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Charl Schwartzel watched his tee shot at the 15th hole bounce barely into the rough during last Thursday's opening round of the U.S. Open. Barely into the rough? At Oakmont, that was the golfing equivalent of Texas Hold 'Em's all-in. Hit a shot anywhere in the deep stuff, and you had a problem. "It was the worst lie I've seen in my life," Schwartzel said, laughing one of those it-wasn't-actually-funny laughs. The upshot? "I hit a full-blooded lob wedge that went about 10 yards." � That was Schwartzel's unofficial Welcome to Oakmont moment, when the course first landed a blow that drew blood. And the 15th, which was Schwartzel's sixth hole of the day because he started on 10, wasn't through with him. After he hit his third shot to the middle of the green, about 25 feet from the hole, his par-saving putt all but waved bye-bye as it picked up speed and raced 15�feet past the cup.
What happened? "I left my sunglasses on," said an embarrassed Schwartzel. "I didn't see the slope well and hit it completely the wrong speed."
He missed the comebacker, making a double bogey that put him four over par. That's not how you want to start the U.S. Open, especially when you're the guy many aficionados predict will be the game's Next Big Thing. From that point on, however, Schwartzel played like a budding star, salvaging a five-over�75 and then shooting a 73 on Friday to make the cut with two shots to spare. "It's nice to make the cut in the Open," he said, "but that's not my goal." Schwartzel kept battling on the weekend with rounds of 73 and 76, and finished 30th, second among the South Africans, behind Tim Clark (17th) but ahead of Ernie Els and Rory Sabbatini (who were tied at 51st).
A shy, soft-spoken Johannesburg native who turned pro almost five years ago, the 22-year-old Schwartzel has drawn comparisons with Els. Although Els is three inches taller and at least 50 pounds heavier than the rail-thin, six-foot-tall Schwartzel, both players have classic, flowing swings and easygoing personalities and have had successful seasons in Europe. Schwartzel remains in stealth mode in the U.S. even though he won the Spanish Open in April and climbed to 46th in the World Ranking, which qualified him for the Players Championship (a 58th-place finish), the Memorial (62nd), next month's British Open and the Bridgestone Invitational in August. He passed on the Accenture Match Play in February-- Schwartzel would've drawn Els in the first round--to return to South Africa and lock up his third straight money title on the Sunshine tour, where he has two career victories. "No South African had ever done it," he says of the three-peat. "I had a chance to be part of history. There will be more Match Plays for me."
If Schwartzel can tag on a few more high finishes between now and the PGA Championship, he might even make what is shaping up to be a terrific International team in the Presidents Cup. After the Open he stood 19th on the points list. "Charl has always been destined to be a great player," says his coach, Pete Cowen, who also works with world No.�7 Henrik Stenson of Sweden. "I first saw him in Durban when he was 15 and playing in the South African Open. At 16 he had a plus-six [six�under par] handicap." Says Ricci Roberts, Schwartzel's veteran caddie, who used to loop for Els, "He has a pure swing and a good head on his shoulders. He's quite impressive."
Schwartzel is one of four young South Africans making noise on the European tour this year. The others are Anton Haig, Richard Sterne and Louis Oosthuizen. Haig, 20, is a 6' 4" bomber who won the Johnnie Walker Classic in March. Sterne, 25, took the Wales Open earlier this month, while Oosthuizen, also 25, has a pair of fourth-place finishes and is 47th on the European money list. The foursome lives in Manchester, England, and they could be a fivesome soon if Charl's brother, 20-year-old Adriaan, turns pro as expected later this year.
"Anton is 30 yards longer than the other guys and has ridiculous potential," says Chubby Chandler, whose International Sports Management agency represents Schwartzel. "Richard is long, but not as long as Anton, and has a very assured way of doing things. But Charl is the player who's going to get there in the end. They're almost like a rat pack. One steps up and wins, then another, then another. They're growing up together, and they're going up together."
The Manchester Four has an understanding: When one of them wins, he buys dinner for the others. After his victory in Spain--his first win on the European tour--Schwartzel cheaped out by taking his pals to a low-budget Chinese joint. But, he says, "they were nice to me [about it]."
Why not? There figure to be a lot more meals on Charl's tab.
Read Inside Golf by Gary Van Sickle at GOLF.com.