[PHOTO: Octavio Passos/R&A]

There’s a new path to reach the Open Championship for top-level amateur golfers, and the first competition for that honour lived up to the high stakes.

Three South Africans, competing in their home country at Leopard Creek Country Club in Malelane, were knotted in a tie at the end of 72 holes, and it was Altin van der Merwe who made a birdie on the first playoff hole to capture the inaugural Africa Amateur Championship.

The tournament was staged by the R&A, and the victory earned 27-year-old van der Merwe exemptions into the 152nd Open at Royal Troon in July, as well as spots in the British Amateur Championship, Alfred Dunhill Championship and Waterfall City Tournament of Champions.

Van der Merwe shot the best final-round score among the playoff trio, a two-under-par 70, to finish at 13-under along with Christiaan Mass and Ivan Verster.

“I can’t wait to play in The Open,” Van der Merwe said. “It’s links golf as well, so I’m going to be licking my chops out there with just a little sting 2-iron all day, and I just can’t wait until the time comes.”

The win fittingly went to South Africa’s hottest amateur player. Van der Merwe was coming off a playoff victory a week ago in the GolfRSA International Amateur Championship. He won four times in 20 starts last year and added five other top-10s.

Zimbabwe’s Keegan Shutt produced the day’s early fireworks when he shot a course-record, 10-under 62. That was a 15-shot improvement from the third round for Schutt, who tied for eighth after he stood at 10-over after three rounds.

The Open Championship is set for July 18-21 at Royal Troon. The reigning champion is Brian Harman.