The grand old lady of our golf – the South African Open – has had a facelift that will ensure the crowds flock to Randpark Golf Club.
Despite the switch on the calendar and geographically, the South African Open, hosted by the City of Johannesburg, is one of those tournaments that holds a special place in the sport.
Yes, it has basically swallowed up the Joburg Open by being held at Randpark Golf Club from 6-9 December, with the Joburg Open falling off the schedule. Yes, it has become a tri-sanctioned championship between the Sunshine, European and Asian Tours, featuring 240 pros, but also depriving many locals of a chance of being able to enter for two events, not just one.
Yes, the prize fund of a minimum of R17,5-million sounds like huge money, but it equates to a few euros over the million mark and therefore in the same financial vicinity as the Mauritius Open and the Sicilian Open. Yes, the prize money is considerably less than the Hong Kong and Oman Opens – and light years away from that offered at The Open Championship and US Open, which make up two of the four men’s Majors, and along with the SA Open are the three oldest national Opens in golf.
But ask any professional which Open they’d rather win out of those with the same or more prize money – Mauritius, Sicilian, Hong Kong or Oman – and they’d be lying if they replied anything other than the South African one. Three Englishmen, Chris Paisley, Graeme Storm and Andy Sullivan, have won the title over the past four years, with Brandon Stone (2016) being the only local winner in the past six years.
‘For a South African, this is a big event. It’s one of the tournaments you want to win,’ said Charl Schwartzel, runner-up in 2015, but also someone who has worn the Green Jacket of The Masters after his 2011 triumph at Augusta.
Branden Grace, the 2018 runner-up and winner of last year’s Nedbank Golf Challenge, says, ‘If you take the history and the prestige of this tournament – being the second-oldest Open championship in the world – it deserves the work Ernie Els has put in as host to attract this field. It’s good to see him still committed to this tournament. To win the SA Open is definitely one of my childhood dreams. It is another of those tournaments I grew up watching. If I win this, I can say I’m one of the few guys who has won the Alfred Dunhill Championship, the Nedbank Golf Challenge and the SA Open.’
‘It doesn’t feel like it’s been nearly three years‚ if I’m completely honest‚’ says Stone. ‘The memories from the victory are obviously still fresh.’
The names engraved on the old trophy make for esteemed company. Gary Player has hoisted it 13 times, Bobby Locke nine, Ernie Els five – all three are considered among the best golfers of all time – while other Major champions such as Retief Goosen and Trevor Immelman also find their names engraved on the silverware.
This year marks the third time in its history that the South African Open will be played at Randpark, which has two courses, Firethorn and Bushwillow. It was played there in 1995 when Goosen beat Els by five strokes, and then again in 2000 when the Swede, Mathias Gronberg, took the title. Bushwillow is the older of the two, with beautiful, well-established trees, a tight layout and small greens. Firethorn is modern, with a long layout.
As the official player-host of the South African Open, Els said he is looking forward to this next step in the continued growth of the championship. ‘It’s been an exciting last few years for the event in which we’ve made this tournament one of the great championships of world golf again. This is another important step in this process, with a major, internationally-recognised city such as Johannesburg aligning itself so strongly with our national Open.’
This will be the first year without the Joburg Open, in a plan to lessen the burden on golfers in the end-of-the-year period. ‘You can’t expect golfers to play more than three in a row,’ Sunshine Tour commissioner Selwyn Nathan says. ‘We’ve had these co-sanctioned events – one on top of the other – at different points throughout the year. It’s not always better to have more, let’s have less and let’s have bigger. We’ve already had confirmation that our top five players in the World Rankings are coming back to South Africa.’
Swede Mathias Gronberg, then 29, won the SA Open the last time it was played at Randpark, in 2000, after a brilliant final round 67 for a 14-under par total of 274. Gronberg needed to birdie the last to move into first place ahead of Argentinian Ricardo Gonzalez and Zimbabwe’s Nick Price, who were already safely in the clubhouse on 13-under. And Gronberg did it in style, hitting the par-five 18th in two and rolling his eagle putt to within inches of the hole to secure victory. He still faced an anxious wait, however, with Darren Fichardt able to tie with an eagle on the last.
The South African had Gronberg biting his nails when his third shot pitched past the flag and spun back to within an inch of the hole. Somehow the ball failed to drop and Gronberg, watching anxiously from beside the 18th green, finally knew the tournament was his in the fading light.
In 1971, Simon Hobday won the South African Open in controversial fashion. Playing at Mowbray Golf Club, he thought he had incurred a two-shot penalty on the 14th hole in the final round when his shot out of the bunker rebounded off the face and towards him. He couldn’t confirm whether or not the ball had hit him. The South African Golf Union ruled that it hadn’t, and Hobday went on to win by a single stroke over Gary Player.
– This article first appeared in the December issue of Compleat Golfer, now on sale!