Kruger giving opponents plenty to fear
The Sunday Times
13 July 2012 16:00
The first thing you notice about Jbé Kruger, below, are his eyes - they are blue, they are clear and they are focused entirely on the task in hand, writes Derek Clements.
Some professional athletes simply don’t get the whole media thing. They know they have to do interviews because their agents tell them so. Yes, they answer the questions that are asked of them, but they give nothing of themselves away in the process. If the answers seem rehearsed it is because they probably are.
The result is that none of us ever know what makes them tick. Tiger Woods is the perfect example. Even when he chose to tell the world about his adulterous behaviour, there was no grand inquisitor to ask the questions we all wanted answers to. And when journalists do ask the questions he doesn't want to hear, then he opts not to hear.
All of which highlights how lucky we are to have the likes of Kruger, because he certainly does get it. Throughout the course of our interview, his eyes never once leave mine — there may well be bigger and better fish to fry but for Kruger it is all about the here and now.
He wants you to know that although he stands barely 5ft 5in and tips the scales at 10 stones soaked through, he has no inferiority complex about keeping up with the physical giants of the game. Indeed, he regards himself as one the longest pound-for-pound hitters in the game, and it is hard to argue. Turn up at any European Tour event these days and you cannot fail to be struck by the number of players who stand more than six feet tall, but they don’t intimidate Kruger.
“It is true that a lot of the guys are bigger than me but I have always loved working out and keeping in the best possible shape and I can get it out there 295 yards, so I am not giving yardage away to very many players," says Kruger. "I started off as a runner and I couldn't get enough of it. In that respect I am lucky. If you enjoy doing something it is never a chore."
As he speaks, Kruger holds out a well-muscled left arm for inspection and hits his thigh with his right hand, just to emphasise that he also possesses plenty of leg-power too.
He has many special qualities, none more so than his fighting spirit and never-say-die attitude. And he needed them in abundance as he achieved his maiden European Tour victory in the Avantha Masters in New Delhi in February. The 26-year-old, from Kimberley, South Africa, won by two shots, changing his life forever. It meant he could pick and choose his schedule for the rest of 2012, knowing he would be fully exempt in 2013 and 2014.
“Winning was huge for me, and it was nice to be the latest South African to win," he said. Most first-time winners thank their coach or caddie, but Kruger is different. He has been helped by his passionate belief in God.
“People talk about the pressure of coming down the stretch, but over the past couple of years, God has helped me to become the man I am today. He has played a massive part in my life, putting me through the ordeal of finishing second so many times in my life and then deciding that I was going to win this one.”
Some golfers struggle to cope with what they perceive as failure. Kruger prayed and read The Bible because he is convinced that if you are not a Christian then when your time comes you have no idea where you are going, and that is more important than anything he achieves as a golfer.
“Most people are so driven by success that they forget what their real purpose is. I believe that purpose is to go to heaven, and it doesn’t matter how much money you have in the bank. For me, I judge my life by how successful I am to God and for God. It is what drives me on.”
His victory took him by surprise, although he says that he felt calmer than normal in the days leading up to the tournament. “I was a bit tired, and that always helps me to play better because it stops me getting ahead of himself,” he says. “I am hard on myself if I am not playing well, and I’d had a couple of disappointing weeks leading up to New Delhi.” He had finished 28th at the Dubai Desert Classic and missed the cut at the Qatar Masters and Abu Dhabi championship. He opened with rounds of 70, 69 and 66 to lead Marcel Siem, winner of the French Open. Kruger could easily have succumbed to the pressure but he says that he knew if he kept striking the ball as well as he had been then nobody would beat him. And that is exactly what happened, a final round of 69 giving him a two-stroke victory.
Anybody who has watched Kruger will realise that he possesses a terrific will to win. “My dad, Heine, got me started and he is a very, very competitive man, so I have definitely picked it up from him,” he says. “I was about four years old when I first picked up a club and tried to copy my father. He was a good player in his own right, with a handicap of around five.
“I have always been incredibly competitive with every sport I have ever tried. I grew up playing golf, cricket, rugby, badminton, tennis, hockey, horse riding - you name it. Dad was also a very good runner, and somebody who worked very hard to get where he was. I learnt that from him too.
“I was a decent tennis player but I think I can say that even before I was 10 years old I knew that I wanted to making a living from playing golf - well as much as you can think about that kind of thing at such a young age.”
Kruger has a ferocious work ethic, insisting that not only does it help him to achieve the success he has, but that it will also help him to succeed for longer than those who don’t put in the hours.
“Even if somebody has more talent than you, I believe it is possible to beat that person by putting in more work and practice. I grew up playing golf on a sand course, with what we called ‘browns’ for greens (a mix of sand and oil which is brushed after players putt out) and I didn’t play on proper grass until I was 13 or 14 and we moved to Bloemfontein. I was a nine-handicap golfer when I was 13 and by the age of 15 I was playing off scratch.”
Kruger and his father made a pact when he was 11 that if the boy did well and became a scratch player by 18, he could quit school and turn pro. “That was always something that drove me on,” says Kruger, “and Dad always made things fun for me too. He was as good as his word, and I left school at 15.”
Kruger Sr loved marathon running, but understood that you didn’t win marathons without putting in the hard yards. Jbe couldn’t help but notice that when it came to the closing stages of races, his father was always still full of running and was well-nigh unbeatable.
“His endurance and perseverance were astonishing and inspired me to try to achieve the same, by working harder and harder to become as strong as I possibly could. I remember standing on the first tee after winning five of my previous six events and I knew that my fellow competitors were almost scared of me, a bit like Tiger in his prime.
“Tiger believes in himself more than any other golfer, and I try to achieve the same. I don’t get to practice as much as I used to now because there is so much travel so I can’t practice as much as I want. I have been playing on both the Asian and European Tours and it is tough, so I may be close to the point where I have to concentrate on Europe, although I would like to win the Asian order of merit. It also helps that a couple of Europe’s biggest events are played in Asia.”
But for Kruger there is no bigger tournament than The Open and he has the game that could thrive at Lytham if the wind starts blowing.