Johannesburg - With a three-stroke lead heading into Sunday’s final round of the South African Open, Hennie Otto knows a victory would be life-changing for him. But it wouldn’t come close to the life-changing moment that got him to this point.
A 65 at the Serengeti Golf and Wildlife Estate on Saturday lifted Otto to 14-under par. He did so with an incredible back nine of 30, and there was also a scoring run of six birdies and an eagle in 11 holes from the seventh.
Retief Goosen bogeyed his last two holes to drop into a group of players on 11-under including Magnus Carlsson, Thomas Aiken and Garth Mulroy.
Otto is no stranger to this kind of pressure. He is a veteran winner of tournaments and has won before on the European Tour.
But even he admits he has a heightened desire to win the South African Open.
“Confidence wise this would be huge. It’s also our home Open. There are some big names on that trophy and I’d like to put mine on there as well. I’ve won before. I’ve won coming from behind and leading from the front. So let’s see. Hopefully this is my week.”
The reality is that Otto is very comfortable with where he is - in this tournament and in his life. Once a truly volatile character on the golf course and known as the bad boy of South African golf, the real life-changing moment for Otto came two years ago.
It was 03:30, and Otto was drunk. He was stumbling home from a pub in Loch Lomond during the Scottish Open that year.
And that’s when his life changed.
“The Holy Spirit took hold of me,” Otto explains with almost alarming honesty. “I heard a voice-– perhaps it was an angel, perhaps it was God -and it said, ‘I’ve looked for you, and now I’ve found you’.”
He carried on walking and found himself on the steps of a local church. And that’s when Hennie Otto - for so long the bad boy of South African golf - fell to his knees and wept like a baby.
“I immediately tried to phone my wife, but she didn’t answer. Then I phoned my father-in-law.” Otto’s father-in-law had for years been trying to get through to him. “When he answered the phone the first thing he said was, ‘I’ve been waiting for your call’. We were on the phone for an hour. My father-in-law is a very holy man. I always listened to what he said, but I never believed something like this could ever happen to me. He always said I will know when it does happen. And I can honestly say my life changed completely in Scotland that morning. I even went to be baptised again. I can see the difference in my life, in my family and even in my friends.
“No psychologist, no hypnotist, no doctor could’ve saved me out of my hell. Only God. This is a new me. It doesn’t even feel like I want to break a club anymore.”
Ernie Els could certainly have done with a bit of his playing partner Otto’s patience on Saturday. Els suffered a disappointing day in which he signed for a 76 to finish at two under. His round included a nine on the par-five 16th, which was the result of fans in the gallery using mobile phones to take photos of him on the tee. He went on to drive into the water and lost his concentration for the rest of the hole.
Otto said, “It got a bit ridiculous and I felt sorry for him. You could hear the camera phones clicking away. On the tee, he stepped away twice and asked them, ‘Please guys’. It gets to you. People don’t understand when they take photos just before impact on the swing. They’re not professional cameramen. There was no control out there.”
Leading scores on Saturday after the third round of the South African Open at the par-72, Serengeti Golf and Wildlife Estate on the outskirts of Johannesburg (RSA unless noted):
202 - Hennie Otto 70-67-65
205 - Magnus A Carlsson (SWE) 73-66-66, Thomas Aiken 68-69-68, Garth Mulroy 67-68-70, Retief Goosen 66-68-71
206 - Jaco Ahlers 74-67-65, Merrick Bremner 66-68-72
207 - Richard Bland (ENG) 72-69-66, Alvaro Velasco (ESP) 69-72-66, Markus Brier (AUT) 68-72-67, Bernd Wiesberger (AUT) 69-68-70, Keith Horne 68-69-70, Jbe' Kruger 65-71-71, Jean Hugo 67-69-71, Steven O'Hara (SCO) 65-68-74
208 - Ockie Strydom 69-72-67, Darren Fichardt 71-69-68, Jean-Baptiste Gonnet (FRA) 68-70-70, Simon Wakefield (ENG) 71-67-70, Lyle Rowe 69-66-73
209 - Richard McEvoy (ENG) 70-70-69, Carlos Del Moral (ESP) 70-70-69, Thomas Norret (DEN) 69-69-71, Tyrone Mordt 66-72-71, Lloyd Saltman (SCO) 69-68-72
210 - Floris de Vries (NED) 69-73-68, Sam Little (ENG) 74-67-69, George Murray (SCO) 69-72-69, Trevor Fisher Jnr 68-72-70, Jaco van Zyl 69-69-72