Ken Borland
Sports Journalist
6 minute read
9 Nov 2016
7:26 pm

Nedbank Golf Challenge grows in stature

Ken Borland

As the penultimate event of the season, it has attracted all of Europe’s top stars save for Rory McIlroy and Bernd Wiesberger.

FILE PICTURE: Branden Grace. Photo by Petri Oeschger / Sunshine Tour / Gallo Images

It began in 2003 with a shift to 18 golfers in the year South Africa hosted the Presidents Cup, before 30 top competitors took part from 2013, and now the Nedbank Golf Challenge has expanded to the top 72 on the Race to Dubai order of merit and a crucial part of the European Tour’s Final Series.

As the penultimate event of the season, it has attracted all of Europe’s top stars save for Rory McIlroy, Bernd Wiesberger, Lee Westwood, Sergio Garcia and Francesco Molinari.

Defending champion Marc Leishman, who is not a European Tour member, declined an invitation, but former winners Danny Willett (2014), Martin Kaymer (2012), Henrik Stenson (2008) and Retief Goosen (2004) are all at Sun City.

Willett began the year in exceptional fashion, winning the Masters to take control of the Race to Dubai, but he has suffered a slump in form in the second part of the year and he currently trails Stenson by 252 points.

The Englishman is hoping being back at Gary Player Country Club will help him to regain some form with the title of European number one up for grabs.

“There aren’t that many golfers who’ve seen this course as much as myself or Henrik or Martin. We’ve got a slight advantage because we know the golf course pretty well and between the three of us we’ve done fairly well here over the years.”

“Henrik and I have had pretty similar years this year. We both won a Major and had good showings in World Golf Championship events. Hopefully I can have a good show this week and close that gap and make the finale in Dubai a bit more interesting. For this event to fall where it does in the Final Series can be an absolute boost for me. I’ve been struggling recently to get things going, so it’s nice to come back to this event and a course I know pretty well and have done well on,” Willett said.

For his part, Stenson knows his lead is a small one and even his superb previous record at Sun City – he has never finished lower than fourth in his six appearances – does not mean he can be complacent when the 36th Nedbank Golf Challenge starts on Thursday.

“It’s good to be back at a course where I’ve played some good golf in the past and been successful over the six times that I’ve been, so I’m looking forward to the week. It’s the second-to-last event in the Race to Dubai and I’m in a good position. There’s a few guys behind who wants to play some good golf, also. So I’d better keep my head down and my foot down and have a good finish here and a good finish in Dubai if I want to stay on top,” Stenson said.

Kaymer is struggling with his putting but is pleased the Gary Player Country Club course is filled with dangers apart from the usual snakes in the dense bush.

“The rough is a bit thicker I think than the last two, three years, so I assume that the winning score is not as low as it used to be. At least I hope, because in general all the tournaments that we played recently is all 20-, 25-under-par.”

“I hope the Tour, everybody, makes the golf course more difficult; that it’s not only a putting competition; that you have to strike it well, and that is good on a golf course like this where you have to hit a lot of fairways. I enjoy tournaments like this a bit more.”

“I think they can make it fairly tight, the golf course. Once you miss fairways, it’s very difficult to hit the greens sometimes because the ball sits down in the rough, and then even to get it sometimes back on the fairway, I struggled a couple times today. So driving is a key this week, and they are fairly small greens.”

“I think they can protect the scoring very well if they put the pins in those corners. The 13th hole, for example, the par-four, uphill, if they put it in the back-left section, if you miss the green on the left side, you can easily make bogey, and in reality you go for the flag. So it’s not really a birdie hole. I think they can protect the golf course fairly well.”

“These days, my ball-striking is great. But on the courses that we play recently, you need to putt like a crazy person: 25, 26 putts, in order to win. I have an average of 29 or 30. So for me as a player, I would love to have more difficult golf courses, but these days they are too easy for the guys on the PGA and European Tour,” Kaymer said.

Branden Grace is 10th on the Race to Dubai and one of the leading South African hopes along with seventh-placed Louis Oosthuizen, and the world number 15 hopes to address the nine-year absence of a local winner.

“Ja, the foreigners must go home!” he joked.

“We need a South African winner and we have a good couple in the field and guys playing well, so hopefully there will be a local winner. In the last few years there have not been so many South Africans in the field, it was always a great, top-class field and you had to do something special to win at Sun City. But there are nine South Africans playing this week, so that’s phenomenal, they’re all really good players and in form,” Grace said.

The top-ranked South African finished in a tie for fourth last year in his second appearance at the Nedbank Golf Challenge and it is a title he would obviously love to get on his resume’.

“It’s always a great week at Sun City, it’s Africa’s Major, and the tournament you want to win growing up. It’s been a good season, defending my title in Qatar and winning in the United States has opened doors for me. It’s been a steady season with good performances in the Majors and I feel my game is coming along,” Grace said.

Goosen, at Sun City on a sponsor’s invite, is not so confident about his game, but the presence of Uncle Retief, who was one of South Africa’s greatest golfers of the previous decade, is clearly most welcome.

“It’s obviously a great feeling to be back at Sun City, especially as a past champion, on one of my favourite golf courses in the world, for a tournament which they’ve taken to another level. It’s one of the best events in the world and I just wish I was in better form. But you never know … when you come back to somewhere you like, you tend to find form,” Goosen said.