In early April, following a top-10 finish at the Augusta Haskins Award Invitational in Augusta, Georgia, the men’s golf team made a visit to Augusta National Golf Club during the Monday practice round of the Masters. For most, including the team’s best golfer, South African Kieron van Wyk, it was their first time at the revered event.
“It was pretty special,” says van Wyk. “I like the prestige around the property. But the best part was watching the best golfers in the world and how they go about their business, especially in a practice round.”
The highlight was following Tiger Woods around for two hours – the first time he had ever seen the five-time Masters champ in person.
“He’s the reason why I started playing golf,” says van Wyk. “He’s my role model.”
Perhaps some young golfer will say that about van Wyk someday, given how well his collegiate career is going. Van Wyk, 20, became the first Black golfer to win the Colonial Athletic Association individual title – as a freshman no less. He also led the Cougars to a spot in the 2022 NCAA Division I Men’s Golf Championship – the first time since 2001 the team qualified – and was named the 2022 CAA Golfer of the Year.
Coach Mitch Krywulycz, who played on two national championship teams at Augusta State University, loves having van Wyk on the CofC team.
“Kieron brings professionalism, competitiveness and belief,” he says. “Lots of athletes have one or two of these attributes, but to have all three is rare. He is diligent in his preparation and has the belief to perform under immense pressure.”
The first time that happened for van Wyk as a Cougar was at the Schenkel Invitational in Statesboro, Georgia, in March 2022, when he won his first college tournament. He then won the CAA Championship in late April, shooting a 5-under 67 in the final round and coming from three strokes back to nip another Cougar freshman, Nevill Ruiter, by three strokes. (The Cougars also won the team title, its second in a row and sixth since 2014.) He was also co-winner at the Bank of Tennessee Invitational last October.
“At this level, everyone can play a good round of golf; playing that round when the pressure’s highest, that’s difficult,” notes Krywulycz, adding that van Wyk’s dedication makes him a joy to coach. “Kieron understands he needs to constantly improve to achieve his goals. While that can be a frustrating process, he doesn’t allow it to break him.”
Van Wyk loves the game too much for that to happen, even in a difficult year like this past season, when he had to sit out four months due to a back injury related to the scoliosis he was diagnosed with as a child. (He still managed to pick up his second CAA Golfer of the Year trophy in May.)
It all started when van Wyk’s father, Rodwill, introduced him and his older brother, Keelan, to the game by playing David Leadbetter instructional videos after dinner. They soon had their own junior clubs and were taking swings in the backyard in Johannesburg.
“We started out hitting around plastic balls before we moved on to real golf balls because he was too scared that we would break the windows around the house,” recalls van Wyk. “My love for the game grew from that point.”
One night when van Wyk was about 7, his dad switched on the TV to a PGA Tour event in the U.S. “Here’s a guy I want you to look at,” he told his boys. The guy was Tiger Woods.
“If you see a Black person like Tiger Woods dominating the sport that you love, it obviously motivates you to push on to do the same thing and be that example for someone else,” says van Wyk, who gave up soccer at age 11 to focus on golf. “I like the individual side of golf, not having to rely on other people to be successful.”
He was 14 when he won his first big junior tournament, the Silver Vase, and then helped his high school team win a national championship. He was playing an event in Jakarta, Indonesia, where he finished second, when a friend of Krywulycz recommended he recruit van Wyk. Van Wyk liked that Krywulycz was Australian and would understand what it would be like to be so far from home.
“When I think of Kieron,” says Krywulycz, “I see a young man who interacts extremely well with the youth of our First Tee Charleston partnership, a sophomore who learned how to cook a Lowcountry boil with his teammates, an athlete who loves to eat my wife’s brownies and late-night ice cream with his roommates.”
After getting his degree in business administration, van Wyk plans on turning pro, possibly through a new program by the PGA Tour designed to give the top Division I senior golfers post-college playing privileges on its various developmental tours.
“I want to capitalize on that opportunity because it’s a shorter route to turning professional,” he says. “My dream has always been to be on the PGA Tour.”
And then one day, perhaps, a practice round with Tiger at Augusta.