The joys of a game we all love are reignited after a chance to walk in the footsteps of the greats, writes WADE PRETORIUS in Compleat Golfer.
Colin Montgomerie in a playoff over Ernie Els. The year was 1996. The venue, Gary Player Country Club. The prize? A staggering one-million dollars.
While the drama was playing out, there was as much interest some 1 100km ‘down the road’ as a family gathered for Sunday lunch. A humble family get-together with braai smoke billowing in the Port Elizabeth wind. The golf on screen would ignite the sporting aspirations of a 10-year-old boy. The same scene, down to the food served, drinks ordered and numbers seated at the table would be repeated year on year for more than a decade as one family member – at that time an avid weekend golfer – would mark his birthday on the ‘Million Dollar’ Sunday, as we called it.
There’s been a lot of change in the ensuing years. First there was Nick Price going two in a row, including 1998 when he toppled Tiger Woods, who made a rare appearance at Sun City.
Finally Els would get that first win – exacting some revenge on the Scot with a resounding five-stroke victory when the Big Easy posted an unmatchable score of 25 under par. Els’ legend would grow at Gary Player Country Club over the next few years as he made multiple appearances at the Nedbank Golf Challenge, as it became known in 2000.
It was that run at the turn of the century that would cement Els’ place in sporting folklore in South Africa. The connection between him and the famed crystal ball trophy would also cement the NGC as one of the country’s most loved sporting occasions at one of the most iconic venues.
The advances in television coverage have played a role, too, in the event’s increased popularity. More in-depth access has been given to families huddled around their TVs, boerewors roll in one hand and beverage in the other, as they watch some of the finest tame one of the most unforgiving tracks in the land.
Since that braai in 1996, a lot has changed in that young fan’s life, too, but admiration for the Nedbank Golf Challenge and Gary Player Country Club remained constant.
Then the email landed. This writer’s first invitation to attend ‘The Final Round’ – a round of golf at the home of the Nedbank Golf Challenge before the course is closed to the public to ramp up preparations for the championship event, which is part of the Rolex Series and the Race to Dubai final series. Envy of missed opportunities is replaced by sheer excitement as you hurriedly check the calendar and finalise your plans to attend this preview.
As expected, this is no ordinary golf day as you mingle with celebrities, media and selected guests in the clubhouse over breakfast before the crowd spills out on to the practice area. Nervous laughter is the soundtrack with the writers now being the subject of the live leaderboard.
A trip to the 5th tee box in a sleek new Volvo SUV was the last bit of comfort as the sweltering hot October sun did little to ease the nerves.
Making things ‘easier’ for the amateurs were the ‘friendly’ tee boxes, a far cry from the challenge the pros will face in November. Some players on the day would complain about the ‘shortened’ course bringing more of the hazards into play, but that sentiment wasn’t shared by the entire field.
Half my fourball missed the first fairway and even as one who successfully navigated that first strike, there’s much more to the course than visual intimidation off the tee. The greens – thankfully not at tournament speed – are protected by their clover shape. This allows the greenkeeper some artistic licence, which was used to full effect on the day. Too many pins to count were tucked just over a bunker, which places a premium on ball striking – whether you are planning to attack or trying your level best just to find the centre and hope for a two-putt.
The greenside bunkers are a hazard on their own and are extremely well-positioned as they work in harmony with the slopes of the greens and the pin placements.
My scoring did not get off to the best start as my partner and I struggled to find greens in regulation … you simply cannot produce a decent round at Gary Player Country Club if you are scrambling.
The first true taste of experiencing the course first-hand, and the difference to watching it being played on TV, was the 8th hole. The stroke-one par four is a demanding test of four good shots.
An accurate lay-up leaves you with a mid-iron up the hill as you take in the panoramic view of the hotel. The wheels were off at this stage, but our playing competitors showed that par can be made even with one needing to pitch and then putt from eight feet to secure his three-pointer.
The 9th is a special golf hole, one of the country’s best. Unfortunately, a downhill lie in the right rough prevented attempting a hallelujah 5-wood into the green over the water. There are few times I wish my round would extend beyond the four-hour mark, but I made sure I walked slowly to the green as we passed the names of former winners. I indulged in a brief drift-off to those braais of yesteryear as I recalled the likes of Trevor Immelman, Lee Westwood and Henrik Stenson adding their names to the honours board.
After leaving my birdie attempt agonisingly short – as if that is even possible on those downhill putts – it was off to a great scoring chance on the 10th. A decent drive enables you to take on the green in two – aim left and drift it in, but don’t miss right as par is almost always just wishful thinking as the slope takes your ball further into the trouble.
The 11th was my first encounter with the deep bush and I have the cuts on my hand to prove it. My playing partners questioned my sanity afterwards about venturing into the undergrowth in search of the Pro V1 ball. Apparently, the course is in snake country and despite the rising cost of balls, you should always play it safer. Lesson learned.
With the tees up, 13 plays much easier than it will for Rory McIlroy, Sergio Garcia and co, but again, it’s a hole where the pin placement can play tricks on you.
Front and centre means that any ball on the back of the green has no chance of nestling its way up to the cup; you are better off playing it short of the green and chipping it close for par.
Another iconic hole is the 14th, a par five made famous by it’s ‘love grass’, although it must have been some poor, heartbroken soul who named it anything close to matters of the heart. The waste bunker with its tall grass provides protection should you be considering trying to board the green in two. ‘Don’t miss right, under any circumstances’ should be the weekend golfer’s warning, as I soon found out.
The next hole is another that looks innocuous from the tee but can wreck your card, with bunkers on the left of the fairway, which slopes down, and bush on the right. Then you have to navigate an uphill approach with bunkers on either side.
The 17th is majestic and a hole to be treasured. It’s another that makes you appreciate the talents of those who play the game for a living as they make it look so easy.
The final hole will be tweaked for this year’s event as Gary Player demanded that a new tee box be pushed back some 30m to force the players to take out a driver or 3-wood. The change is bound to bring some excitement to the closing hole.
As our round drew to a close, the local wildlife started to make an appearance, perhaps with the afternoon rain approaching, and social media was quickly bombarded with pictures of the scenes foreign players and fans love to share.
It’s one of the many things that makes golf at this course so special. The perfect greens contrasted with water and bunkers; the manicured fairways juxtaposed with dense African bush; green from the Nedbank amphitheatres around the 9th and 18th holes against the blue of the water that is ready to drown challengers’ hopes; wildlife mingling with golfers and, for me, the joy of realising a dream of playing where the greats have and the opportunity to see how the struggles of my golf game stacked up to Player’s great design.
There would be no tears but rather raucous laughter filling the clubhouse before prize-giving. Stories told with glee and the winners duly rewarded. No golf accolade for me this time, but in truth, the experience was more than enough.
It’s almost time to light the afternoon braai and gather round to watch Louis, Charl and Branden write another chapter and ignite the hopes and dreams of budding golfers around the country.
– This article first appeared in the November issue of Compleat Golfer, now on sale