It may not be on the same grand scale or as classy as Paris, but golfing fans are busy thinking “we’ll always have Sun City” to paraphrase Casablanca.
The Nedbank Golf Challenge (NGC) – or the Million Dollar as it was formerly known – is a local sporting institution, the way Corporate South Africa celebrates the end of the year, and a high-profile event in the golfing world.
But now, after 32 years, it is under threat by a pair of tournaments, one brand new, the other the second oldest national open in the sport.
The Tournament of Hope is the new kid on the block and, with a prize pool of $8.5 million, only the Players’ Championship on the U.S. PGA Tour offers more money. It is sanctioned by the International Federation of PGA Tours, comprising the American, European, Australasian, Japanese, Asian and Sunshine tours, and, like the World Golf Championship events on which it is modelled, it is aimed at the top 72 players in the world.
It will be played for the first time from November 21-24, 2013, and it is still looking for a host course.
The Tournament of Hope is also the first in a series of co-sanctioned events the Sunshine Tour is hosting, to be followed by the South African Open, the Nelson Mandela Championship and the Alfred Dunhill Championship.
With eight co-sanctioned events now featuring on their summer swing, the Sunshine Tour schedule is looking increasingly cluttered, leaving little room for manoeuvre. The 109-year-old SA Open (only the British Open is older) is, at the moment, set down for the week following the Tournament of Hope, which is why the NGC is under threat.
Sun City’s showpiece sporting event is always held on the first weekend of December, but its future is now uncertain.
The original Million Dollar Challenge was formulated by Gary Player and Sun International founder Sol Kerzner in 1981 to beat sporting isolation and bring the world’s top golfers to the homeland of Bophuthatswana – the only chance South Africans would have to see them play live.
With its million dollar prize pool, it was also the most lucrative tournament in the world.
But both South Africa, the value of the rand, and the golfing world have changed dramatically since then and there is a feeling that the NGC may have served its purpose, had its time and is now a relic of the past.
Moving forward, the Sunshine Tour, sponsors and many fans would like to see Sun City take over the Tournament of Hope.
Negotiations are underway for exactly that to happen, but there is still a rocky road ahead.
“We have had discussions with the Sunshine Tour and Sail [the Tournament of Hope promoters] about merging with the Tournament of Hope.
“But it always comes down to money and it’s a very complicated business model. It would be very costly for us, about twice the cost, to host the Tournament of Hope in terms of what Sun International would have to deliver,” NGC tournament director Alastair Roper told The Daily Maverick on Wednesday.
Accommodation is believed to be one of the stumbling blocks in negotiations, with Sun City now having to host 72 golfers rather than just the 20 that participate in the NGC and the Champions Challenge for seniors.
The NGC only became a sanctioned Sunshine Tour event, with world ranking points, in 1999 and it seems the professional tour is now putting the squeeze on Sun International.
Roper confirmed that there was the threat of world ranking points being withdrawn from the tournament, but he said they could then just operate as “an unsanctioned invitational event like we did before 1999”.
Title sponsors Nedbank, meanwhile, are not opposed to change but, with three years remaining on their contract, will support whatever decision is made.
“We will do what is best for South African golf at large. We’ve supported golf at a very high level for many years and we still want to do that.
“We really hope that the talks come to a logical conclusion and what is best for the game. We do believe Sun City is an appropriate venue though for an event of the magnitude of the Tournament of Hope,” Andy Scott, Nedbank’s head of sponsorship, said.
While change is understandably anathema to many at Sun International – the NGC is a much-loved, highly successful product that has given them fantastic international exposure for a long time – the average golf fan would think it an easy decision to take over the Tournament of Hope.
But one of the problems with the new event is that there is no guarantee that most of the world’s top 20 golfers will attend, whatever the prizemoney.
At the end of November, when the major golf tours have finished their season, it is not easy to get the big names to fly long-distance to Africa, whatever the financial reward.
“Look at the field for the HSBC Champions in Shanghai, which has the same prizemoney but is a WGC event counting for the money-lists. Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy were in China the week before, but they didn’t play.
“They had a better field than the previous year with about eight of the top 20, but we have to be realistic – just because you have $8.5 million prizemoney, that does not guarantee Tiger or Rory will play,” Roper said.
Nowadays, of course, television is a major player in any sporting discussion and a lack of TV coverage would put a serious, if not terminal, dampener on any event.
SuperSport have been the NGC broadcasters since 1999 but their position is unclear. It costs them R7 million to cover the Sun City event, but viewership figures are mediocre in comparison to sports like football and rugby, which cost a fraction of the cost to produce.
Roper admitted that getting Sun City out on to the TV screens of the world was vital.
“Our primary objective is not so much making money directly off the tournament, but showcasing Sun City as a top destination hosting an event that sets us apart from any other golfing and wildlife venue in Africa.
“Ultimately it’s a marketing exercise for us and we need TV viewership for that. We’ve obviously posed the question to SuperSport, but if they see things differently to us then we can always go back to the SABC, who are launching four new sports channels next year, or even eTV.”
This year’s NGC had a rainy finale’, which is perhaps fitting considering the tournament’s cloudy future.
It may be called the Tournament of Hope, but for Sun International it currently just looks like rain clouds, however sunny it may appear to the rest of us.