Big loss if ‘Million’ folds

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The Nedbank Golf Challenge flags may no longer be flying high at the Gary Player Country Club from next year.

Johannesburg – In five days’ time the 32nd edition of ‘Africa’s Major’, the tournament initially known as the Million Dollar but now called the Nedbank Golf Challenge, will begin over the treacherous yet scenically spectacular Gary Player Country Club course at Sun City.

The first ‘Million’ was back in 1981 and contested between just five golfers – Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus, Johnny Miller, Seve Ballesteros and Lee Trevino. What a line-up it was, especially at a time when this country’s sports fans were starved of seeing top-class competition because of our apartheid-induced isolation.

In any event, Sol Kerzner’s outrageous gamble to stage a million-dollar tournament for the world’s best golfers in the African bushveld paid off handsomely. Golden boy Miller and swashbuckling Seve tied at the top on 271, then battled it out over nine holes of sudden-death before Miller snatched the title. It was one of the grandest play-offs in the game’s history, and if ever a tournament needed a sensational kick-start this was it.

Since then, Sun City, year in and year out, has hosted the world’s very best golfers for this annual shoot-out in the beautiful Pilanesberg where tens of thousands of fans gather each December to witness the many birdies and occasional bogeys. Besides the five already mentioned we’ve seen Faldo, Langer, McNulty, Frost, Olazabal, Couples, Woosie, Price, Els, Pavin, Monty, Mickelson, Vijay, Tiger, Furyk, Goose, Garcia, Westwood and – lately – SA’s most recent Major champions in Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel. Taken as a whole it has been, as Els likes to say, “one helluva ride”. Now, if talk is to be believed, we may be seeing the last NGC. It has been suggested that next year the tournament will fall away and be replaced by the $8-million inaugural Tournament of Hope for 60 or 70 of the world’s best golfers.

At this stage all is conjecture but, as a reporter who will be covering the tournament for the 27th time, I’ll be sad to see the end of it. As members of the media, we’ve also had a pretty good ride. I remember how in the 1980s I’d sit next to that iconic Scottish golf writer from Sapa, Bill McLean, on the Gary Player clubhouse veranda waiting for the players to finish their rounds. They’d join us and tell us what happened out there, and we’d laugh a lot because Bill, who died a few years ago, had a great sense of humour. We once asked Nick Faldo how he had found the course. “I left my hotel and followed the signs to the first tee,” was his sarcastic reply. He never liked the media, now he’s one of us. Most of the players were really engaging, although today the powers that be protect them and all interviews have to be booked and carefully planned and we never get more than a few minutes.

Today the reporters and radio men have the use of a spacious, magnificent media room, but in the old days we hacks were crowded into the so-called pump room, a small structure next to the Sun City Hotel’s pool. We (the males among us, that is) didn’t mind, though. Walking to and fro from the course to the pump room, there were opportunities to “birdie spot” at close hand the topless ladies tanning next to the water. All part of the job, you understand. Ah, the sweet memories! – Saturday Star


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