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Winning is par for the course

In an amazing twist of fate, both the defending champions in this year’s Curro South African Juniors International (SAJI) found themselves in the heat of the battle as the final rounds of both the girls’ and boys’ competitions went into extra time on Thursday.

Defending champion Garrick Higgo from Boland came from behind to tie with overnight leader Wilco Nienaber from the Free State, while Woo Ju-Son from Johannesburg played catch-up and caught Caitlyn Macnab from Ekurhuleni to tussle for back-to-back victories in the seventh edition of the Global Junior Golf Tour event at Durbanville Golf Club.

In the double play-off, Nienaber denied Higgo when he drove his tee shot an incredible 355 metres to set up a birdie at the 18th hole, while Son edged out Macnab at the second extra hole.

Big-hitting Nienaber started out with a three-shot lead at eight under, over second-placed Higgo, and it was a battle royal between the pair. They traded the lead through the first nine holes, with Higgo making up ground with four birdies at one, three, five and six to go, with a bogey four at the fourth.

The would-be-champion made a poor start and was two-over through three holes, courtesy of back-to-back bogeys at two and three. He birdied both par fives at five and six, but his lead at the turn was trimmed to a single shot.

Higgo kept the pressure up on the inward loop with consecutive birdies at 10 and 11 to seize the advantage. Western Province’s Luca Filippi moved into contention in third place at five-under, but the rest of the top 10 were left to look on while battling for bragging rights.

Higgo signed for a six under 66, while Nienaber, who birdied 15 and 16 to stay alive, signed for a 69. The top pair played outstanding golf, and a play-off was a fitting ending to decide the outcome after both players tied at 11-under-par 205.

Nienaber’s power off the tee set him up for the win at the first extra hole. His booming drive finished just short of the 18th green, while Higgo found the putting surface with his approach shot and was less than two metres from the cup. Nienaber’s slightly uphill putt for eagle was left short, but Higgo missed his downhill effort and the Bloemfontein golfer only had to step forward and tap-in for birdie to seal the win.

“I’m stoked to have won,” Nienaber said. “What a battle with Garrick. He played awesome golf and posted the best round of the tournament. I think patience over the three days got me over the line.”

Higgo, as always, was a gentleman in defeat. “Firstly, well done to Wilco, he played awesome golf and deserved the victory,” said Higgo. “I gave it my best shot and am proud to have put up such a brave defence.”

Filippi finished alone in third on five-under-par 211 after closing with a two under 70.

For the first two days of the tournament, plenty of wind made life difficult for the players, especially the girls, who battled to beat par in Wednesday’s second round.

Macnab – a petite teenager with tremendous power off the tee – drew on the experiences of competing in four events on the Sunshine Ladies’ Tour to edge into the first-round lead, beginning the final round with a two-shot cushion over Ju-Son.

She had never won a tournament before, but she more than held her own in coming into the biggest tournament of its kind in Africa. The chance to lead from start to finish was there, but Macnab came up just one shot short after posting a two-over 74 with six bogeys and four birdies.

Ju-Son battled to find rhythm over the first two rounds, but the country’s top-ranked junior hung in bravely with so much riding on the outcome. Also small in stature, the defending champion played in the final grouping of the day and made it count, putting Macnab under pressure from the start. She never gave up in the face of adversity and made a good job of it by posting an even-par 72 with two birdies and two bogeys.

The pair, who both celebrated their 15th birthdays on 18 February, tied at one-over-par 217, but Ju-Son completed a successful defence in her sixth appearance with a par on her second trip down the 18th in the play-off.

“Somehow I was able to stay in contention without playing my best golf and it was good enough at the end. Caitlyn played great throughout and she should be very proud of her performance,” said Ju-Son.

Macnab paid tribute to Woo. “To win for the second year in a row is an amazing achievement. She played well when it mattered most. I didn’t play well today and paid the price. I’m really disappointed, but that’s the way it goes,” she said.

Jihye Park from Australia carded a 73 to complete the podium with a total score of two over 218.

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