congaree on June 13, 2021 in Ridgeland, South Carolina. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

South African with 200 mph ball speed finished T14 at Congaree, now heads to U.S. Open

    Written by Cameron Morfit @CMorfitPGATOUR

    Wilco Nienaber makes birdie on No. 15 at Palmetto Championship

    To begin to grasp the essence of Wilco Nienaber (Knee-knobber), the ultra-long, 21-year-old South African who is about to blow people’s minds at the 121st U.S. Open, you first must note the experience of veteran pro Zack Sucher (Sooker) last week.

    Sucher, 34, is not a small man. In fact, he’s the rare PGA TOUR pro who has wrestled an alligator. He also can play: A two-time college All-America at University of Alabama-Birmingham, he, like Nienaber, earned his way into this week’s field at Torrey Pines South.

    So when Sucher played with Nienaber for two rounds at the Palmetto Championship at Congaree – Nienaber’s PGA TOUR debut (T14) – it was an odd contrast, indeed.

    Off the tee, Sucher’s game looked child-like.

    “I felt pretty bad about myself, to be honest,” he said after the second round, laughing despite having just missed the cut. “Getting outdriven by 70 yards every hole will make you feel pretty awful. That was pretty much standard.

    “If I hit it just perfect,” he continued, “it was at least 60 to 65 yards; if I didn’t, it was at least 70 every time. Some of the lines – it was very different golf. I had a 6-iron in, he was chipping a wedge. The amazing part is he doesn’t look like he swings it that hard. It’s very controlled. He just crushes it. I played with a lot of long players; he’s the longest I’ve seen.”

    Every so often a golfer comes along whose speed and power boggles the mind, prompting equal parts laughter, wonder, and disbelief. Jack Nicklaus was such a player, and John Daly. Ditto for Bubba Watson, Dustin Johnson, Tony Finau, Cameron Champ, and Bryson DeChambeau 2.0.

    And now we have Nienaber, who at 6 feet, 2 inches tall and 175 pounds will never be mistaken for Mr. Universe. He’s a ropy, lean sort of strong, all sinew and fast-twitch fibers. His build recalls two-time world long drive champion Jamie Sadlowski, or a young Darryl Strawberry.

    Garrick Higgo, his good friend since they were 10 or 11, broke through at Congaree on Sunday. Nienaber, who finished four shots behind him, could very well be next and is already generating chatter. He won the European Tour co-sanctioned Dimension Data Pro-Am in May and made the U.S. Open field by virtue of his perch atop the Sunshine Tour Order of Merit.

    “I’ve been very long ever since I can remember,” he said at Congaree. “I didn’t like when the guys in the group hit it past me. Growing up I didn’t have a driver, either. I used a 3-wood.

    “I’m not sure if that made a difference (developmentally),” he continued. “My dad just said there’s no need for a driver. He said the time wasn’t right. I got a driver when I was about 13.”

    The third child and only son of a financial advisor and a hairdresser – although his mom has since gone on to work with his dad – Nienaber is nothing like DeChambeau in either build or temperament. He has never used a force-plate, and not until the 2018 British Amateur did someone put him on a launch monitor.

    “On the range, with one of the reps,” he said. “He couldn’t really believe what he saw, and I had no idea what good numbers were. From that day I learned a bit more of it, and then when I could afford my own TrackMan I got myself one.

    “My hands,” he continued, when pressed for the method to his mad speed. “My hands are pretty quick. And my legs are very strong as well. I use the ground really well.”

    How well? Stories from PING headquarters in Phoenix have him eclipsing 200 mph ball speed. At the 2020 Joburg Open, he hit a 439-yard tee shot, a European Tour record.

    “I mean, I’m pretty damn long and I wasn’t sniffin’ him,” said Joseph Bramlett, who played with Nienaber at Congaree on Sunday. “As of yesterday, I was second in driving distance and he was first, and he was hitting it 30 by me. It wasn’t even close. The kid is pretty impressive.

    “He hit driver on every hole,” Bramlett continued. “To be able to hit it that far and that straight, that’s a weapon. I’ve played with Cam Champ quite a bit, and it’s pretty similar.”

    Added Higgo, when asked if he ever hits it past Nienaber, “I don't even watch where he hits it.”

    What might happen if Nienaber gets paired with DeChambeau?

    “It’ll be pretty similar,” Nienaber said. “I’m not sure what the difference will be between the two of us, but it will look very different, the way we get the numbers. But it’ll be cool to see; Bryson’s done a really cool thing. I admire him. It’ll be interesting.”

    Wilco, by the way, is not a common name in South Africa, either. Nienaber said he was unaware of the rock band by the same name until a pro-am partner mentioned it at Congaree.

    Last week was his first time competing in America since the 2017 Greg Norman Invitational at Myrtle Beach (he won) and Junior PLAYERS Championship (didn’t win), and his face is the only boyish thing about him that remains from that time. Sucher said two Wal-Marts would fit between their drives.

    “This will never show up on the stats,” he said, “but on 16 he hit one left. It was the only bad drive he hit in two days. He hit a provisional, and it stopped three feet off the front of the green, like 403 yards right down the pipe. That was the only ball I saw him swing hard at for two days.”

    (Nienaber found his first drive and didn’t end up using the titanic shot.)

    “And his short game,” Sucher continued, “that’s the part that – anybody who hits it that far shouldn’t have a good short game. That’s not fair. It was really, really impressive.”

    Although Nienaber works hard on flexibility and strength in order to prevent injury, he shrugs off the notion that he’s worked at being long. “I can definitely get longer,” he said.

    He expects butterflies this week, as it will be his first major. Nerves got the better of him at Congaree, too, in his third-round 74 when he played alongside Higgo. Both were in contention, but only Higgo (68) remained there. Still, everyone is entitled to a bad round, and Nienaber is only 21.

    Odds are he is going to last, and American fans will have to expand their thinking. When he took an outrageous line at Congaree’s severe dogleg right, par-4 11th hole early in the week, cutting the corner in such a way as to make it look like he’d driven it into the woods, spectators around the tee went very quiet.

    “I don’t think they knew what line I was going to take,” Nienaber said with a laugh, “so it looked pretty far right to them. And a guy with a cigar said to my caddie, Jason, as he grabbed a couple waters out of the cooler, ‘Oh, man. Is that all right? Is your man any good?’

    “That was pretty funny,” he continued. “Is your man any good? What do you answer to that?”

    Yes. He is. That’s your answer.

    Cameron Morfit began covering the PGA TOUR with Sports Illustrated in 1997, and after a long stretch at Golf Magazine and joined PGATOUR.COM as a Staff Writer in 2016. Follow Cameron Morfit on Twitter.

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