From double hitting chips to getting back in the winner's circle
When Darren Fichardt looked down on the first green of the recent Joburg Open, everything looked different – the putter, the grip, even the way the South African held the club.
The trusty Sabertooth of the past eight years had left the bag the previous day to be replaced by the Odyssey O-Works #2. After 30 years of conventional putting a new pencil clench was also in place while the grip itself had been switched the previous evening.
Fichardt needed a change – his form of the past seven weeks had been, in his own words, ‘horrendous’ and the past 18 months hadn’t been much better.
Four days and 54 soggy holes later he was the champion, at 41 the oldest winner on the European Tour this season and with a spot booked at Royal Birkdale for the Open Championship.
What has been the problem of the past 18 months?
Last year was a big struggle with my short game. I made some swing changes two years ago and they worked out well but I lost a lot of feel with my short game. I have always been a good chipper so have never got too technical or known why I was doing it, I have always been a feel player.
Then I had to go back and learn how to chip again, my angles had completely changed. Earlier this year I had a double hit on a chip, I’ve never done that before in my life!
Now I have gone back to how I used to chip and do what comes naturally.
What did the swing changes involve?
My swing is all feel, I went to a good friend and said I wanted to get a little fade back into my game.
I had almost won the South African money list and won on Tour in 2012 and 2013 but I wanted to push myself and that was clearly a mistake. He did what I asked him to do and I hit the fade and I was more consistent with my stats but when I missed a green I wasn’t getting up and down.
Your confidence and belief can drop and then it is a mental thing. It was a huge obstacle to get that back but I knew a long stretch of tournaments would help to get that back.
You chose to work your way through your problems?
I wanted to work hard, we didn’t have a holiday, and I wanted to play as many tournaments as possible. Seven weeks later I came home with a W.
You never lose it and also, at the end of the day, you should never be scared to change and sometimes a change is as good as a holiday. Mentally when it starts snowballing in the wrong way it’s good to change, whether it is your pre-shot routine or whatever. Just get out of the rut.
And you won with a new putter?
I had used the same putter for eight years and the same grip for 30. I changed both the day before the tournament started and so it was great to have something new with all those bad memories.
The Sabertooth is face balanced and I changed to something completely different, a blade with the Odyssey O-Works #2 which is a different length, weight and grip.
I was playing so badly I had nothing to lose, what was the worse that could happen?
That said I’m not a big tinkerer, I’ve had the same fairway woods for the last four years, maybe that’s an age thing.
You’ve had a lot of wins, five on the main Tour and 13 on the Sunshine. When you’re in contention you seem to love it?
I make better decisions when I’m leading. When I get into contention I actually feel more relaxed, this is why I practise and where I want to be. I am better focused and more conservative. The others need to birdie to catch me so I play more percentages and that way I make more birdies.
Mark McNulty told me to always play your own game and trust yourself, trying to cut one in there when you draw it doesn’t work. When I’m behind I push too hard and make a lot of silly bogeys and get angry.
I always look at every scoreboard, I’m too inquisitive, if I don’t know what’s going on I get a bit stressed out. I’m a bit of a control freak. I don’t believe a word of it when players say they’re not looking.
It’s 10 times more stressful when on the cut line going up the last hole.
In your early days, like a lot of players, you didn’t want to win because of the winner’s speech?
I said to myself when I was 15 that this had to change. I was so petrified about making a speech, I would be shaking like a leaf and could barely hold the mic. At school I tried not to go in when there were speeches to be done. When I was 18 I was way past that and OK with it.
What are you getting right off the course to still being able to win at 41?
I’m loving it like it was my first year. I have such an unbelievable support system, I married well and my wife runs around like a lunatic between me and the kids. I won’t do more than three weeks away from the children. I feel like I’m 20 and I’ve still got my goals, I can still see myself being 60 and feeling the same as I do now.
You’re from a country where the sun shines most days, what was living in Manchester like?
We bought a house in Worsley in 2002 and we loved it there. Richard Sterne, Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel all lived nearby and we would get together and watch the rugby from home, go to the Trafford Centre or Nando’s. We sold up in 2009 as I lost my card.
Do you know Birkdale well?
I have prepared for Dunhill Links there and I love the course. I played in the 2008 Open and I was on the wrong side of the draw.
It was the most horrendous draw I’ve ever had. I played with Jerry Kelly and Damien McGrane, at the 11th you would have to drive in a bush as you couldn’t reach the fairway and have to take an unplayable on the ladies’ tee. Three hours later it was a drive and a 7-iron. I shot 83 and did pretty well for my side of the draw but I was already out of it.
This will be your sixth Open, what are your other memories?
The best draw was in 2000 but then I broke my driver on the second hole, the weight at the back fell out. I was 24 and didn’t know I could replace it so I played the rest of the round with the 3-wood.
Who were your heroes growing up?
Finally, what advice would you give a 20-year-old rookie starting out?
My biggest, advice and this covers most things, is to keep life simple in everything you do. If it is complicated it is complicated for a reason – keep your thoughts and your swing simple.