I often get the question: ‘Where does golf rank in the list of “big” sports in South Africa?
Is it fourth behind the “Big Three”’? The answer isn’t as easy as it would seem.
According to data from Golf RSA there are about 140 000 registered golfers from 466 golf clubs and they play 3.6-million rounds of golf every year. Social and recreational golfers conservatively number around 250 000 on top of that. Other sports that enter the equation for the fourth spot behind the ‘Big Three’ of rugby, football and cricket are netball, athletics, cycling, tennis and hockey, although it’s tough to gauge what criteria are used to determine the result.
In terms of individual achievement, South Africa’s golfers excel on the international stage year in and year out. In terms of team sports, the country’s juniors compete favourably with the best anywhere. There are superb development programmes and activity at grassroots level. The administration is also world class and runs to a tight budget.
There’s a raft of black talent coming through and although Vincent Tshabalala remains the only black South African to have won on the European Tour, others will do so. Sim ‘Tiger’ Tshabalala, who in 2019 emerged on the kids’ scene at the age of seven, has already built up a big following and is winning age-group tournaments around the globe. That’s not to say he will ever win a professional tournament – it’s far too early to make that statement, but he’s an example of young black interest in the sport.
Yet, at the 2019 SA Sports Awards golf was again glossed over in the 17 category nominations. The Federation of the Year award went to netball – as did Administrator of the Year and Team of the Year – while Roller Sport SA was a sports federation finalist. Sheep shearing made the shortlist of three finalists for Team of the Year.
In 2018 softball won Federation of the Year, with netball, lifesaving and surfing getting the three federation nominations for 2017. And so on. Golfers like Louis Oosthuizen, Ernie Els and Branden Grace haven’t had a look-in, nor have juniors like Jayden Schaper, the 18-year-old who won the Junior Players Championship in 2019.
Yet, golf has such a big following in the country and the South African Open was another example where government and the sport work so well together, with the tournament hosted by the City of Johannesburg and the pro-am being held at the impressive new Soweto Country Club.
The sport is responsible for adding plenty of ’zeroes’ in monetary value when it comes to tourism as South Africa is one of the most sought-after golfing destinations on the planet. Is there any other sport in this country that adds as much revenue to the economy as golf does?
Here’s further food for thought for the 2020 Sports Awards consideration. Only the US, Scotland and England have produced more winners of men’s Majors. Only England, the US and Spain have produced more European Tour champions. There were five South Africans in the International team of 12 at the 2019 Junior Presidents Cup.
When one compiles a list of ‘greatest sportspeople produced by South Africa’, Gary Player’s name is always one of the first mentioned. The SA Open is one of the three oldest ‘Open’ championships in the world and it is fantastic to see the strides it has made. The crowd loved it, there were families with children enjoying the occasion, but the visual snapshot of what it was all about came when Louis Oosthuizen holed his 7-iron tee shot at the 193m 8th.
It’s unlikely many in the crowd had ever seen a hole-in-one ‘live’ and judging by the reaction of the caddies, neither had they. The bagmen for Jaco Ahlers and Marcus Armitage whooped with joy, high-fiving everyone on the tee box and even getting Louis in on the act. Scenes like that don’t come often in the world of professional golf and for it to happen in South Africa, at a prestigious European Tour event, spoke volumes about the power of golf.