Aiken focuses on mental steel to get over ‘weird year’

Thomas Aiken of South Africa plays a shot on the 2nd during day 2 of the 2019 Alfred Dunhill Championship at Leopard Creek Country Club on November 29, 2019 in Malelane, South Africa. EDITOR'S NOTE: For free editorial use. Not available for sale. No commercial usage. (Photo by Shaun Roy/Sunshine Tour/Gallo Images)

The experienced 36-year-old had to abruptly give up on the sport for seven months, destroying the momentum of a fine start to 2019. Yet Leopard Creek might give a reprieve.

For a professional golfer, a couple of weeks away from the game probably feels a bit like a coffee break for a normal office worker, but imagine not being able to compete for seven months of the year.

That’s the fate that befell well-travelled South African golfer Thomas Aiken this year. And to make his stress even worse, the reason was the serious complications his wife Kate suffered after the birth of their second child, Sawyer.

Happily, Kate has now recovered and Aiken is back on tour, starting the 2020 season on a medical exemption. But despite being one of South Africa’s most experienced and successful golfers, having won nearly €7 million euro and three titles in 289 European Tour events, it is not going to be easy for the 36-year-old to get back to the levels of golf he was at at the end of 2018.

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But Aiken has at least started a fresh campaign in very positive fashion, shooting a level-par 72 on Friday to reach the halfway stage of the Alfred Dunhill Championship at Leopard Creek on four-under-par and inside the top-10 late on the second day.

“It’s been a weird year, not playing for seven months, starting so well and then not playing well and being under pressure to keep your card. It’s a real challenge from a mental point of view and you’ve just got to remember to just play golf. Hopefully I will do well enough to get into some sort of category that allows me to play 22 events.

“The problem with being away for so long is that you don’t know where you stand from a competitive point of view. In the five events I played after returning in September, it was a bit hit-and-miss – when I thought I played well I missed the cut and then I finished 23rd at the Spanish Open when I didn’t feel like I played so well,” Aiken said at Leopard Creek on Friday.

Another boiling day in Malelane made Leopard Creek marinade in its own juices but Aiken said he enjoyed the challenge and wished all courses were set up as well as what is generally considered to be one of the most incredible layouts on the European Tour, especially considering its proximity to Kruger National Park.

“The rough is pretty brutal but that’s good, that’s how it should be or else guys just play the smash game everyone is so tired of. The tech is too good these days, we need to introduce spin back into the game. Getting spin on the ball is an art-form, it’s what got me enjoying golf, watching Seve Ballesteros and Gary Player shaping the ball out of trees and bushes.

“So I hope to see spin coming back more and more into golf. You need it, especially on a course like this. This is how courses should be – firm and fast and with some rough, and then a lack of spin becomes a real problem for a golfer,” Aiken said.

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