Column: Van Rooyen is a PGA Tour winner again. He prizes relationships as much as trophies

Erik van Rooyen has played tournament golf long enough to realize his best golf — whether that's over four rounds or nine holes — can show up without notice. Good timing has been on his side in his two PGA Tour victories.

Van Rooyen was No. 139 in the FedEx Cup and down to his last two starts in 2021 when he won the Barracuda Championship, not only securing his card for the next two years but sending him on a heater that took him all the way to East Lake for the Tour Championship.

This year, he was right smack on the bubble — No. 125 in the FedEx Cup — with three tournaments left in the season when he headed to the southern tip of Baja California for the World Wide Technology Championship and played the last nine holes in 8-under par to win.

Another two-year exemption. A ticket to the Masters.

And a whole lot more.

This was golf, not life and death, and the 33-year-old South African knows far too much about the latter. That much was evident when he finished and was asked a seemingly harmless question about how he kept calm amid such a blazing rally with so much at stake.

He paused for 10 seconds, covering his mouth at one point before his lips fluttered with a heavy exhale. “I was calm because there's bigger stuff,” he said, his voice shaking.

His thoughts at that moment — all week, really — were with Jon Trasamar, his best friend from the day in 2009 when van Rooyen showed up in Minnesota for college. He was some 9,000 miles (nearly 14,500 km) away from his home in Oudtshoorn, a small town about 15 miles from the Indian Ocean near the base of the Outeniqua Mountains known for its ostrich farms.

Van Rooyen used to say it was always among the top five questions that came his way: How does someone from the Western Cape of South Africa wind up playing for the Minnesota Gophers? He loved his four years there. He met his wife in Minnesota.

He also met Trasamar.

“Jon and his family lived about two hours away from Minneapolis,” van Rooyen said. “They were there at the airport to meet me, to say ‘Hi,’ because he was going to be my roommate and teammate soon after. We obviously became best friends.”

They took different routes after college — van Rooyen went home to the Sunshine Tour to begin a slow climb that led him to the Challenge Tour, the European tour, top 50 in the world and eventually the PGA Tour.

Trasamar toiled on mini-tours in the Dakotas and Arizona, on circuits in Canada and Latin America, the occasional Korn Ferry Tour event. He got married in March 2022 and a short time later was treated for melanoma. Tests came back clean.

But when he returned for a checkup last November, the cancer had returned and spread to his ribs. By February, it was in his liver, back, spine and legs. According to Golf Digest, Trasamar has titanium rods inserted in his femurs to stabilize them because the cancer is eroding them.

“On Tuesday, he sent us a text. He's got six to 10 weeks left,” van Rooyen said Sunday after he won. He was leaving Mexico for Minnesota to see him.

This wasn't something that hit hard after van Rooyen won. He said after he shot 64 on Friday to get back in the mix in Mexico, he went to his hotel room and began sobbing.

“I wasn't calm all the time,” van Rooyen said. “When I step on the golf course, I've got a freaking job to do. Now we can celebrate and cry. Until that last putt drops, it's focus and do it for Trasy. We love him so much. I'm still in disbelief what he's going through and I wish I could take all his pain away.”

There was one moment when focus could have been broken. He was four shots behind Camilo Villegas in the fairway at the par-4 eighth and running out of holes.

“I remember on hole 8 telling Alex,” he said, referring to caddie Alex Gaugert. “I was in the right hand side of the fairway and I looked at him. I was like, ‘You know, I really want to win this tournament.’ But it's so hard to push. Sometimes when you push too hard in the wrong moments, it goes the other way.”

He missed the green to the right and saved par. He made par on the next hole. And then he couldn't miss. “The back nine, just an absolute blur,” van Rooyen said.

Also wiping away tears during the interview was Gaugert, who is more than a caddie. A Wisconsin native, Gaugert also was on the Minnesota Gophers team with van Rooyen and Trasamar. Gaugert chased his dreams of playing down in South Africa. When he was struggling to pay bills, van Rooyen offered for Gaugert to caddie.

They have been together ever since, except for the 3M Open in Minnesota this summer when Gaugert got into the PGA Tour event as a Monday qualifier and the tour arranged for them to play together. Both missed the cut. It was still a great week.

And it was a reminder of the more lasting prizes van Rooyen pursues. Yes, he is exempt through the 2025 season. He can start next year on Maui and return to the Masters and the PGA Championship. Even in the moments after winning, it all felt “extremely immaterial.”

“When something like this happens where your best friend — who was best man in my wedding — when he’s hit with melanoma, it puts things in perspective where golf doesn’t really matter,” van Rooyen said. “When I’m 80 years old, if I get to that age ... I'm going to remember the people that I spent time with, the people that I love and he’s certainly one of them.

"So I look forward to seeing him.”

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AP golf: https://apnews.com/hub/golf