If the World Ranking has anything to do with it, South Africa’s summer celebration will continue at Glendower, writes GARY LEMKE in Compleat Golfer.
Louis Oosthuizen and Darren Fichardt were waiting beside the 18th green at the Gary Player Country Club for Branden Grace to tap in his putt that would see him become the first South African to win the Nedbank Golf Challenge in 10 years.
Magnums of champagne in hand, Oosthuizen and Fichardt popped the corks and Grace soaked up the occasion, in every sense of the expression. The relief was palpable and the big crowd roared in approval.
Thanks to Grace, Africa’s Major was coming home.
Now the focus turns to Glendower Golf Club for the BMW SA Open hosted by the City of Ekurhuleni. Debate crops up on an annual basis as to whether it is the second- or third-oldest Open golf tournament, competing with the US Open behind Britain’s Open Championship. But what can’t be disputed, is that having one’s name engraved on the famous trophy is something dreams are made of.
Gary Player won the tournament 13 times and Bobby Locke’s name appears on the silverware nine times. They are golfing royalty, as is five-time champion Ernie Els, who is the proud host of the event.
And despite the fact that Rory McIlroy played the Pied Piper with the crowds in 2017, victory went to the journeyman Englishman Graeme Storm in a playoff.
It turned out McIlroy, everyone’s favourite for the week, had battled through four rounds injured – and still managed to take his rival to extra holes.
Storm had arrived in Johannesburg ranked 249 in the world. By the end of the week he had jumped 116 places, to No 133. As defending champion, he has an automatic entry and there was no way he was going to miss the opportunity to tee up at the famous golf club and hear the starter introduce him as ‘The defending South African Open champion’.
Yet, despite all the excitement about the presence of McIlroy last time around, one can’t argue that the 2018 installment has a bit more depth to the field.
There are nine former SA Open winners in the field, including Els, whose own ranking has slipped about 200 places over the past 12 months, but he will find that being ranked 560-odd by the time he tees off will have no bearing on the size of the gallery. Els, with four Majors and 100 Major appearances under his belt, is South African sporting greatness and one of the most popular sportsmen to come from African soil.
Yet, the torch has been handed over. Just like it has been through the generations. From Locke to Player to Els to the next in line.
It’s too soon to speak of Grace in the same terms as that distinguished trio, but the 29-year-old has the potential to be around at the top of the sport for a long time to come. Winning the Nedbank Golf Challenge was on his bucket list. ‘This is awesome. This is the one event that, as a South African, you want to win,’ he said after being soaked in bubbly.
‘It’s Africa’s Major for a reason and what a special place it is. There’s a lot of history and a lot of great winners on the trophy, and I’m very glad to be able to put my name on the trophy too.’ No doubt, a similar sentiment would apply to the SA Open.
There are at least seven golfers inside the world’s top 100 who confirmed their entry to this European Tour event. Apart from Grace and Schwartzel, local support will be behind the emerging Dylan Frittelli, who has tasted success on the Tour but is now ready to take his game to the next level. He just looks like a player who will go places.
Another exciting entrant is Li Haotong, the Chinese golfer who surged through the field at Sun City with a best final round of 64 to finish fourth. Li is another who has caught the attention of shrewd judges around the circuit and he has been widely tipped to become the next Asian to win a Major (read more about him on page 94).
Els is determined to see a homegrown name on the trophy this year. ‘The 2018 tournament will be highlighted by some of our best local professionals making sure this title comes back to South Africa,’ he says.
The winner of 71 tournaments around the world, Els lives with his family in Florida but returns to his roots annually when he is able to get a break from his international commitments. He is a vocal supporter of his favourite rugby teams – the Lions and the Springboks – and he bleeds red and green. ‘Things have come full circle for me and the SA Open,’ he told Compleat Golfer.
‘I was this Afrikaans laaitie who couldn’t speak English properly and now I’m back to a sentimental venue where I broke through. I’ve won the SA Open five times, and legends like Bobby Locke and Gary Player have won it nine and 13 times respectively, so it’s mind-boggling to think I’m now host and ambassador.
‘I take great pride in that, as well as the fact it’s at Glendower and at a time in South Africa when the landscape is so different to what it was in 1989.’
There will be plenty of competition from some familiar European Tour faces and, as Storm showed last year, being ranked in the 300s doesn’t mean you can’t have a great week and come out on top.
However, given the presence of Els, the momentum created by Grace at Sun City and a crowd still in summer holiday mood, it’s going to take a brave person to bet against a South African bringing the trophy back home.
FORMER WINNERS IN THE FIELD
Graeme Storm (2017), Brandon Stone (2016), Andy Sullivan (2015), Morten Orum Madsen (2013), Hennie Otto (2011), Ernie Els (1992, 1996, 1998, 2006, 2010), Richard Sterne (2008), James Kingston (2007), Retief Goosen (1995, 2005)
HIGHEST RANKED PLAYERS IN THE FIELD
Branden Grace, Charl Schwartzel, Dylan Frittelli, Li Haotong, Julian Suri, Alexander Levy, Chris Wood
– This article first appeared in the January issue of Compleat Golfer