Johannesburg – England’s Lee Westwood is hoping his love affair with the Nedbank Golf Challenge (NGC) will deepen even further when the 32nd edition of “Africa’s Major” takes place from Thursday to Sunday on the iconic Gary Player Country Club course at Sun City.
The world No 4 will be attempting to become the first player in the rich history of the NGC to win the tournament three times in a row, after posting a score of 15-under 273 last year to beat Robert Karlsson by two, and 17-under 271 in 2010 to leave the field for dead with Tim Clark next best on the leaderboard, eight shots back on 279.
“The way he’s dominated the last two years, you have to look at Lee again as a potential winner,” says tournament director Alastair Roper. ”He loves the NGC and says Sun City is like playing in his own backyard.”
Talking of Englishmen – in this case a Johannesburg-born one – world No 7 Justin Rose has had a superb 2012 season on the fairways of the world, highlighted by victories in the WGC-Cadillac Championship in Miami, and the Turkish Airlines World Golf Finals against seven of the top players on the planet in October.
“I’m looking forward to being back in South Africa, as having been born there, it has a special place in my heart,” he says. “I still have relatives in SA who come out and support me, so it’s always a fantastic experience. Having had such a good season, when I tee up now I know that I have everything I need to win – especially the final piece of the puzzle which is the self-belief, and that fell into place this year. So a perfect finish to the year would be a win at Sun City.”
The other top-tenner in this year’s 12-man line-up is South Africa’s own Louis Oosthuizen and he, too, has had a dream year. Victories in the Africa and Malaysian Opens, runner-up in the Masters and the Singapore Open, and a string of other top 10s have propelled him to a career-high sixth in the world rankings.
After a four-year drought (Sweden’s Henrik Stenson won in 2008 and Australia’s Robert Allenby in 2009), it’s high time that a South African prevails again and in-form Oosthuizen – it’s said his swing is the best in the game – could well be the man for the job.
Westwood and Rose are two of the seven European Ryder Cup heroes taking part this year – the others being Swede Peter Hanson, Scotland’s Paul Lawrie, Germany’s Martin Kaymer, Italy’s Francesco Molinari and big-hitting Belgian Nicolas Colsaerts.
South Africans Charl Schwartzel and Garth Mulroy, another Swede in Carl Pettersson and American Bill Haas complete the world-class field.
And on the subject of Haas, for the first time a father and son will be teeing it up at Sun City as Bill’s dad Jay is part of the eight-man line-up for the third edition of the Nedbank Champions Challenge.
The 54-hole tournament was started at what was planned to be a one-off senior sideshow in 2010 to celebrate 30 years of the NGC. But it proved such a hit that Roper quickly turned it into a permanent fixture.
And it’s hardly a sideshow, not with legends of the game – Tom Watson, Bernhard Langer, Nick Price, Ian Woosnam, Haas, defending champion Mark Calcavecchia, 2010 winner Jeff Sluman and Fred Funk – gracing the Sun City fairways this year.
NEDBANK GOLF CHALLENGE BY NUMBERS
3: The most victories by any one player. Ernie Els, David Frost and Nick Price have all enjoyed a hat-trick of wins.
8: The number of tournaments that have been decided in play-offs. Sergio Garcia is the only player to have won two play-offs, defeating Els in 2001 and Retief Goosen in 2003.
9: The number of extra holes Johnny Miller needed to beat Seve Ballesteros in the inaugural “Million Dollar” in 1981 after both players had tied on 271 for the four rounds of regulation play.
25: The number of strokes Els was under par in posting the NGC 72-hole record score of 263 in 1999.
61: The lowest 18-hole score, achieved by Padraig Harrington in 2001.
$250 000: What Darren Clarke earned for finishing last in 2011.
$1.25 million: First prize last year, and the same this year. – Sunday Tribune