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British Open a chance for SA's Bezuidenhout to erase childhood rat poison horror

British Open a chance for SA's Bezuidenhout to erase childhood rat poison horror

An Open at Portrush is understandably significant for the likes of Northern Irishmen Darren Clarke, Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell.

But few will find their return to this wonderful stretch of links more poignant than young South African Christiaan Bezuidenhout.

It was here, after playing in the British Amateur five years ago, that the 25-year-old failed a random drugs test and was banned for two years. Initially it appeared that Bezuidenhout was destined to become just another sorry statistic, but the story behind his failed test turned out to be extraordinary.

Bezuidenhout was taking beta blockers prescribed to help him cope with anxiety and an associated speech impediment that had threatened to ruin his life and destroy his career.

Ever since inadvertently drinking rat poison from a coke bottle as a toddler, he had suffered problems associated with his central nervous system.

‘I used to just live in my own world because I was always scared of having to engage in conversation with my stutter,’ Bezuidenhout said. ‘When I talked to people I knew I would struggle, so I had a fear of answering the phone, saying my name or being asked a question. I would withdraw from a group because I feared speaking.

‘During my junior days, I used to dread public speaking, which was a requirement when you won a tournament. I went to a psychologist when I was 14 and we worked on how to work with my stutter to have enough confidence to talk in public.

‘She gave me the beta blockers, a medication that helps reduce your blood pressure and treat anxiety. I used the medication for seven years during my amateur days, which helped me become more confident and enjoy my life again.’

South Africa's Christiaan Bezuidenhout second left poses for a photo with friends at the 6th tee during a practice round ahead of the start of the British Open golf championships at Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland. The British Open starts Thursday. Picture: Matt Dunham/AP

Once Bezuidenhout’s back story was known, his ban from golf was reduced to nine months. ‘I wrote the medication down on the form prior to the drugs test, making no secret of the fact I was using it,’ Bezuidenhout wrote in a blog this year on the European Tour website. ‘When my dad phoned and told me I was suspended I just broke down. It was awful. It felt like my life was over.

‘The worst part was all the stories that came out from people in golf and supposed close friends back home.

‘I was accused of using it to better my performances, which really hurt me and my family. A lot of nasty things were said. Labels like that are hard to shake off and I reached a very low point in my life.

‘I had a hearing and they reduced my sentence after confirming I had not used the drug for any performance-enhancing benefits. They were the longest nine months of my life, but I turned this into energy to help me come back stronger.’

A product of the Ernie Els golf academy in South Africa, Bezuidenhout turned pro in 2015. His passport to the Open, and a reunion with a golf course he will never forget, was winning the Andalucia Masters at Valderrama last month.

It was his fourth win as a professional but his first on the European Tour and came after a pep talk from Els. ‘It’s been a huge learning process and I’ve made mistakes,’ he said.

At Portrush — where he will play with Andy Sullivan and Alexander Levy tomorrow — Bezuidenhout has the chance to erase bad memories and continue creating better ones.