Now into its 39th year, the Nedbank Golf Challenge held at Gary Player Country Club remains one of the highlights on the calendar, writes GARY LEMKE in Compleat Golfer.
From the Million Dollar Challenge, when a five-man field duelled for a R500 000 first prize back in 1981, to ‘Africa’s Major’ in 2019, when the winner will wake up on Monday, 18 November, with the equivalent of $2.5-million deposited into his bank account. Should that golfer be a South African and he keeps it in a local account, he can expect to see R38-million reflected on his advice slip.
We sure have come a long way. Back in 1981, as the anti-apartheid protests grew, black tennis champion Arthur Ashe asked Jack Nicklaus not to compete. Ashe wrote a letter to the golfing great, licked the stamp and posted the envelope. The ‘Golden Bear’ refused to budge.
London Sunday Times writer John Hopkins was loud in his criticism. ‘It’s an exotic extravaganza, a snare and a delusion, a hyped-up, quasi-tournament that will be beamed to Japan, Australia, Italy, Canada, Austria, the US and, thanks to Thames Television, to Britain. Most of all, it’s an affront to the dignity of millions of black Africans. And no one, in spite of their column inches in their newspapers and the pictures on their televisions in the next few days, should ever forget that.’
The tournament went ahead and Johnny Miller won the $500 000 jackpot, holding off Seve Ballesteros in the playoff after both had signed for 11-under 277s.
That was then, this is now.
Sun City is a unique experience and for a South African it’s truly a bucket-list sporting experience. Sometimes we find ourselves trapped in a spiral of doom and gloom – and when you look at the negative and damaging news headlines on a daily basis, perhaps that’s understandable. There is also a degree of cynicism when it comes to labelling the Nedbank Golf Challenge ‘Africa’s Major’, but here’s the leveller: it is.
As a golf course it’s challenging, and even Rory McIlroy can’t argue that it’s too easy. Last year the Northern Irishman finished in a tie for 21st behind Lee Westwood, after rounds of 72, 71, 73 and 71. Fancy that: the four-time winner who complains that courses on the European Tour are ‘too easy’, couldn’t break 70 in 72 holes. However, Westwood did that three times, winning with a 15-under-par 273.
What every golfer tells you after they’ve come off the Gary Player CC course is that it’s the swirling wind that gets you, plays tricks with you and confuses you. Look over your shoulder and you’ll see flags flapping in one direction; look over the other shoulder and they’re going the opposite way. Then the wind dies and picks up again. It’s not a coastal wind; more a teasing breeze that does just enough to make you and your caddie doubt yourselves.
Then there are the greens. This is a course you can’t tackle with the attitude that you’re going to dominate it. The approach is similar to Augusta National – it’s not the wisest strategy to attack the flag. Rather pick your spot on the green, preferably below the hole as they are lightning quick, thanks to a superb greenkeeper’s work and the unrelenting African sun, and stay patient.
Of course, stay where the mower goes. The rough will punish wayward strikes and you will need to take your medicine when that happens. The kikuyu grass can also take some getting used to – even for the cream of the professionals.
The crowd also plays their part and last year when Louis Oosthuizen hit the front going into the home nine on the Sunday they shouted themselves hoarse. Sun City does that to South Africans. Christmas is around the corner, the sun and guns are out, the beer is cold and there’s plenty of testosterone flying about.
It is a pity the top Americans don’t come to play, but now that it’s a fully-fledged European Tour event, that’s understandable, although it wasn’t always that way. While it’s great to see some of the European Tour’s stars doing their thing, imagine what it would add if the better Americans were also ‘doing their thang’. Brooks Koepka and Dustin Johnson trying to bomb the course, Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth excelling on the greens, Bryson DeChambeau bringing his scientific approach to the
event. And what about Tiger?
Perhaps that’s why we will continue calling it ‘Africa’s Major’, but fail to convince the rest of the world that it’s worthy of such status. Then again, we know what it adds to our sport calendar and every player and spectator who has been in attendance will concur that it’s a jewel in the golfing crown.
In 1991 John Daly, Ian Woosnam and Steve Elkington stripped off their shirts to sing ‘Wild Thing’ at the players’ party, and later Daly was seen being removed from the Sun City bar at 2am looking the worse for wear and being supported by two security guards. The next day he and Woosnam arrived for their tee-off times but were in no mood to stick around. Daly even resorted to hitting some shots with the club in one hand and hardly taking any time to set up his shot, hitting and walking ahead quickly. He later blamed his performance of six over on ‘jet lag’. All the good golf was played by Germany’s Bernhard Langer, who won the event.
ON THE BAG
When Lee Westwood won last year, he had his partner, Helen Storey, on his bag. ‘Absolutely amazing,’ she said. ‘We stood in the tunnel when he was going to pick up the trophy and I was like “Oh my … he’s done it!” and the tears started to flow. I wasn’t going to hold them back. It was hard work, yeah. I was plodding along the par fives and thinking “Crikey, this is a long course”, but watching him play well was lovely. We don’t really talk too much about golf, actually. It’s more a case of keeping up and staying out of the way; that’s the difficult part.’
WAY BACK WHEN
- Nedbank became involved and took over the title sponsorship of the NGC in 1994. Here are 10 things you need to know about what was happening in that year.
- Nelson Mandela became president of South Africa after the ANC won the country’s first democratic elections.
- Bill Clinton was the president of the US and John Major was British prime minister.
- The Nokia 2110 mobile phone was launched in South Africa at a price of R4 199.
- Orlando Pirates won the NSL First Division title, ahead of Cape Town Spurs and Umtata Bucks.
- Schindler’s List won the Oscar for Best Movie and Tom Hanks Best Actor for his role in Philadelphia.
- Ernie Els, then 24, won the first of four Major titles, the US Open at Oakmont.
- The Queensland Reds beat the Natal Sharks 21-10 to win the Super 10 rugby trophy.
- Alberto Salazar won the Comrades Marathon in 5:38:39, beating Nick Bester and Rasta Mohloli, while Russia’s Valentina Liakhova won the women’s race.
- Pete Sampras beat Goran Ivanisevic to win the Wimbledon men’s singles title, while Conchita Martinez beat Martina Navratilova to win the women’s singles.
- Michael Schumacher won his first Formula One drivers’ title, in a Williams-Renault, one point ahead of Damon Hill. The season had been marred by the death of Ayrton Senna in May.