While Westwood leapt at the opportunity to try and become the first golfer to win at Sun City for three successive years, returning to the Gary Player Country Club for the ninth time, local favourite Els will not be participating in the 32nd edition of the tournament, from November 29 to December 2.
Tournament Director Alastair Roper said while it was unfortunate the resurgent Open champion would not be playing, Els had his reasons.
“Obviously as one of this year’s major winners, Ernie received an automatic invite and he was sent that immediately after the Open. In August I met with his management company and they indicated that he was finding it difficult to come back to South Africa this early in the year. He wants to spend time with the family and his kids, who will still be in school. They only break up around December 22 and he doesn’t want to take them out early,” Roper explained at the field announcement in Sandton on Thursday.
Westwood, meanwhile, the highest-ranked player in the field at number four, has apparently committed himself to becoming a regular contestant in the NGC.
“His manager, Chubby Chandler, told me that Lee has made up his mind to play at Sun City in perpetuity. He loves the course, he considers it his backyard and he doesn’t care who comes along, he believes he can beat them there. He’s been pretty unstoppable at Sun City before,” Roper said.
Invitations are sent to the defending champion, the four major winners – unfortunately none of them have accepted this year – and then according to the world rankings, the cut-off date this year being September 23. The winner of the Sunshine Tour Order of Merit (Garth Mulroy) is also guaranteed entry.
This year the invitations went as far down as world number 35 Nicolas Colsaerts, with three South Africans (Mulroy, Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel) and seven members of Europe’s triumphant Ryder Cup team cracking the nod.
Europe snatched victory from the United States on a dramatic final day at Medinah, with Justin Rose and Martin Kaymer playing key roles, while Colsaerts made a sensational Ryder Cup debut by shooting 62 as he and Westwood beat Tiger Woods and Steve Stricker in the opening day’s fourballs. Roper believes the NGC can only benefit from the hype.
“It was a marvellous Ryder Cup and Europe’s magnificent win bodes well for us because it means all those golfers are on top of their game. They will be confident and the memories from Medinah will still be fresh in the public’s mind,” Roper said.
While Westwood, who won by a mammoth eight strokes in 2010 and by two shots over Robert Karlsson last year, is the clear favourite, world number five Rose has been in excellent recent form and loves playing in the country of his birth, having narrowly missed out on the NGC title in 2007, when he was just edged into second by Trevor Immelman.
“I think there will be real pressure on Westwood. Justin Rose is really hot at the moment, being in South Africa suits him, he has one foot here and he will feel totally at home. But Louis Oosthuizen is also in great form, he’s had a stellar second half of the year and he will certainly compete with them. Plus Colsaerts is so long off the tees that if his driver is working and he’s in the middle of the fairways, he’ll be a challenger too,” Roper said.
But South Africa’s most in-form golfer, Branden Grace, will not be in the field because he was too far down the world rankings at the September 23 cut-off.
“He wasn’t even in the top 50 when we made the cut-off, but he won just after that which pushed him up the rankings. But even at his current number 37 in the world, he wouldn’t have got in,” Roper explained.
NGC field (with current world ranking) – Lee Westwood (England, 4); Justin Rose (England, 5); Louis Oosthuizen (South Africa, 12); Peter Hanson (Sweden, 25); Paul Lawrie (Scotland, 29); Francesco Molinari (Italy, 30); Charl Schwartzel (South Africa, 31); Carl Pettersson (Sweden, 32); Martin Kaymer (Germany, 33); Bill Haas (USA, 34); Nicolas Colsaerts (Belgium, 35); Garth Mulroy (South Africa, 172).