Golf | 03 Dec 2018 | By Michael Vlismas

‘Africa’s Major’ tops the leaderboard again

Seen through the photographic lens of a man who has travelled the world snapping images of the best players in the biggest tournaments, from Majors to Ryder Cups, his assessment of the Public Village at the 2018 Nedbank Golf Challenge hosted by Gary Player was important.

“There is nothing on the European Tour that matches this Public Village,” he said of this year’s experience.

This year “Africa’s Major” took another huge step forwards in terms of its general spectator offering, whether it be through a world-class Public Village with a variety of dining options and luxury marquis’ as well as captivating activations such as chipping competitions, or even in the technological innovation of a VR experience voiced by Gary Player and taking you through the history of this event.

The scale of the grandstands continues to increase, and the 18th grandstand is certainly one of the great amphitheatres in the professional game.

Indeed, the entire scale of this year’s tournament made it feel more like a Major than ever. Even the players described it as such.

But it’s only right that this should be the case, because the evolution of the Nedbank Golf Challenge hosted by Gary Player is the tale of a tournament that has become an institution of South African sport, and a benchmark for many others tournaments worldwide.

This is a tournament that was a disruptor right from the start, and it hasn’t stopped raising the bar.

The Timeline of Change for the Challenge

The Nedbank Golf Challenge hosted by Gary Player has never stood still, content to rest on the laurels of its previous success. You aren’t able to do that when you have the kind of start and make the kind of impact this event did when it first teed off in 1981.

It was immediately a frontrunner in world golf, offering the game’s first million-dollar purse to be contested by only five players. The winner, Johnny Miller, received $500 000.

But then there was change.

The tournament grew from an initial five-man field to 10 in the early Eighties.

In 1987, “Africa’s Major” raised the bar again when Ian Woosnam won the first winner-takes-all $1-million cheque for his victory.

In 2000, there was another major restructuring of the prizemoney to coincide with the new millennium, and Ernie Els won a massive $2-million first prize.

The 2003 Nedbank Golf Challenge expanded its 12-man field to 18 to include many of the stars who were in South Africa for The Presidents Cup.

In 2006 the tournament offered Official World Golf Ranking points for the first time.

In 2013 the Nedbank Golf Challenge formed part of the European Tour’s international schedule, and with the field increased to 30 players competing for a total of $6.5-million.

The 2015 tournament continued to elevate its status in the game when the Nedbank Golf Challenge became part of the European Tour’s elite Final Series on the Race to Dubai, and which has since become known as the Rolex Series.

It was now ranked as one of only eight of the most prestige and lucrative tournaments on the European Tour, and it moved its date to increase its appeal as the penultimate event before the season-ending DP World Tour Championship. The field has also increased to 72 players, the largest in its history.

The challenge going forward, for all tournaments not just the Nedbank Golf Challenge, will be how to continue securing the biggest names in golf.

But the unwillingness of some of them to come to Sun City has more to do with state of the game as a whole and the scheduling dilemma of the major tours, and is certainly not a reflection of the quality of the product that is this tournament.

Lee rises to the Challenge

The emotion that followed Lee Westwood’s victory in the 2018 Nedbank Golf Challenge hosted by Gary Player told everything of what the title meant to him in the context of not only ending a four-year win drought, but that it happened in an event so close to his heart.

“This is a tournament I love playing and I love coming back to Sun City. This wasn’t my first time contending at the Nedbank Golf Challenge. It’s always a fantastic atmosphere and everybody tends to get behind me,” Westwood said through the tears after his three-stroke victory.

With his victory, Westwood became the first European golfer to win “Africa’s Major” three times, following his triumphs in 2010 and 2011.

That he did it with bogey-free round of 64 on a Gary Player Country Club golf course he has immense respect for made it even more special.

And that he did it at the age of 45 and against two Major winners in Louis Oosthuizen and Sergio Garcia, who were both pushing hard for the title themselves, gave him the answer to the question he was perhaps still wondering about.

“I’ve still got it,” he said.

“It’s nice to do it again under pressure and win against a couple of quality players at the end there. To hit the shots I hit down the stretch, it was just nice to prove it to yourself.”

Garcia deserves credit for setting an incredible pace to the 2018 tournament with his opening 64 in which he looked to be untouchable with that four-stroke lead on day one.

Oosthuizen did his best and led briefly during the final round, but had the wind knocked out of him when he bogeyed 15. Ultimately, the double bogey on 18 had no effect on the final outcome as he finished third overall.

And even Ross Fisher should receive a mention for bouncing back from a painful finish to his second round where he dropped eight shots in his final four holes, including a nine on the par-four 15th, to claw his way back and finish fourth.

Rory McIlroy, possibly the biggest drawcard in this year’s field, failed to make anything happen in his own game during a week in which he couldn’t once break 70 on his way to finishing in a share of 21st place.

But to have a home favourite in Oosthuizen contending in the final round, a popular figure and recent Ryder Cup hero such as Garcia leading the charge for most of the week, and a sentimental favourite such as Westwood eventually taking the title was indeed as best a script as you could have asked for this year.

A golf course ahead of its time

More than one time during the 2018 Nedbank Golf Challenge hosted by Gary Player, a professional would back off an approach shot because the flags on the grandstands of one hole were blowing a particular direction, but the flags on a neighbouring hole were completely different.

If “Africa’s Major” set a benchmark for all tournaments to follow in 1981, the Gary Player Country Club course was just as much ahead of its time.

It is a testament to Player’s design skills that this course still commands such respect amongst the players, and still holds their attention.

The golf course has a number of factors that challenge the professionals. The swirling wind and its ever-changing direction makes club selection a difficult choice. Then there is the altitude factor. And the clover-shaped greens allow for incredibly tough pin positions. Throw all of this together and you have a golf course the pros are very wary of.

“Your iron play has got to be on point here,” said Charl Schwartzel.

“It’s a tricky golf course, the wind is very tricky and it moves a lot throughout the round. You have to be precise with your club section, knowing how tight some of these pin positions can be and the spots where they put them. And chipping from this kikuyu grass, if you get a good lie, it’s okay, but if you don’t, you have to bounce it off the green and stuff like that. It’s extremely tricky. It tests every part of your game.” added Sergio Garcia

The variability of the golf course is what always impressed Dennis Bruyns, who for years used to set up the course for this tournament before the European Tour assumed that responsibility.

“It’s actually not the sort of course where you should go and say, ‘We’re going to play from the white or green tees’. If you really want to experience this course, you should play some holes from white, some from green, and some even from the ladies tees,” he said.

Lee Westwood certainly appreciates the complex nature of the Gary Player Country Club.

“There are so many variables around this golf course with heat, breeze, altitude, flyers out of the rough – so it requires a lot of patience and a lot of accuracy, and that starts off by hitting fairways because you can’t be accurate with the iron shots unless you’re coming out of the fairways,” he said.

The Englishman knows the golf course better than most having now won three Nedbank Golf Challenge titles here as well as the 2000 Dimension Data Pro-Am.

All of which explains why after the first round when Garcia had opened up a four-shot lead with his brilliant 64 and the rest of the field were shaking their heads in awe of his performance, Westwood wasn’t as intimidated.

“No lead is big enough on this golf course.”

By Sunday evening, he was proved correct.