Gary Player still the driving force behind the Nedbank Golf Challenge’s success
When Gary Player steps onto the 18th fairway of the Gary Player Country Club during a video shoot for this year’s Nedbank Golf Challenge, there is a definite sense that his footsteps are as deeply imprinted on this iconic golf course as they are in this tournament.
“You know, Sun City, this golf course and this tournament are all so much a part of my life. Whenever I come back here it’s like I’m with family and friends,” says Player, the official host of the Nedbank Golf Challenge.
From designing the golf course, to rallying the world’s best golfers to attend the first few editions, to now being an ever-present figure at the tournament, Player has witnessed every major evolution that the Nedbank Golf Challenge has undergone.
It was Player who convinced Jack Nicklaus to participate in 1981, despite the political turmoil South Africa was in. He watched as the greatest golfer of this generation, Tiger Woods, chipped in on the 18th to force a playoff with Nick Price in 1998. And he was there when the tournament’s flags hung at half mast and play was stopped for a minute on the Friday in 2013 to honour the passing of Nelson Mandela.
“It was a sad day, but also a day for celebration for what Mandela gave our country. He would’ve wanted us to celebrate. There is a special place in heaven for him,” says Player.
Even now, Player sometimes has to pinch himself to see what has been created in the cradle of an extinct volcano, where the building of a golf course was the last thing anybody expected, never mind following that up with a tournament offering the first million dollar purse in golf and which upon its launch was described by the media as, “The Golfing Coup of the Century”.
“I remember the day I was flown by helicopter to this site. There was nothing here but bushveld and farm animals. I said to the developer, Sol Kerzner, ‘You can’t build a golf course here. You’ve got no water’. And he said they’d get me water. So they piped the water in from afar and built a dam. And from that came this golf course and this fantastic tournament. It’s been an amazing journey and a privilege to be part of it.”
Now Player is witnessing yet another transformation of “Africa’s Major” as it takes up its position on The European Tour’s new premier Rolex Series with valuable world ranking points. And he remains as hands-on as ever, from doing guest commentary stints during the tournament to welcoming the players on the first tee, interacting with the fans and signing autographs in the merchandise marquee, and a myriad of other activities during the week.
His passion for this tournament shines through during the official pro-am, when Player will travel around the course in a golf cart greeting the world’s best players and generally catching up on their careers.
“Look at this hole, Martin,” he’ll say to Martin Kaymer. “What do you think if we moved that fairway bunker just a few metres in?”
Four decades later, Player remains as finely-tuned to even the smallest detail that will keep the Nedbank Golf Challenge as one of the premier tournaments of world golf.