[PHOTO: Hector Vivas]

Erik van Rooyen, playing with a heavy heart and an inspired resolve, capped a remarkable closing burst with an 18-foot eagle putt on the 18th hole to surge past Matt Kuchar and win the World Wide Technology Championship by two strokes in Los Cabos, Mexico.

Van Rooyen, a 33-year-old from South Africa, raised a fist in the air after the winning putt dropped on the par-5 home hole at El Cardonal at Diamante. It was the crowning stroke on a back-nine 28 and closing nine-under 63 that gave him his second PGA Tour victory. After retrieving his ball from the hole, van Rooyen shared a long embrace with his caddie, Alex Gaugert, who broke down sobbing. Van Rooyen and Gaugert were thinking of their former college teammate, Jon Trasamar, who is battling terminal cancer, and they had dedicated the week to him.

Finishing the tournament at 27-under 261, van Rooyen had trouble speaking in the immediate aftermath, taking several seconds to collect himself. “There’s bigger stuff in life than golf,” he said, fighting back tears thinking of his former University of Minnesota teammate. “If you look at my ball… it has the initials ‘JT’ and it’s for Jon Trasamar, our best friend. He’s got melanoma, and he’s not going to make it. And every shot out there was for him. And when you’re playing for something bigger than some silly trophy it puts things in perspective, and at the end of the day whether I won here or whether I lost here, it really did not matter.

“Yeah, when something motivates you like that whether you make a putt or miss a putt, who cares?”

Van Rooyen made just about every putt he looked at on the inward nine at the Tiger Woods-designed El Cardonal layout. He began the day a stroke behind Kuchar and Camilo Villegas, who were at 19-under 197 through 54 holes, and fell farther behind as Villegas birdied four of his first six and then Kuchar took over with as burst of four birdies in six holes beginning with a 25-footer at the par-3 ninth.

It still looked like a two-man battle, but Justin Suh made a back-nine push of his own to get within one of Kuchar before van Rooyen caught fire. He birdied the first three holes of the back nine, added a two-putt birdie at the 14th and then got over the top by playing his final three holes in four-under.

Entering the week ranked 193rd in the world, van Rooyen converted from 30 feet at the par-3 16th, added an 18-footer for birdie at the 17th, and then reached the 535-metre par-5 last in two shots to set up the winning putt.

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Kuchar, who had won this event in 2018, missed the green with his second shot and pitched his third to 15 feet, hoping to have a chance for a tie. But van Rooyen, who’s only other tour win was the 2021 Barracuda Championship, never gave him the chance.

Van Rooyen raised a fist in the air after the winning putt found the centre of the cup. It was the crowning stroke in closing nine-under 63 and 27-under 261 total. After retrieving his ball from the hole, van Rooyen shared a long embrace with Gaugert, who was also a member of the University of Minnesota golf team with Trasamar, whose pro career was confined mainly to the mini-tours.

“Just hung in there and made some fricking awesome putts on 16, 17 and 18,” said van Rooyen, who at one point this season missed seven cuts in a row.

Villegas, a four-time tour winner trying to make a comeback from his own personal tragedy—the death of his 22-month-old daughter Mia to cancer in 2020—birdied the last and tied Kuchar for second place at 25-under 263. Both shot 66.

“A lot of positives this week. Man, it’s been a long few years, a lot of work,” said Villegas, 41, who has slipped to 752nd in the world and even did some analyst work for Golf Channel this past northern summer. “This year has been a grind just technically working with my new instructor, working with a new mental coach and getting a little bit older. But I don’t want to stop playing. I love playing. You never know, you never know. You keep waiting for the results to come and you keep grinding and you keep grinding. And obviously this week was a special one.”

“I’m pretty bummed… But I hold my head held high,” said the 45-year-old Kuchar, who was seeking his 10th career title. “Erik played incredible golf. What was that, eight-under par on the final nine holes is quite an awesome finale, so hard to keep up with.”

The victory was worth $US1.476 million for van Rooyen, who was planning to fly to Minnesota on Monday to visit Trasamar. But the only real value he saw in the endeavour was that he carried his friend in his very heavy heart with each stroke he made.

“It’s extremely immaterial,” he said. “You know, it takes some not too long to mature and it takes others longer to mature, and it’s taken me a while. I’m 33 years old and I’ve got two kids now. That gives you perspective. Then when something like this happens where your best friend who was best man in my wedding—what’s it, nine years ago now—when he’s hit with melanoma, it puts things in perspective while golf doesn’t really matter.

The part hybrid, part fairway wood that propelled Erik van Rooyen to victory at the World Wide Technology Championship

“When I’m 80 years old, if I get to that age, and I look back, if I lost it, I certainly wouldn’t remember it. I’m going to remember the people that I spent time with, the people that I love, and he’s certainly one of them.”

But now van Rooyen has a win he’ll always remember, dedicated to a friend he’ll never forget.