The Nedbank Golf Challenge is almost as much of a summer tradition in South Africa as watermelon, mielies, Redchested Cuckoos calling “Piet-my-Vrou!” and cricket, but there will be a definite sense of the end of an era when the tournament starts at Sun City on Thursday.
The event that started in 1981 as the richest tournament in golf – the only one to offer a million dollars in prizemoney –had a field of just five invited contestants, before going to 10 the next year. There were eight golfers in 1987 and 1988 and the event had its traditional 12-man field from 1993 to 2012 (apart from 2003 when South Africa hosted the President’s Cup and both teams played), before becoming a 30-player tournament in 2013.
With the expansion came official European Tour status and more world ranking points, but still almost no Americans have visited Sun City in the last 10 years and there has almost been a feeling of Africa’s Major gradually sliding towards extinction in these vastly-different socio-economic times.
On the continent where human evolution began, it’s always been a case of adapt or die, and so it is welcome news that the Nedbank Golf Challenge will undergo a major change from next year.
For 34 years the tournament has been held in the first weekend of December, a harbinger almost of the festive season and a chance for corporate South Africa to have a year-end party. But now the Nedbank Golf Challenge will be a part of the European Tour’s prestigious and lucrative Finals Series, which has enhanced prizemoney and Race to Dubai points for the leading performers on tour that season, in November.
The fact that the Nedbank Golf Challenge will be the penultimate tournament on the calendar, starting on November 10, the week before the Tour Championship, the season finale in Dubai, raises hopes that some top-class golfers will once again visit South Africa.
At the end of the year, who knows, maybe even the likes of Rory McIlroy will be chasing points as he looks to defend his Race to Dubai crown.
I said a while ago that the Nedbank Golf Challenge’s best hope of survival would be to become a regular, albeit lucrative and prestigious, tournament on the European Tour schedule, and the other major change is that the field will now comprise 72 golfers.
The top 64 in the Race to Dubai standings will be invited, but there will still be space for the defending champion, the winner of the Sunshine Tour order of merit and six invited golfers, with Americans probably being the major target there.
A long time ago, Gary Player and Sol Kerzner had a dream to bring the world’s best golfers to South Africa and, with Nedbank staying on board and increasing their sponsorship to the extent that the prizemoney is now $7 million, the new era at Sun City will hopefully attract the cream of the crop, certainly in terms of European talent.