‘Meant to be’: Erik van Rooyen wins 2023 World Wide Technology Championship for terminally-ill friend

LOS CABOS, Mexico – As soon as Erik van Rooyen struck his 2-iron into the fairway at the par-5 finishing hole, he turned to his caddie Alex Gaugert and said, “One more of those,” implying he planned to use the same club again for his next shot.

Van Rooyen was tied for the lead on Sunday at El Cardonal at Diamante and when he heard he had 272 yards to the front and 304 yards to the hole, he said, “Perfect for the 2-iron.”

Gaugert had another idea.

“I’m like, Dude, I don’t mind something landing front edge and getting back there,” he said.

He started to run through a series of reasons why van Rooyen would be better off using a 17-degree 3-hybrid. He reminded him of the beauty he hit with the same club at 14 just a few holes earlier and the one at the first hole on Friday that set up an eagle.

“Oh, hell yeah,” van Rooyen said with a glint in his eye.

“Clear and committed,” Gaugert said.

Then as he had done on every shot all day, van Rooyen thought of their college teammate at Minnesota, Jon Trasamar, who had texted them on Tuesday with the news that he had about six weeks to live due to stage 4 melanoma.

“Then I flushed it,” van Rooyen said.

“Be as good as you look,” Gaugert barked at the ball and it more than obliged.

It stopped 20 feet past the hole and van Rooyen removed any doubt by rolling in his third straight putt of that length for a birdie-birdie-eagle finish.

“There’s nothing quite like it in life,” Van Rooyen said of his clutch 3-hybrid to the 18th green. “Yeah, that shot will be with me forever.”

Van Rooyen stormed home in 8-under 28 at the course Tiger Woods designed and erased a two-stroke deficit with three holes to play to win the World Wide Technology Championship.

How did he pull off an improbable two-stroke victory over Matt Kuchar and Camilo Villegas? To Gaugert it was simply meant to be.

“That should be the headline of every news article that’s written because there’s no reason he should have won this golf tournament. There’s no way to describe it other than it was it was meant to be,” Gaugert said.

It was meant to be even after van Rooyen opened with a bogey on a par 5 after dumping his approach in the front bunker and failing to extricate himself on his first attempt.

“The start we got off to today made you want to puke,” Gaugert said.

But then van Rooyen rolled in a 35-foot birdie at the second and thought to himself, “this is a silly game so just keep playing.”

But by the seventh hole, van Rooyen turned to Gaugert in the fairway and said it was time to press. Gaugert, who remains a good enough player that he was a Monday qualifier for the 3M Open in July, talked him out of it and advised him to stay patient, “let it happen,” as he put it, and stay disciplined. Van Rooyen listened, agreeing it was too soon to hit the panic button.

“And then I sprayed (my next shot) right of the green. So it’s funny how that works. Hit a really good chip,” he said.

Meanwhile, Villegas made birdies on four of the first six holes and Kuchar reeled off five in his first 12 holes to assume the lead.

This was a big week for van Rooyen. The 33-year-old South African native entered the week ranked No. 131 in the FedEx Cup standings and his two-year exemption for winning the 2021 Barracuda Championship was expiring in a few weeks if he didn’t have a good finish. He suffered through a stretch of seven missed cuts in a row from early May to early June and in 27 previous starts on the season had more missed cuts (14) than he had made (13). He began working with instructor Sean Foley, who helped him more with the mental game than the golf swing during their hour-long conversations. Van Rooyen’s final-round 63 marked his 13th consecutive round of par or better. Gaugert went so far as to send Foley a text six weeks ago thanking him for his efforts.

Foley’s response speaks volumes: “He used to play to not get embarrassed, and it’s gonna take a little bit to let the predator out,” Gaugert recalled Foley wrote.

The predator came out on Sunday. Van Rooyen birdied four of the first five holes on the back nine and then came to the difficult par-4 15th, where one day earlier Kuchar had a five-stroke lead before making a quadruple-bogey 8 there.

Van Rooyen aimed his 9-iron about 10 yards right of the flag and tugged it five yards left of it. “It was a putrid shot,” Gaugert said. Yet it defied gravity and stayed on the fringe.

“I have no clue how other than our buddy Jon was with us,” Gaugert said. “Erik’s ball should have never ever stayed up there.”

“We both kind of looked at the sky and we were like, maybe it’s written in the stars,” van Rooyen said. “When that happened, I was like, ooh, we might have a chance.”

That wasn’t Gaugert’s only thought. He told van Rooyen that etiquette be damned, they needed to play their next shot before the ball rolled down the slope. Van Rooyen sheepishly asked Kuchar if he could play out of turn.

“He was very nervous to do so. And I go, ‘Ask him now.’ The wind was picking up, if the wind gives us any sort of gust his ball is going down,” Gaugert said.

They left the green with a par and then van Rooyen rolled in back-to-back 20-foot birdie putts to tie for the lead. On his ball, van Rooyen had written the initials “JT,” for Trasamar, the first person he met when he arrived from South Africa to attend Minnesota, his roommate of three years and his best man at his wedding nine years ago. Despite job security for next season being shaky at best coming into this week, van Rooyen and Gaugert had booked a flight on Saturday afternoon to fly home to Minnesota on Monday morning to go see their ill friend Tuesday. Depending on how the final round played out, they had a reservation to Bermuda that would arrive at 11pm on Wednesday and they would tee it up on Thursday without seeing the course in advance.

“We ain’t playing Bermuda now,” said Gaugert.

It was meant to be that the win will allow them to spend more precious time with JT.

After van Rooyen sank the winning eagle putt for a 72-hole aggregate of 27-under 261, he and Gaugert embraced in one of the longest bro-hugs ever on the 18th green. Van Rooyen said that Gaugert, usually the stoic one who keeps the more volatile van Rooyen in line and helps balance him out, simply cried. But Gaugert also had a memory flash through his head. During his senior season in 2013, their pal Trasamar earned Big Ten Golfer of the week honors after placing second at the Barnabas Health Intercollegiate. It included a career-low 66 in the second round.

“He beat me by a stroke with a back-nine 28, just like Erik,” Gaugert said.

It turned out Gaugert’s memory was off by a stroke. Trasamar had shot a back-nine 29, but that only made Gaugert smile.

“He just wanted to give Erik an extra stroke,” he joked.

Sometimes it’s just meant to be.

Story originally appeared on GolfWeek