Stars who shone in 2003

5 January 2004

2003 was not a vintage year for South African sports stars in the big three sports of cricket, rugby and soccer, although the national women’s soccer team Banyana Banyana did themselves proud. Who shone in other sports, though? Here’s my selection of the best of 2003.

Ernie Els

Golf superstar Ernie Els enjoyed a wonderful year. He started strongly, in the best form of his life, and even after that purple patch his standard didn’t drop away much.

He won seven titles in total, all around the world and for the first time in his career he topped the European PGA’s Order of Merit. He played just 16 European events and 15 US PGA tournaments, yet he finished eighth on the US PGA Order of Merit.

Although he didn’t add another major to the three he has already won, Els did win the World Matchplay title for a record-equalling fifth time, moving him into a tie with South African legend Gary Player and Seve Ballesteros for the most wins in the event.

He also represented the International Team against the United States in the Presidents Cup and was tied for the top points’ scorer in the competition, with four out of a possible five. His sudden death playoff against Tiger Woods was stirring stuff and the eventual agreed-upon tie was, in my book, one of the great decisions of the sporting year.

Els continues to set a world-class standard and he remains a great role model for young south Africans. With his easy-going nature, he is a very popular player wherever he plays.

Retief Goosen

So quiet and unassuming that it is easy to miss his achievements, Retief Goosen continued to play fine golf in 2003. He retained his position in the top 10 of the world ranking and won the Chrysler Championship on the US PGA Tour, whilst adding a second place finish in The International. In addition, he claimed third place in The Tour Championship. In America alone he topped $3-million in prize money.

Goosen gave up the European Order of Merit title that he had won the previous two years to Ernie Els, but he nonetheless won the Trophee Lancome in France, took second in the Malaysian Open and finished third in the Deutsche Bank – SAP Open.

He was also a member of the International Team in the Presidents Cup, but his biggest achievement quite possibly happened away from golf: His wife Tracy gave birth to a son during the course of the year.

Rory Sabbatini and Trevor Immelman

Rory Sabbatini and Trevor Immelman are grouped together because their biggest golfing achievement of the year came as a team in the World Cup when they won by four strokes from England.

Obviously South Africa’s two top-10 ranked stars, Ernie Els and Retief Goosen, would have been the first choice combination, but Sabbatini and Immelman showed that South Africa has more than two world class golfers. It was a fantastic performance from the pair and it secured South Africa’s second World Cup of golf in three years; Els and Goosen had won it two years previously.

Sabbatini and Immelman are not yet big names in the golfing world, so it was good that they made the world sit up and take notice. It might not be that long, though, before their names become very well known. And, having picked up cheques for $700 000 apiece, they might just want to take part in the World Cup again!

Oh, and for good measure, Sabbatini also claimed the FBR Capital Open title on the US PGA Tour, worth $810 000. Immelman, meanwhile, picked up the SAA Open title and finished second in the dunhill Championships in South Africa, and also ended second in the Volvo PGA Championships in Europe.

Heather Clark

Surfer Heather Clark proved herself to be one of the world’s elite surfers and was in the hunt for the World Championship Tour throughout the year before finally having to settle for third. During the course of the season Clark finished runner-up in Fiji, and third in Tahiti and France.

The 32-year old Port Shepstone native showed excellent consistency and certainly showed up South Africa’s top men. She ended her season with a third-place finish in the Billabong Pro Maui as Layne Beachley claimed the world title for the sixth season in succession. However, it was close and Clark was there at the end applying the pressure.

The Billabong Pro Maui is the final event of the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing; Clark finished seventh in that competition. She is a previous winner of the Triple Crown, the only South African – man or woman – to ever achieve that feat.

Hestrie Cloete

High jumper Hestrie Cloete was simply sensational in 2003. She won the world title for the second time with a superb clearance at 2.06 metres, which she achieved without missing a single jump on the way there. It also equalled the third highest jump in history.

She had a stunning nine clearances of two metres of more in competition. In addition, Cloete was voted the top female athlete in the world as she laid claim to the IAAF Grand Prix title. Her efforts were recognised when she received the national Order of Ikhamanga silver class.

Jacques Freitag

South Africa became the first country since 1983 to hold both the men’s and women’s world titles in the high jump when Hestrie Cloete and Jacques Freitag beat the world’s best in Paris. It was a remarkable performance by Freitag, especially when one considers what he had to go through to make it to Paris.

In his first European meeting of 2002 he tore ligaments in his ankle; medical advice was that it would take two years for him to recover. Freitag, though, had other plans and eight months later he was king of the world when he cleared 2.35 metres.

Freitag’s success meant he became the first athlete to win World Championship medals at youth, junior and senior levels.

SA women’s hockey team

South Africa’s women’s hockey team was one of the most improved national sides of 2003 and they claimed the scalps of some big guns during the course of the year.

Their results included winning the All Africa Games title, finishing second in the Afro-Asian Games and wins over then world number two The Netherlands, fourth-ranked South Korea, a draw against Champions Trophy winners Australia, and a crushing 4-nil win over 2002 Champions Trophy winners China. Australia managed only a 3-2 win over the Chinese to clinch this year’s Champions Trophy which features the top six ranked teams in the world.

JP van Zyl

JP van Zyl excelled in the tough world of track cycling and was named South Africa road/track cyclist of the year.

At the World Championships he claimed bronze in the scratch race and was a consistent force in the very testing six-day events that are so popular in Europe. He was oh so close to becoming the first South African to win a six-day event in Grenoble when he finished just one point away from a victory.

Greg Minnaar

SA Mountain Bike Cyclist of the Year Greg Minnaar claimed the World Downhill Championship for 2003, beating a world class field in Rivera, Switzerland to land the title. For those of you who don’t know, downhill competitiors are those fearless speedfreaks who fly down mountains at speeds that no sane individual would consider attaining in such conditions.

Minnaar also shone in the United States, adding the Norba downhill title to his list of achievements to show that he is one of the best, no matter where he performs.

Ryk Neethling

Ryk Neethling is a real veteran of the international swimming circuit, but when the World Cup was recently held in Durban for the first time ever he showed that his competitive fire still burns strongly. His outstanding results also emphasised that he remains a world class competitor.

Neethling was very busy in the Durban event, but then again he had promised South African swimming fans a good show and delivered on his promise. He took victory in the 200 metres butterfly and 100 metres butterfly and claimed runner-up finishes in 50m, 100m, 400m freestyle, and 50m butterfly. His winning time in the 100m butterfly established a new South African record.

Roland Schoeman

Roland Schoeman and Ryk Neethling both attend university in Arizona where they are mainstays on the Wildcats’ swimming squad. Schoeman is a real sprint ace, which he ably demonstrated during the Durban World Cup, competing in the 50m spring events in all four strokes and winning the freestyle and butterfly, while taking second in backstroke and breaststroke. He also won the 100m freestyle and took second in the 100m butterfly.

Schoeman won the Commonwealth Games 50m freestyle title in 2002 and in 2003 he continued to show that he is one of the best. Together with his Arizona University team-mate Ryk Neethling he leads the way forward for South African swimming.

Corrie Sanders

Heavyweight boxer Corrie Sanders shocked the world when he destroyed Wladimir Klistchko in two rounds to win the WBO world heavyweight boxing title early in 2003.

The fight was supposed to be a tune-up for Klitschko for a future outing, while the South African southpaw had fought only three times in almost three years. Klitschko was supposed to be the pretender to Lennox Lewis’ crown as the man recognised as the true heavyweight champion of the boxing world. Nobody told Sanders, it seems.

Showing great power with his straight left, Sanders floored Klitschko in the opening round. The giant Ukranian struggled to make it to the end of the round, going down once again. Early in the second round it was all over as Sanders dropped Klistchko with a picture-perfect left hook and a new world champion was crowned, 37-year old Corrie Sanders.

It improved his record to 39 wins and two losses, with 29 of his victories coming by way of knockout, most of them very early in his fights.

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