When you ask about the changes in Hennie Otto, who won the South African Open at the end of last year, people say, “He got God, or something,” before switching the subject. In this day and age, not too many want to go down that road.
Yet, the 35-year-old Otto’s story is compelling in that he will tell you that he has, quite literally, seen the light.
As a young man, he was poised to play rugby for the Springboks until he missed out on an Under 23 final trial because it coincided with a golf tournament. He was besotted with golf and, after turning professional in 1998, notched a number of wins on the South African Tour before breaking through in Europe with a victory in the 2008 Italian Open.
That, though, was not the first time he had come to the attention of the larger golfing world.
In 2001, after rounds of 70 and 80 had cost him the halfway cut in the Nashua Masters, he lost his temper in a manner which catapulted him into every headline. First, he broke all 14 of his clubs in the golf club car park. That done, he stopped his car on the way home and tossed the remains into a river. His actions were the talk of the circuit and, to no one’s great surprise, he was fined for bringing the Tour into disrepute.
By way of beginning to explain what was going on in his life, Otto refers you to 5:19-21. Nothing to do with the Rules of Golf but the Galations, the ninth book of the New Testament and a verse incorporating assorted examples of bad behaviour including “immorality, envy, drunkenness and fits of rage.”
He does his best to make the verse sound slightly less unpalatable: “I had a lovely wife and family but I wasn’t living my life as I should. I was drinking, partying and I was an angry man.”
Deep down, he knew he was a disaster in the making, but why would he want to alter his ways when he was fully capable of drinking through the night before shooting a 64?
In the end, it was a higher authority who made the decision for him.
After missing the cut at the 2009 Barclays Scottish Open at Loch Lomond, Otto stayed put in his B&B in the loch-side town of Balloch before driving on to the Open Championship at Turnberry. He hit the bottle in a big way on the Saturday night and was still walking the streets at three o’clock in the morning.
That was when this desperate soul hit rock bottom.
He fell to his knees and, for the first time in 23 years, looked for forgiveness for his litany of sins. There was a white light beaming down on him and he explains that he heard a voice. “It was in a language I could understand, though I can’t begin to tell you what it was.”
Otto’s translation goes like this: “I waited for you and now I’ve found you.”
After 10 minutes, the light disappeared and a thoroughly shaken Otto felt the urge to ring someone. He tried his wife back in South Africa but, at four in the morning, she was not about to answer a call from what she assumed to be a drunken husband.
He then tried his father-in-law, a deeply religious man. He answered and said, quite simply, that he had always expected he would get such a call from his errant son-in-law at some point.
At Turnberry, Otto told his friends. They endeavoured to put a rather more down-to-earth interpretation on what had happened. “You were stoned,” they laughed, “and you finished up under a lamppost. There’s nothing too odd about that.”
Others have since advanced the suggestion that it was the sheer beauty of a moonlit Loch Lomond which could have cast its spell.
Yet it was not long before his friends – and everyone else for that matter – recognised that Otto was no longer the man they knew before that night. He changed and his wife and two children with him as they all started to embrace a more Godly way of life.
On Tour, Otto has established a discussion group to help those who want to stick to rather more than good golfing basics in what can be a testing environment. At the New Year, he was hugely moved by a text from a fellow player who said that Otto’s conversion had changed him.
You ask Otto a somewhat trite question as to how his golf has been affected and he says at once that it didn’t turn him into a winner, even if the 2011 South African Open was a milestone in his golfing life.
“What it has done,” he explains, “is to affect the way I handle myself on a bad day. You don’t go and sulk about it; you have the Lord on your side and you know that somewhere along the line your belief will bear fruit.”
Otto has been back to Balloch since that week in 2009 and discovered that the place where he fell to his knees was a churchyard.
As for the light, there was no lamppost.