On a typical sports team, seniors are looked upon to provide leadership for the rest of the squad — the Gophers men’s golf team does not have that luxury.
For a team with no seniors, junior Erik Van Rooyen answered the call as the team’s de facto leader this season.
“I knew that I had to step up,” Van Rooyen said. “You have to take some responsibility, drag the freshmen along and show them what to do and obviously post some good scores.”
Van Rooyen emerged this season as the team’s No. 1 golfer. He competed in every event this season for the Gophers and led the team with a 73.26 stroke average during the team’s five fall events.
Most recently the Oudtshoorn, South Africa native finished tied for third at the LSU Invitational in Baton Rouge, La. Van Rooyen held the two-round lead at the invitational after shooting two 3-under-par rounds of 69 but faltered in the final round.
His teammates and coaches call him “Freddy” or “Fred,” short for his given name of Frederick. But his parents call him “Erik.”
Van Rooyen played in nine of the team’s 11 competitions his freshman year, and he competed in all 11 plus an NCAA regional last season. He finished fourth at the Big Ten championships that year and advanced to the NCAA regional in San Diego,where he finished tied for 51st.
That NCAA experience has helped the whole team, according to head coach John Carlson.
“We don’t have a lot of guys that had NCAA tournament experience,” Carlson said. “A lot of these guys have played tournaments all across the country, but it’s a different level when you play college. Erik has certainly brought a sense of calm at the top of the lineup.”
Carlson, who is in his first season at the helm of the Gophers and served as an associate head coach last season, said he has seen a lot of growth from Van Rooyen in the two years he’s coached him.
“Erik has certainly been in a leadership role this year with the team — more from his results,” Carlson said. “He just elevates the level of play across the entire team.”
Coming to Minnesota from South Africa was not a hard decision Van Rooyen said, because other countries lack collegiate sports.
“We don’t have a college aspect of the game, so we don’t have a college-level sport,” Van Rooyen said. “That’s why a lot of international kids come here to play golf — because it’s so competitive, and you can get your degree along with that.”
He started playing golf when he was 7 years old and credits both his grandfather and father for getting him started with the game. His dad was a member at a local club, and Van Rooyen usually played nine holes Sunday afternoons.
Van Rooyen said early on he enjoyed being outside and “being able to hit the ball straight” but later evolved to enjoy the competition that the game presents to him. He started playing competitively when he was 14, and the prospect of playing college golf came up during his senior year of high school.
He received South African Provincial honors and National Colours by the South African Golf Association after his senior year, which is similar to being selected as all-conference in the U.S.
“That’s when I started thinking about how I kind of want to play professionally and college was a route that I wanted to go,” Van Rooyen said.
The transition to being a freshman athlete in a new country was not easy for Van Rooyen, but he said he became close with his teammates quickly.
“The first year was kind of hard obviously because you’re so far away from home, and you don’t get to speak your native language everyday, which was really different at first,” Van Rooyen said. His native tongue is Afrikaans.
“With our golf team, we’re really a close family, and that was really easy for me because I had friends from the get-go.”
Teammate David Haley Jr. said he saw Van Rooyen become more comfortable his sophomore season.
“I noticed a big jump in just his freshman to sophomore year,” Haley said. “It seemed like the second year he came back here he really enjoyed being here.”
Van Rooyen usually goes home for winter break and summer break, however he plans to stay on campus this summer and play in some tournaments. Returning to Minnesota in January from South Africa — which is in the middle of its summer — has always been a shock, Van Rooyen said.
“It sucks going from 110 degrees and then come here, and it’s 10 below,” he said. “It’s a little crazy, but you get used to it.”
Minnesota’s climate also forced Van Rooyen to change the way he practices in the winter months. He never had to practice indoors in South Africa.
Van Rooyen downplayed the notion that the Gophers are disadvantaged to southern college teams because they have to practice indoors more than their warm-weather counterparts.
As the weather warms and the golf season draws to a close, Van Rooyen has goals to replicate his performance from last season.
“My own goal is the same thing — I want to go to regionals again individually,” Van Rooyen said. “If I could match that again this year, it’d be great.”
His coach said he would not be surprised if that happens.
“Erik can certainly build on that momentum and confidence and playing with the best players in the country like he did at the end of last year going into the Big Ten championships this year,” Carlson said.
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