March and April marked the busiest post-pandemic stretch of golf in more than a year. Besides the Masters, you had the WGC-Dell Match Play in Austin, whose 64-man field featured most of the world’s best. Dustin Johnson remained No.1 in the Official World Golf Ranking (OWGR) despite not making it out of group play in the Match Play and missing the cut as defending champion at the Masters. Billy Horschel won in Austin, ascending from 34th to 17th in the world. Hideki Matsuyama, who made history in Augusta, jumped from 25th to 14th. American tour players who did not qualify for the WGC-Dell had the option of playing at the Corales Puntacana Resort and Championship in the Dominican Republic. Joel Dahlmen won and saw his OWGR jump from 81 to 61.
The last week of March, the European Tour offered the Kenya Savannah Classic as an outlet for those who did not qualify to play in Austin. South African Daniel van Tonder won, improving his OWGR from 140 to 73. Further down the totem pole was the Korn Ferry Tour’s Club Car Championship in Savannah, Georgia: Canadian Adam Svensson won, improving from 474 to 282. The Sunshine Tour also had an event, the Serengeti Pro-Am, in South Africa. Jaco Prinsloo of the host country won to see his OWGR number shoot from 319 to 207.
Meanwhile, Jason Froneman, also of South Africa, would have loved to have been in any of those events. Instead, at the end of last month, he was in Boksburg West, South Africa, about 20 miles from Johannesburg, playing in a tourney named simply the Big Easy Road to #9. This was sponsored by the Big Easy Tour, a developmental circuit named for Ernie Els. The best from this developmental circuit aspire for promotion to the Sunshine Tour and beyond.
Froneman missed the 36-hole cut at the Big Easy Road to #9 by three strokes. As a result, by nightfall on March 28, his OWGR number dropped from 994 to exactly 1,000.
“It’s a nice feeling to be ranked 1,000th in the world. And it just inspires me to do better so I can climb the list even more.” – Jason Froneman
There are two ways to get to 1,000 or the vicinity. One way is exemplified by Luke Guthrie. In 2012 he won twice on the Web.Com tour to win promotion to PGA tour. His OWGR was as high as 58 in 2013. Guthrie missed the cut at the Club Car Championship, his sixteenth consecutive Korn Ferry missed cut, to drop to number 956 in the world.
Froneman is an example of the other way to 1,000. As of July 1, 2019, he was ranked 2,080, near the very bottom of the world rankings. “It’s a nice feeling to be ranked 1,000th in the world,” he said, as personable as he is optimistic “And it just inspires me to do better so I can climb the list even more.”
Though he dropped six spots in OWGR in Boksburg West, his 1,000 ranking is a sign of overall progress from where he was less than two years ago.
Although just 25 years old, Froneman has been a professional for seven years. He was raised in Johannesburg, the only child of Lance and Charmaine Froneman. In his youth he played soccer, cricket and tennis in addition to golf. Mentored by his father, Lance (who plays on the South African Senior Tour), Jason turned his focus to golf at age 12. He thrived as a junior, playing for South Africa’s Under-18 and Under-16 teams, including a 2012 appearance at the Junior Orange Bowl in Miami.
Unlike his countryman Dylan Frittelli, who helped the Texas Longhorns win an NCAA title in 2012 before embarking on what so far has been a successful professional career, Froneman passed up an opportunity to play college golf in the United States. “I felt that my golf was good enough and I saw an opportunity to go forward in my golf and to make a career out of it,” he says. “I don’t regret turning pro at the time I did as it has worked out quite well for me.”
Early on, Froneman played the Sunshine Tour, a hybrid that includes some European PGA tournaments staged in Africa as well as lesser events that are one level above the Big Easy Tour. He played in several European Tour events in 2016 and 2017 (the South African Open, the Alfred Dunhill Championship, and the Joburg Open), missing the cut every time. Froneman also played in tourneys on the MENA Tour, based (as its acronym indicates) in the Middle East and North Africa.
In 2018, Froneman tore ligaments in his left knee, which required surgery and sidelined him for eight months. When he returned (he says too soon, in retrospect), he was unable to take advantage of a medical exemption granted by the Sunshine Tour and lost his card, relegating him to the Big Easy Tour.
The Official World Golf Ranking originated in 1986, at the behest of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club at St Andrews, to identify players worthy of invitations to the Open Championship. The PGA Tour began recognizing OWGR in 1990. As of March 28, 2,280 golfers around the world were ranked, give or take a couple.
The system is complex. The weight given to a player’s performance in lower-level tours like the Big Easy Tour, PGA Tour Canada, and the Professional Golf Tour of India is a tiny fraction of that given to the PGA and European tours, and even significantly smaller than intermediate tours like the Korn Ferry, Sunshine, and Challenge Tour. Thus, a player’s opportunity to substantially improve his OWGR is limited in the lower tours.
But change can happen quickly. Look no further than Will Zalatoris, who is ranked 24th after his runner-up performance at the Masters but was 2,004th in the OWGR as recently as 2019.
After Froneman bottomed out to OWGR 2,080 in mid-2019 following his knee surgery, his second-place finish in a Big Easy event later in the year bumped him up to 1,290. Then, when he won Big Easy Challenge #17 in November 2019, he climbed to 926. His recent drop to 1,000 is more attributable to far fewer opportunities available to play during the pandemic (with the cancellation of most of the Big Easy schedule, Froneman played only three times in 2020) than any drop in performance. However, his ability to move way up the OWGR ladder will require promotion to a higher-level tour.
At 5-foot-5 and 160 pounds, Froneman is far smaller than your average touring pro but asserts “it doesn’t really have an impact on how I play.” In fact, he is taller than 1991 Masters winner Ian Woosnam. Froneman compensates for what he says is average length off the tee. “I enjoy a golf course where you have to think your way around,” he says. “I am a very good iron player, so I incorporate that into my game plan.” Asked what separates the world’s top players from those far down in the rankings, he responded, “It’s got to a lot to do with your mental approach to the game.” He concedes he can improve in this area: “My weakness is that I sometimes overanalyze shots.”
With low purses on the Big Easy Tour, Froneman must scrimp. Most events are near Johannesburg but often require an hour’s drive from his house each way. He commutes by car rather than staying in a hotel, to cut down on expenses. He also supplements his income by giving lessons. While he was recuperating from his knee surgery, Jason and Lance Froneman started a trout farm business, as a fallback in the event Jason’s golf dreams fall through.
In golf’s nether regions, a support network is crucial. Froneman’s parents accompany him to most events, as does Lisa Venter, his girlfriend and sometimes caddie. His agent, Roddy Barker of Solo Management in Johannesburg, has been instrumental in lining up corporate sponsors, including Blue Bird Manufacturing of Rustenburg, South Africa, to help defray expenses. Thnk Golf (a Johannesburg company) provides him with golf apparel.
For the moment, Froneman is treading water with four recent top 12 finishes in Big Easy events followed by two missed cuts. Just before the missed cuts, he suffered heartbreak after starting Big Easy #8 with rounds of 72 and 69. He was in contention going into the third and final round but had to withdraw because an ear infection caused his balance to go.
“It was extremely disappointing because I was really enjoying the golf course,” he says.
Froneman hopes to catch fire and win multiple Big Easy events before the end of the season (which continues into early 2022) to earn promotion to the Sunshine Tour.
He is not discouraged by his limited success so far and expects to improve his game. He takes inspiration from fellow South African Christiaan Bezuidenhout, 26, who in 2015 was tops in the Big Easy Tour Order of Merit and is now ranked No. 35 in the world – and was on the first page of the leaderboard in the early rounds of the Masters.
“I grew up with him as an amateur and we played on the same teams,” Froneman says. “Christiaan has proved that getting to the top of the rankings is possible with hard work and perseverance.”
So, Jason Froneman will soldier on in pursuit of his dream to play on the PGA or European tours. “I haven’t really thought about quitting at all but if it should come to that I can still fall back on my teaching and the fish farming business,” he says. “I am pretty excited and optimistic about my golf career and I feel that I still have a lot left.”
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