Back from the Brink
It has been 10 years since Anton Haig won a European Tour event and was the youngest player (20) in the top 100 of the World Ranking. What followed was a downward spiral of poor form, injuries and substance abuse which almost cost him his life. He’s now r
ON BEING WORTH OVER R20-MILLION IN 2007
I won 310 000 Euros for my career breakthrough moment at the 2007 Johnnie Walker Classic in Thailand, beating Richard Sterne and Oliver Wilson in a playoff (Retief Goosen was fourth and Ernie Els and David Frost T-6). I was 20 and suddenly had plenty of money to behave badly. I kicked back and found out what winning was all about, inviting 90 people to a game reserve in Mpumalanga for my 21st birthday party two months later. I had endorsement deals with equipment manufacturers and a luxury watchmaker, and was exempt into World Golf Championship events with no cut. At the end of 2015 I was broke.
ON HAVING A WEAKNESS FOR ‘SOCIAL EVILS’
I have always found it difficult to find the off switch. I couldn’t just have one beer – I had to get hammered. I had my first cigarette at 14, smoked weed for the first time at 15 and tried cocaine at 19.The only drug I didn't try was heroin. Before entering rehab (for the second time) in 2015 I was on methamphetamine (crystal meth), had been hospitalised twice for over-indulging and often had thoughts about self-harm and ultimately ending my own life. Once my golf career started going south, I didn’t know what to do without it. Golf was my life – it was all I knew.
ON ADVICE FROM ERNIE ELS
Ernie knew I liked to party.We were both clients of ISM and I interacted with him, Lee Westwood and Darren Clarke. Ernie told me that if I went on a night out, I would have to work twice as hard on my game the next day.When you’re 21 you can do that, but I took it too far and it obviously all caught up with me. It was no secret I enjoyed the party scene. I thought I was a bit of a rock star and got out of hand. I was young and didn’t know how to deal with all the attention I was getting. I lacked the life skills to deal with fame and fortune.
ON TURNING PRO AT 18
I joined the pro ranks on September 1, 2004 and signed with International Sports Management (ISM). I first played on the European Challenge Tour and smaller Euro Pro circuit in England.At the beginning of 2005 Matthew Kent, SA’s No 1 amateur and a close friend, turned pro and signed with ISM.We shared a flat near Manchester and travelled across Europe playing on the satellite tours. But we didn’t enjoy the life.The weather was terrible and I missed my family and friends back home.We were professional athletes but living like students. At 18, I required better guidance.
ON BEING A BAD INFLUENCE
I feel embarrassed, ashamed and guilty that Matt’s golf career did not go as planned. No one is ever a sure thing in this game, but I certainly contributed to him not reaching his full potential as a professional. I gave him his first cigarette and offered him a ‘joint’ for the first time. (Kent no longer plays competitively, and works in the golf industry as a tour operator.)
ON A LIFETIME OF INJURIES
My downfall was self-afflicted, but the mental anguish of enduring numerous injuries also played its part. I was born with deformed hips and a leg-length discrepancy of 1.25cm and had problems with both my knees which prevented me from playing contact sports at school.After winning the ‘double’ of SA Amateur and SA Junior Matchplay titles in 2003, I joined my Central Gauteng teammates at the U-23 Interprovincial and, during a game of touch rugby, tore ligaments in my knee. I’ve had numerous surgeries since I was a teenager but the most humiliating was for a deviated septum in my nose because of my prolonged use of cocaine.
ON RETIRING FROM GOLF AT 25
At the end of 2011 I was ready to walk away from the game. My shock announcement came after an MRI scan revealed I had a severe osteophytic impingement in my neck, combined with a bulging disc in my cervical vertebrae.An operation could have alleviated the problem but my doctor advised me to not continue playing professionally.At the same time I had taken a ‘mutually agreed probation period’ from the Sunshine Tour. For six months I worked as a talent scout for ISM.
ON IGNORING MEDICAL ADVICE
In 2012 I received a Facebook message from British businessman Philip Manduca, who wanted to help. He sponsored me. I spent time at Fancourt with a swing coach and biokineticist, and then Spain on a boot camp. Improved conditioning saw me lose 10 kilograms which alleviated stress on my neck, back and hips. I made two starts on the Asian Tour and got an invite to the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship where I finished T-13 (and partnered Manduca in the pro-am). But the comeback was short-lived. My health deteriorated and I played a handful of events on the Sunshine Tour in 2013.
ON HITTING ROCK BOTTOM
I had two stints in rehab. First at The Sporting Chance Clinic, a British charity in Hampshire founded by Arsenal footballer Tony Adams to provide specialist addiction and recovery facility for athletes. But I still didn’t know what to do without golf.There was nothing to drive me and I spiralled out of control again – abusing alcohol and drugs – which prompted two
close friends to phone my mother, telling her I was going to die if there wasn’t an immediate family intervention.
ON THE SLOW ROAD TO RECOVERY
I entered the South Coast Recovery Centre in Margate (KwaZulu-Natal) on February 5, 2015 and exited exactly one year later. I was told I was only going to spend a month there, but that was never going to be enough time. I was too far gone. I treated the first month like a holiday and my rebellious nature came to the fore, disrupting lectures and causing chaos at the centre. One day the proverbial penny dropped and I began relating to the other patients’ struggles.
ON FINDING FAITH
I was fully institutionalised and for the first time in my life was able to unpack several deep-rooted issues.The first of which was my golf career that I had thrown away, then the abandonment issues I faced while growing up. I didn’t have a normal upbringing. I was sent to boarding school at 11 when my mother moved to Australia, and I failed to matriculate. I was good at being rebellious. In retrospect, playing golf and turning pro as a teenager was damaging in that I missed group activities. I was a social person, but was in a lonely profession. Four months into my rehab in Margate, I was baptised and surrounded by like-minded Christians which aided my recovery tremendously.
ON RETURNING TO GOLF
I burned some bridges with people who believed in me, so I will let my clubs do the talking now. After exiting rehab I began practising again and won three times within two months on the IGT Tour. I had a new philosophy about the game. I always played my best golf when my mind was free, so the constant goal is to get into a good headspace on the course. In the past when I had a bad round it would affect me for days. Now golf is not my life, it’s just my job. It no longer defines me.
ON BEING A RECOVERING ADDICT
My new life could not be busier. There are five people I speak to on a daily or weekly basis who are integral to me not relapsing: My girlfriend, pastor, addiction counsellor, psychiatrist, and Narcotics Anonymous. Lauren and I met in rehab. She has been sober for three years and is a wonderful source of inspiration. We’ve been together for a year and help each other constantly with the support and love required to be a recovering addict. My desire to use drugs and alcohol is gone, but complacency is the killer. I have to identify negative thoughts and addictive behaviour early and counter it immediately. I get on the phone to someone in a heartbeat.
ON BEING A GOOD INFLUENCE
I am very involved with Narcotics Anonymous, attending meetings in Bryanston to help others battling or recovering from addiction. I have returned to the South Coast Recovery Centre to speak with patients, imploring them to keep fighting. There is hope. I am proof of that. I have found fulfilment in giving back and hope one day to start a foundation to help further. (Part of Haig’s talk at the centre has been posted onYouTube.)
ON THE REST OF 2017
I won consecutive events on the IGT Tour in April and May and will continue to play on this very competitive tour. I have a Big Easy Tour card after finishing 59th at Sunshine Tour Qualifying School.The top 5 on the Order of Merit at the end of July earn main tour cards, so that’s an immediate goal. I have also written letters to Sunshine Tour chairman Johann Rupert and executive director Selwyn Nathan requesting invitations. I’ve had financial support from my parents, Dimension Data, Investec, Taylor Made and Dainfern member Stuart Conway, so I'm on the right path. I’m working with fitness specialist Garth Milne and biokineticist Tanya Kearney at Serengeti and my body now feels like it can handle tournament golf again.
ON THE DREAM OF A EUROPEAN TOUR RETURN
I’m in the final year of an exemption into the final stage of European Tour Q School in November because of my Johnnie Walker Classic victory and subsequent injuries. I’ve got to work twice as hard now – having emerged from 10 years of negative headspace – but I’m ready for it.
Happier days. Anton Haig with Ernie Els when playing on the European Tour.
Playing the IGT Tour this year. Right: Johnnie Walker champion in 2007.