LA JOLLA, CALIFORNIA | Sometimes you have to fish a little to break the ice with a cold open when you walk up on a young player you’ve never met before and hope to strike up a conversation.
“Kevin Kisner says he outdrove you all day today in your practice round – can you confirm that.”
Wilco Nienaber (pronounced KNEE-nobber) laughed – hard. “No,” he said. “No. I cannot confirm that. You’ve heard lies.”
Kisner – who ranks 182nd on the PGA Tour with a modest 287.2 average driving distance – of course never said that. Anybody who says they’ve outdriven the lanky 21-year-old South African is probably lying. Because nobody is doing any such thing.
Nienaber is golf’s newest long-driving savant, and his legend is just starting to emerge. He’d already broken the European Tour record last November at the Joburg Open when he launched a 439-yard drive that lost a few yards when it ran out of fairway on the 597-yard par-5 at Randpark Golf Club in Johannesburg, South Africa.
“Oh my goodness,” the broadcast announcer muttered. “That is borderline obscene.”
— The European Tour (@EuropeanTour) November 19, 2020
Last week in his PGA Tour debut at the Palmetto Championship at Congaree, Nienaber averaged 367 yards on the measured holes (only 340 when you factored in every drive he hit). Zach Sucher, a decent hitter who played the first two rounds with him, was quoted saying “I felt pretty bad about myself, to be honest. Getting outdriven by 70 yards on every hole will make you feel awful.”
What Kisner really said after a morning round hitting it about a football field shorter than Nienaber off every tee: “He sends it. When they hit it that far, I don’t even try to keep up. He sent two over the back of (the 609-yard) nine in two. I hit driver, 3-iron, 7-wood to get there.”
Before seeking out Nienaber this week as he prepared to compete in his first major at the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, there were tales of him being 6-foot-6 and he seemed to be growing taller by the minute.
Again, “you’ve heard lies,” Nienaber said, standing there all 6-foot-2, 175 pounds of himself.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be shocked at such borderline obscene things in the Bryson DeChambeau era. We’ve seen the videos of DeChambeau chasing 190- to 200-mph swing speed with his bulked-up body and ferocious swings that make your back hurt just watching it.
But here’s the thing – Nienaber doesn’t do that. He doesn’t drink protein shakes. He doesn’t do much more than flexibility training. And his swing looks a lot closer to the Big Easy, Ernie Els, than to the violent lash that DeChambeau inflicts upon the ball. He’s basically an even longer version of PGA Tour resident bomber Cameron Champ.
And Nienaber hits the same 190- to 200-mph swing speed anyway.
Said Kisner: “He doesn’t even look like he’s swinging it that hard.”
“I’d say it’s pretty natural,” Nienaber shrugs, saying he’s been a long hitter as long as he can remember. “I’ve never worked on trying to hit it far. My hands are pretty quick and I’ve got a pretty ideal build for hitting it long. That’s about it. I never really work on it. … I do wonder why I’ve never had to work on it. I’m very blessed.”
“What Bryson’s done is really cool. What I really like of him is he says he’s going to do something and he backs it up with hard work. What he’s done, I really admire it.” – Wilco Nienaber
Part of it may come from the fact that Wilco’s father didn’t think he needed to use driver until he was 13 years old, so he learned to hit his 3-wood further to avoid getting frustrated when anyone in his group hit driver past him.
While he doesn’t have to work obsessively to do the things DeChambeau does, he absolutely respects what the reigning U.S. Open champ has accomplished in the last year.
“What Bryson’s done is really cool,” he said. “What I really like of him is he says he’s going to do something and he backs it up with hard work. What he’s done, I really admire it.”
Like Bryson, Nienaber does not shy away from his strength. He pulls out driver on every hole at Torrey Pines except the par-3s, hoping to exploit his advantage at every turn.
“I gain a lot with my distance, and especially on this golf course it would be stupid not to use it,” he said.
His average driving distance in the first round was 340.1, tops in the field and well ahead of the 304.9 field average. He was also second in strokes gained off the tee at Torrey (plus 2.22). Despite hitting only six fairways, he hit 13 of 18 greens in regulation en route to a respectable 1-over 72. He blasted one drive 370 yards on No. 4.
Nienaber – who won his first professional event in the European Tour co-sanctioned Dimension Data Pro-Am in South Africa in May and qualified for the U.S. Open by leading the Sunshine Tour Order of Merit – said his primary goal is to make it to the PGA Tour. He knows he has at least one more American start at the WGC event in Memphis he’s qualified for, and he can’t wait to tee it up in a pairing with Champ or DeChambeau somewhere.
“I want to play here,” he said. “I want to play in America on the PGA Tour, after last week even more so.”
He already enjoyed the small taste he’s had of life in front of American fans as they see his remarkable power for the first time. He finished T14 at Congaree, behind his friend and countryman Garrick Higgo (who actually did outdrive him on one hole when they played together in the third round and Nienaber heard Higgo chortle “Ha, I’ve outdriven him” when they got to their balls in the fairway).
“I haven’t played in front of people in Europe because of restrictions,” he said. “It was really cool to hear some of the comments and have a laugh. It was a lot of fun. I enjoyed it. A lot of ‘What a beast.’”
He anticipates the chorus of astonished golf galleries would only magnify at Torrey Pines when they see him on a major stage.
“I’m definitely expecting ‘Mashed potatoes!’ because that’s the only thing you hear when I lie on the couch back home,” he said. “I have no idea how they get to that. What they come up with is pretty interesting and it makes me laugh. I’m looking forward to what they come up with.”
Among the things he’s learned in the last two weeks is that there’s a band called Wilco (his pro-am partner at Congaree told him). No, his parents were not big fans of the Jeff Tweedy fronted alternative rock group. Nor were they military, naming him after the shortened jargon for “will comply.”
Where does his unique name come from? It’s a mash-up of his first and middle names – Willem Jacobus.
“I don’t expect anyone to try and pronounce that especially with my surname, so I’m happy with Wilco,” he said.
He doesn’t expect anyone to outdrive him this week, either. Unless …
“Kisner,” Nienaber said. “Just kidding.”
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