Thomas Abt has just finished building a magnificent greenhouse in his garden, and the timing for this could not have been better, writes MICHAEL VLISMAS.
For in his new position as the commissioner of the Sunshine Tour, there is a similar sense of Abt’s desire to create the perfect environment for the growth and blossoming of South African professional golf.
On 1 October 2020, Abt officially took over from longstanding commissioner Selwyn Nathan. Or rather, that’s when the paperwork was signed and sealed. In reality, Nathan has been grooming Abt for this ever since he appointed him as deputy commissioner in February 2018. And Abt himself has been preparing for this ever since his dad took him to watch what was then the ‘Million Dollar’ in the 1980s, and a young boy was totally sold on the joy a golf tournament can bring.
‘My dad had started playing golf and a family friend who had an aeroplane invited us to go to what was then the Million Dollar at Sun City,’ says Abt. ‘I wasn’t really interested in golf. I was more excited about the flight. We got up at 5am and arrived at the plane, but then the flight was cancelled because it was too cloudy to land at Pilanesberg Airport. I was devastated. That’s when my father said we’ll drive to Sun City. I thought he was crazy, but that’s what we did. And I was blown away by what I saw there. Just the crowds and the hospitality and all that goes into a golf tournament of that magnitude, and seeing how happy it made the people there to be a part of it. I said to myself right there, “When I grow up, I want to work in this industry.”’
And so began a journey that took Abt to Rand Afrikaans University (now University of Johannesburg) to study sports management and which then included a two-year stint working on a ski resort in the United States, playing professional volleyball for South Africa, and then one day going back at Sun City with an opportunity to start working in golf.
‘A position had opened up at The Lost City Golf Club and I applied. My interview consisted of playing 18 holes of golf with the then golf director Steven Shearer, so he could see if I knew what I was doing. I’ve always been about a two or three handicap so I could handle myself. And I was given the job.’
Abt spent three years in the position before moving back to Johannesburg and managing Sun International’s growing portfolio of golf events. He was then approached by Sail Sport and Entertainment to join their golf division.
And having gained valuable experience in the staging of professional tournaments, Nathan began to draw him closer to the Sunshine Tour.
‘I know it sounds trite but it really was always a dream of mine to be the commissioner one day. I was with Selwyn at the Eye of Africa PGA Championship one year and we were having a meeting with the sponsor David Nagle. In the middle of the meeting Selwyn just said, “I’m getting too old for this now and Thomas will take over.” That was the first I heard of it. I kind of just sat back a little bit stunned, because he never offered me the position directly. He just said I’ll take over. Obviously I’m very excited it’s happened. There have been so many good people in my life who have helped me get to this point.’
The fact Abt has taken over in one of the most turbulent years for golf worldwide is a challenge in itself. He is also well aware that he’s following in the footsteps of a man who has for the past 50 years helped shape the Sunshine Tour into a massively successful product through his business acumen and a global network of associates.
‘What Selwyn has done has highlighted some definite areas of personal growth for me. Selwyn is everyone’s friend and he has the biggest heart. He tries to help everybody and as such his network is unbelievable. I need to work on that, on expanding that network so that as a Tour we continue to reach the right decision-makers who can help us keep growing,’ says Abt.
‘We are blessed to have a very strong board with some of the most influential businessmen in the world and all of them serve passionately to see the Sunshine Tour succeed.’
So what is Abt’s own vision for the Sunshine Tour?
‘It’s not about putting my stamp on this position. It’s about building on the success we’ve had. I want professional golf in this country to be a product people want to be involved with. I want to help build a professional sport that everybody wants to be a part of, and to break down the perception that golf is elitist.
We need to understand what they need and what’s important to them. For a professional golfer, it’s often more golf tournaments and more prize money. And we have a plan for that. We have a plan of maintaining what we’ve got and making it bigger.
‘In my five-year vision I have a goal to grow the base of tournaments with at least one really big new tournament of the magnitude of a WGC-type event. An event of that size creates interest in golf and gets people talking about the game. And that brings new sponsors to the table. Then we need to create the awareness, because we’re competing for those sponsors with every other sport out there. In my mind, golf is entertainment, and we need to be able to give that sense of entertainment to our fan base. We’ve started a new phase in that process with our digital growth during lockdown and we’re going to keep building on that because it’s already shown incredible success. We have a live streaming platform supported by our partners SuperSport and we want to keep growing that platform to give our tournaments coverage through that avenue.
‘Through Selwyn’s vision, the Sunshine Tour has done invaluable work in development and transformation in South African professional golf. This remains an important focus for the Tour and we’ll be pursuing some exciting avenues around the transformation of golf.
‘And then finally, I’m always looking at what we can do that’s different. Not different just for the sake of it. But what makes golf even more exciting for people to come and watch it? What brings people out to watching golf when they can watch any other sport out there? Whatever that is, I want to support it and find a way to incorporate that into our golf tournaments. If it’s something along the lines of what we did at the South African Open, when we had Rory McIlroy come and play, and we had a festival of other family events around the golf, that’s what we need to build on. Or like the payoff line for the Tshwane Open, which said, “It’s more than just golf,” where we had food markets at Pretoria Country Club where families could enjoy something different after the golf. That’s what we’re after. We need to be innovative.
Abt thinks about these things almost constantly. He is immersed in professional golf. On his phone you’ll find scoring apps as diverse as the PGA Tour and European Tour to even the Alps Tour, and he uses them all as he consumes professional golf.
And when he does take a break from the game, he does so with his love for DIY and carpentry.
‘I recently built two woodsheds for my firewood and a work bench in my garage. I like tinkering and building things. I find carpentry really takes my mind off things. The greenhouse was a big project. I probably made it bigger than it needs to be, with irrigation and all sorts of things. But it was fun.’
The greenhouse is now in place. It definitely is a season of new growth for Abt and the Sunshine Tour.