Scott Michaux

Sports columnist for The Augusta Chronicle. | ScottMichaux.com

Greyling carries dream to Open

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The U.S. Open will go on this week without Tiger Woods, but a far more heart-warming redemption story involving a golfer from Orlando, Fla., will unfold at Congressional Country Club.

U.S. Open participant Christo Greyling (left) proposed to Laura Thornsberry during the second round of this year's Masters.   GETTY IMAGES
GETTY IMAGES
U.S. Open participant Christo Greyling (left) proposed to Laura Thornsberry during the second round of this year's Masters.

Christo Greyling, 28, is far from a household name. But 11 years ago when Woods was dominating the game, Greyling was considered a promising heir apparent.

"Of all the kids I've recruited over the years, he was as good as any kid I've ever seen in my 15 years of coaching," said Georgia head coach Chris Haack. "The world of golf is littered with guys who were so ultra-talented who somehow lost it."

Greyling is one of those guys. Before making it through both local and sectional qualifying to gain a spot in the U.S. Open, Greyling's career detoured into an abyss because of side effects from a prescription acne drug. The difficult path of the past 11 years only makes his major achievement more special.

"It means the world to me," he said. "I'm so thankful just to be there and going to try to enjoy everything."

It wasn't supposed to be this hard. In 2000, Greyling was one of those sure-fire, can't-miss kids. The South African-born Greyling -- whose parents moved to Florida to further his golf pursuits -- was the top-ranked American Junior Golf Association player and No. 1 on his Lake Highland Prep team in Orlando that included fellow prodigy Ty Tryon.

That September, at age 17, he became only the third junior golfer to Monday qualify into a PGA Tour event when he made the field for the now defunct Buick Challenge at Callaway Gardens.

Georgia -- the 1999 NCAA champs -- couldn't wait to offer a scholarship to the nation's top recruit.

"He was so good there was some speculation that he might just turn pro," said Haack, who watched him miss the cut at Callaway Gardens in an experience that only enhanced his reputation as a rising star. "You could tell he was a player ready for that level."

That was Sept. 29, 2000. Just weeks after that tournament, Greyling started taking the medication Accutane to combat persistent acne. When Haack saw him next at Thanksgiving, he was shocked.

"He was already going sideways," Haack said. "He shot like 86 and withdrew and didn't feel right. Didn't see him again until February at the Jones Cup at Sea Island and he shot like 90-something. Even the guys on the team who knew him as a junior golfer, like Ryan Hybl and Eric Compton, they were calling me up and saying 'Something's not right with Christo.' "

That something was Accutane. The medication left him feeling "whacked out" and altered his gregarious personality. The effects were obvious in his game, which had become such a mess that swing coach David Leadbetter advised him to stop playing to avoid ingraining bad habits.

"Literally within a couple of weeks of me taking Accutane, I saw majors changes," Greyling said. "A few months later I was shooting in the 80s after having a pretty great junior career year after year. Just overnight, things were really, really bad."

Haack read an article linking Accutane to teen depression and called Greyling's father, Iaan.

"They took him off it but it took awhile to finally get his strength back," Haack said. "But the damage to his psyche and confidence was just tough to overcome."

Greyling played for four years at Georgia, but he was never the player he promised to be.

"He could go out to the driving range and it looked like a million dollars," said Haack. "Then taking it to the golf course was another story."

The Bulldogs won another national title in 2005 when he was a senior, but Greyling played only sparingly after his freshman season.

"I still had a great experience at Georgia," said Greyling, who earned a degree in consumer economics. "I loved being in Athens, so it wasn't as bad as it could have been."

Despite everything, Greyling never gave up on himself.

"I'm pretty religious so I was praying, 'Please give me a sign if I'm supposed to give it up,' " he said. "I didn't understand why I was performing so bad in all these tournaments when I used to do really well growing up. I always felt like it was still there. I just couldn't take it to the course in tournaments. I'd play great in the practice rounds and disappear the next day. Something told me to hang in there."

Greyling's game has shown signs of life through the years. He competed in four U.S. Amateurs. He made it to the last stage of Q school in 2007. He played in eight Nationwide Tour events in 2008, missing the cut in all of them. He continues competing on mini-tours and trying to Monday qualify into Nationwide and PGA Tour events.

"All golfers go through their slumps -- it makes you stronger in many ways," he said. "It's inspiring seeing older guys like Steve Stricker and David Toms. Golf is a maturity game. It is a strange game and you can change your life in one week. The only thing is the incredible amount of money it takes to stay out there and go to qualifying."

For all the bad hands he's been dealt -- including having to bury his father on his own birthday in 2009 after the financial crisis prompted him to commit suicide -- Greyling perseveres. Things seem to have turned a corner in 2011.

Every April he comes to the Masters as guests of Mark and Stephanie Pratt, of Augusta. This year he dropped to a knee in Amen Corner on Friday and proposed to his longtime girlfriend, Laura Thornsberry, a former Georgia gymnast with the Pratt's daughter, Courtney. The happy moment was caught in pictures by a Getty photographer who was walking by shooting leader Rory McIlroy.

"Kind of cheesy, I know," he said. "She had no idea it was coming."

When Greyling stopped in Athens later that month, Haack was pleased with the young man he saw.

"He looked happy again," his coach said. "He looked like he's doing things that are good for him."

That happiness on Monday translated into a qualifying spot into U.S. Open along with Tryon in Rockville, Md., with rounds of 67-69.

"I have a huge opportunity in front of me," said Greyling.

Haack doesn't believe it's too late for Greyling.

"When you see a guy who's been hit upside the head so many times, those are the guys you want to see get a break and have something good happen to," said Haack. "Sometimes getting that breath of confidence at one time is all it takes. There's no question in my mind he's ultra-talented. He's just never given up on the dream. If he ever got that going, he'd be a guy to reckon with on the big stage."

After everything he's been through, golf owes Greyling a reckoning.

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