For many years now, we have been told that the Nedbank Golf Challenge is ‘Africa’s Major’.
Now in its 36th year, having started with a field of five shooting it out at the Gary Player Country Club course at Sun City for a jackpot of $1-million – the exchange rate was around 80 SA cents to the US Dollar back then! – it has evolved into a 70-plus man event.
It has had many tweaks and name changes – Nedbank took over the title sponsor’s role in 1994 – and it has been an annual highlight for South African golf fans, although this year it is different. Now it forms part of the Race to Dubai Final Series and the traditional ‘by invitation only’ field has been incorporated into a European Tour event for the first time, and, it’s now early November as opposed to the first weekend of December that the event takes place.
Yes, it’s romantic to continue the theme that it’s Africa’s Major. Except it’s not. It’s another, albeit important, event on a swollen golf calendar and it is more European in nature than African. And it certainly isn’t global, with the absence of the best Americans, Australians and Asians dispelling any notion that it’s an unofficial ‘Major’.
But, the Nedbank Golf Challenge is special. Always has been, always will be. It’s part of the DNA of South Africa’s sporting identity, and the fact it is still so important after 36 years shows how it has re-invented itself over the years. As recently as 1991, when the country was undergoing real, meaningful change, the then Sunday Times sports editor Edward Griffiths, wrote that the tournament may have had its place in the bygone era of sporting isolation, but in the new political climate, the Million Dollar Challenge was ‘obscene’.
Gary Player labelled his comments as ‘socialist rubbish’ and argued that the tournament would draw tourists to South African create jobs and ‘help show what this country is like’. Remember too, that in 1991, Sun City formed part of the independent homeland of Bophuthatswana, with president Lucas Mangope in his 14th year of power and taking 50 per cent of the winning purse in tax money. So, when the German Bernhard Langer won the million dollar first prize that year, he took home $500,000.
The NGC is a remarkable tale of longevity, evolution and a South African sporting success story, played on one of the most challenging and acclaimed golf courses in the country. Its hospitality is legendary and these days it’s arguable to suggest the tournament is taken more seriously than it has been by some golfers who were invited to the gambling resort in the past.
It was 25 years ago, at that 1991 event, when John Daly, Ian Woosnam and Steve Elkington famously stripped off their shirts to sing ‘Wild Thing’ at a party after that Saturday’s third round. Daly was spotted at 2am on the Sunday being held upright by two security guards and escorted to his room. He was paired with Woosnam in the final round. The Sun City climate isn’t forgiving at this time of the year – more especially when it was in December – and while Langer went on to win the event for the second time, America’s Daly signed for a six-over total, which he blamed on ‘jet lag’.
He had gone on to complete one of the quickest 18 holes in professional golf history, hardly getting settled in his stance before hitting. At stages he even hit the ball with one hand before quickly walking ahead. That he was six over is remarkable considering the round must have gone by in a throbbing blur.
Nowadays, there’s a lot more at stake than an inflated purse for a hand-picked bunch of professionals. As part of the Race to Dubai and fully integrated on the European Tour it’s more than a season-ending tournament. It might not be ‘Africa’s Major’ in the purest sense, but when the NGC comes round we know that the big boys are in town, and they’re here to play proper golf.
Conditions are also variable at this time of year and I’m reminded of covering the 1990 tournament. Some golfers went out to complete their round, then huge grey clouds gathered, a storm came through the Pilanesburg and the players were ushered off the course. An hour later they were back. In that next day’s (now) Independent Group papers, I wrote: ‘First there was sunshine. Then there was lightning, rain and then hail. Lastly, but most importantly, there was Frost.’
David Frost, the South African favourite went in to lead and win that year’s event and in fact he won three times in four years. Only Ernie Els and Nick Price have matched a ‘hat-trick’ of victories.
There are so many memories and good times associated with the event. And now it’s the turn of the 2016 crop to make their own memories. Bring it on!