Breakout Players of 2011: Charl Schwartzel

Breakout Players of 2011: Charl Schwartzel

Charl Schwartzel birdied the last four holes to win the Masters.
John Biever/SI

This was the year Charl Schwartzel went from being a shy, little-known golfer from South Africa to an international celebrity.

Winning the Masters, the world's most glamorous championship, will do that.

Schwartzel's new-found fame was evident when he was invited to a European Tour awards dinner about a month before the BMW PGA Championship and officials asked him to wear his green jacket to the affair, held at the Sofitel near London's Heathrow airport.

The other reigning major champion honorees-Martin Kaymer, Graeme McDowell and Louis Oosthuizen-dressed in black ties and tuxedos.

The hotel employees were very impressed with Schwartzel. "They thought I was a waiter," he admitted later.

Schwartzel, still a little uneasy with his new fame, retold his waiter story repeatedly throughout the year, maybe as a way to let some of the air out of his sudden celebrity.

"I've said it many times before: winning a major championship changes your life," Schwartzel said. "All of a sudden, you become very famous. I have seen what it's done to a lot of other guys. You can get distracted very quickly, and subsequently, you start playing badly. I tried my best to give attention to my game [after the Masters] because that's what got me to this place."

The Masters was the official breakthrough moment in America for Schwartzel, 27, who'd proven himself an up-and-coming player on the European Tour, where he'd won seven times since turning pro at 18. For serious golf observers, the Masters was more of a what-took-you-so-long moment. I tagged Charl as a potential "Next Big Thing" in a profile I wrote for Sports Illustrated in 2007.

"He's always been destined to be a great player, really," his coach, Pete Cowen, told me then. "I first saw Charl in Durban when he was 15 and playing the South African Open. At 16, he had a plus-6 handicap."

So SI was ahead of the curve-too far ahead, it turned out-with that piece anointing Charl. But that's all right because now, at the end of a memorable 2011 season, I can finally write this: I told you so.

Schwartzel has come out of his shell since winning the Masters-really, since he married his wife, Rosalind. He gets along well with the media and has a sneaky sense of humor. While discussing the many ways in which his last name has been mangled, he recalled the time it was pronounced Schwarzenegger. He promptly flexed his bony, decidedly unmuscular bicep and grinned widely.

At November's Grand Slam of Golf, played in Bermuda, he was asked about possibly winning the pink jacket that would be awarded to the tournament winner. "That would be great," he said. "I could start a collection of jackets with colors."

As we head into the 2012 season, the spotlight won't be focused on the Masters champion, which is fine with him. It'll be aimed at Northern Ireland's boy wonder, Rory McIlroy, who suffered a colossal Masters collapse, then bounced back to win the U.S. Open. It doesn't hurt that McIlroy has an outgoing personality, but after that historic Open win, some experts will tell you that McIlroy is the name to remember.

Schwartzel, however, may have the game to remember.

His breakout season was hardly a fluke. His performances in the major championships were impressive-after the win in Augusta, he was tied for ninth at the U.S. Open, tied for 16th at the British Open and tied for 12th at the PGA. Four majors, four top-16 finishes.

The man can score. His putting stroke looks far more formidable than McIlroy's. Watch the Masters highlights and check out Schwartzel on those final four holes. His entire short game is excellent, too.

The shot of 2011 may have actually come on the opening hole of the final round at the Masters. After a poor approach shot, Schwartzel played a superb bump-and-run from well off the right side of the green. It never appeared to be going anywhere other than in the hole. That remarkable birdie, which was probably worth two strokes because Schwartzel seemed likely to make bogey from there, was a difference-maker. It also got lost in the glare of that once-in-a-lifetime finishing run.

His father was a chicken farmer in Vereeniging, South Africa, south of Johannesburg, and also a former pro golfer. Charl learned the proper grip and stance and posture at a young age and has long been a golfing prodigy.

The preparation for his Masters victory seemed particularly fortuitous. First, he saw his friend from junior golf, fellow South African Louis Oosthuizen, win the British Open at St. Andrews in 2010, which gave Schwartzel a large dose of inspiration.

Later that year, South African billionaire Johann Rupert set up a meeting for Schwartzel with golfing great Jack Nicklaus. During that session, Nicklaus went over a detailed strategy for playing Augusta National, hole by hole.

Then, while hanging out at the Old Palm Golf Club in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., where a number of international players who are clients of agent Chubby Chandler either have second homes or use the course as a base to play and practice, he got some putting advice from Nick Price, a Hall of Famer from Zimbabwe, and David Frost, another South African now on the senior circuit who was known for his putting prowess in his younger days.

It all came together so Schwartzel was able to win the Masters on the 50th anniversary of Gary Player's first Masters championship.

"Yeah, that made my win a little more special," Schwartzel said. "If an American had won, no one would be talking about Gary's 50th, but since a South African won it on his 50th, it was spoken about a little more. People will remember it a little bit more."

Despite playing solid golf for most of the year, Schwartzel didn't back up his Masters victory with another win in 2011. That doesn't change his view of the year.

"It was a dream, it just came true," he admitted before playing in the Presidents Cup. "It's been a fantastic year for me. I've achieved all my goals that I set out. I had to make some new ones. It's been a very good year. I feel very privileged and very happy."

He seems at ease with his new role among golf's elite. Maybe it helped that he had company as he traveled around the world to compete last summer. He carried his green jacket with him.

"You get to keep it for only a year, and then you leave it in your locker in Augusta," Schwartzel said. "So instead of leaving it home and seeing it every two months-what's the point? I traveled with it every week. I saw it every day. You obviously don't put it on every day, but you see it and sometimes, you just stare at it for a while."

Schwartzel and McIlroy flew together to Malaysia for a tournament the day after the Masters and spent a lot of time together that week. On the plane, McIlroy asked him, "Where's the jacket? I want a photo with it." So Schwartzel retrieved it from a nearby closet it and posed with him.

"That was his idea," Schwartzel said. "I thought that was pretty cool. The way he handled it was spectacular. He must have been hurting, but it looked like he forgot about it very quickly and got on with it. That's the sort of guy he is."

Later that week, Schwartzel was introduced on the first tee in Malaysia for the first time as the Masters champion. A small gallery around the tee let out a cheer.

"It gave me a little bit of shivers down my spine," Schwartzel said. "It was a very nice feeling."

It was, without a doubt, a year to remember.