A little down but certainly not out after making three back-nine bogeys in the final round of the British Open at Carnoustie, Erik van Rooyen stepped to the 18th tee and uncorked a 410-yard drive.
As he sauntered down the fairway to the ball, left just 34 yards from the front edge of the green, van Rooyen grabbed his caddie’s shoulders.
“I said, ‘Let’s just take it all in and think what a great week it’s been,’ ” van Rooyen recalled in a telephone interview following Sunday’s final round.
Two strokes later, the former Gophers golfer put a bow on his first major championship appearance with a birdie on the last hole for the second day in a row. Sunday, it capped a 2-over-par 74. He finished in a tie for 17th place, the same 2-under 282 aggregate as major winners Jason Day, Adam Scott and Zach Johnson, and ahead of the likes of Phil Mickelson (283), Rickie Fowler (284) and Brooks Koepka (286).
“Amazing, man,” van Rooyen said, his pride noticeably palpable. “This was really, really special.
“I always believed it, but now I know I can compete and beat these guys at the highest level. A top 20 in my first major? I was right there.”
Van Rooyen, who won the Minnesota State Amateur in 2012 and played for the Gophers from 2009 to ’13, briefly found himself very much in the mix Sunday.
He began the day at 4 under par, five shots back of the leaders. After two holes, van Rooyen made two birdies and came to the third, head spinning.
“I had to take a moment, take a breath,” he said. “The birdie on No. 2 had me really fired up.”
But by the time van Rooyen and playing partner Yusaku Miyazato got to the eighth, van Rooyen had made bogey on No. 6, and the pair was put on the clock for slow play.
Feeling rushed, van Rooyen put his tee shot on No. 9 into a small creek down the right side of the gallery, then plunked his approach shot into a pot bunker after a penalty drop.
He putted out for double bogey and never regained form until his rocket drive at the closing hole.
Yet a few hours later, the South Africa native chose to focus on the week as a whole rather than his sullen Sunday in Scotland’s punishing winds.
Van Rooyen opened the tournament with a 4-under 67, briefly holding the outright lead. He hit 70 percent of both fairways and greens in regulation and made 16 birdies, tied for fourth-most in the field.
His $109,714 payday wasn’t enough to get him into next month’s PGA Championship, but he did earn a spot in October’s World Golf Championships event in China, won the past four years by Justin Rose, Bubba Watson, Mickelson and Sunday’s eventual Claret Jug winner, Francesco Molinari.
“I feel like I belong in this mix,” van Rooyen said. “When I can get in, I know I can be one of the guys to beat.”
As action moved along at Carnoustie, so did van Rooyen’s fan base. He was overwhelmed by the number of online messages from South Africa, the United Kingdom and Minnesota.
Van Rooyen has not forgotten his time in the Twin Cities. His wife is from North St. Paul and van Rooyen regularly plays events on the European Tour with a large Goldy Gopher stitched into his golf bag.
“We didn’t play one event [in college] — didn’t matter where we were — where we didn’t meet a booster or an alum,” he said. “I just want to represent, be proud.”
That’s motivation enough to keep his game sharp and make starts in high-profile events a regular occurrence.
“I never expected to be in the Open [and] get tweets from someone I might have played a round with four years ago in Minneapolis,” he said. “That blows my mind. I’m just playing golf, doing my job. It shows me that people love Gopher golf and I’m proud to continue that in my career.”