The Nedbank Golf Challenge has come a long way since its inglorious beginning

The Nedbank Golf Challenge has come a long way since its inglorious beginning
World number one Lee Westwood (right) of England is congratulated by his caddy after winning the Nedbank Golf Challenge in Sun City, 5 December 2010. (Photo: Reuters / Siphiwe Sibeko)

The Nedbank Golf Challenge, which started at the Gary Player Country Club on Thursday, began life as the Sun City Challenge in 1981 and with each passing year its chequered history is further airbrushed away.

Today the Nedbank Golf Challenge is one of the crown jewels of the European Tour’s 46-tournament calendar. As one of the two most powerful organisations in golf, the other being the US PGA Tour, a tournament on this scale is essential to the European Tour’s image.

The 2019 NGC put up a staggering $7.5-million (R112-million) in prize money and spends many millions more in corporate hospitality and marketing. The tournament is one of the eight “Rolex Series” events on the European Tour schedule, which offer the most ranking points to qualify for the season finale “Race to Dubai”, which is staged in the Emirate next weekend.

It is Sun City’s biggest event of the year, drawing over 60,000 spectators to the opulent North West resort over the week of the tournament.

It is also one of corporate South Africa’s biggest schmooze fests. Giant JSE-listed companies hire space to entertain their best clients over the course of the event. Getting one of these junkets is a valued prize. Free alcohol and food are devoured greedily where satisfied customers occasionally ooze out of hospitality marquees to watch a few shots of golf before returning to the air-conditioned coolness to attack the never-ending buffet again.

For the field of 72 golfers, the lure of winning the $2.5-million (R37.5-million) first prize is life-changing for those on the lower rungs of the professional game. For more established players, the money would be nice, but the event is like a season-ending “Plett Rage”, where they can party, gamble and enjoy the spoils of their talent in a place that not only encourages, but demands, it.

The fact the event is now a “proper” tournament on the schedule and is open to a bigger field of players has given it legitimacy. For its first 30 years of existence though, it was little more than a highly successful marketing tool for Sun City.

Despite golf’s syrupy love of its “values, honour and traditions”, the professional game has always been about money. The fact that golf proudly publicises details of its huge prize money purses underlines the need for validation through excess.

But it’s always been the way with professional golf and while the sport itself can be compelling and dramatic, pro golfers are in it first and foremost to make money. And Sun City has always flashed the cash.

Sol Kerzner, the gregarious and ruthless property developer, conceived the notion of a Las Vegas style resort in South Africa in the 1970s. The problem was that gambling was illegal under the apartheid regime.

But Kerzner spotted a loophole by building his resort in the “independent homeland” of Bophuthatswana, where the strict Calvinistic laws of apartheid could be bent and broken. He chose a site outside of South Africa’s “borders” but close enough to Johannesburg and Pretoria, which are a little under 200km away, to be feasible. An added bonus of the developer was that his site was surrounded by impoverished villages. Kerzner had both a client base and a ready-made work force at his disposal.

Sun City opened in 1979 and was an instant hit with the repressed and the well-heeled minority. Gambling was legal, cinemas showing pornographic movies enticed and revue shows titillated. There were top-end restaurants and plenty of bikini clad women patrolling the swimming pools to keep punters happy in those few hours when they weren’t losing their family fortunes at the roulette and blackjack tables.

Next came some big name acts to perform at the “Sun City Super Bowl”, which is really just an arena capable of holding about 7,000 people. But at Sun City, everything is bigger, shinier and better.

Frank Sinatra crooned, Elton John camped it up and Queen rocked the Super Bowl, despite heavy condemnation for tacitly showing support for apartheid by performing at the resort. The justification usually followed the script that Sun City wasn’t technically in South Africa and that South Africa’s laws didn’t apply, or that entertainment and politics should not mix.

Kerzner, though, wasn’t done. South Africa’s most successful golfer, Gary Player, was commissioned to design a golf course that would match anything in the world. The natural topography of the Pilanesberg and Player’s own skill and vision delivered a layout that exceeded Kerzner’s brief. The course is undoubtedly magnificent as numerous accolades over its near 40-year existence have underlined.

At the time, in addition to growing business, economic and cultural sanctions, South Africa was also in the midst of the sporting boycott. The country was a pariah state on the international sporting stage. Although the odd rugby tour, such as the 1976 All Blacks and the 1980 British & Irish Lions visit to the country, those were increasingly infrequent.

Kerzner, ever the salesman, with the help of sports promoter Sam Feldman, conceived a golf tournament to be played on the Gary Player Country Club, featuring some of the game’s biggest names.

In the early 1980s professional golfers made a tidy living at the top end of the sport, but nothing like they do today. Last year Rory McIlroy earned over $22-million on the US PGA Tour ($15-million of that was for winning the season-ending Fedex Cup). Nick Watney, who was 112th on the money list in 2018, earned just over $1-million.

In 1981 Kerzner offered a purse of $1-million with $500,000 going to the winner. When you consider that Tom Kite topped the PGA money list in 1981 with earnings of $375,699, it was a staggering pot of gold at the end of a tainted rainbow for any professional.

The first “Million Dollar Challenge” was born and staged in late December 1981 and into January 1982 with a field of five of the biggest names in golf – Seve Ballesteros, Johnny Miller, Lee Trevino, Jack Nicklaus and Player himself.

It was nothing more than a glorified exhibition match and Nicklaus in particular, as the greatest golfer of all time, even at that stage of his career, was criticised for his decision to play sport in apartheid South Africa. Tennis legend Arthur Ashe urged Nicklaus to reconsider.

He didn’t, and returned the following year with the same four players as in 1981 as well as five more players, increasing the field to 10 participants. The total prize money remained the same but the first prize was reduced to $300,000, which was still more than any other purse in the game.

As the tournament went on, the fields became weaker, despite their limited numbers, because international players were put under increasing pressure not to endorse sport in apartheid South Africa.

In 1987, in an effort to draw some big names, the tournament organisers made it a winner-take-all $1-million pot with the rest of the field earning nothing other than a free holiday at the resort and possibly some under-the-table appearance fees.

More rejigs followed, but by the end of the 1980s most of the biggest names in the sport were staying away from Sun City, despite the huge money they could still earn.

It’s not the best field in the world,” Feldman told the Los Angeles Times in 1989. “Sure, I wish we could do better. But we can’t because of politics. Some pros are just very, very weak. But thankfully, a few don’t bow to that pressure.

Too many people make a living out of knocking South Africa,” he said. “This isn’t even South Africa. It’s an independent country.”

By the 1990s, with the ANC unbanned and South Africa on the road to democracy, all sports were welcomed back into the international arena, which probably came just in time for Sun City to save a tournament that by the beginning of the 1990s had lost its lustre.

But as a limited field event, the NGC still battled for validation as a competitive golf tournament where a lesser known player, who has earned the right to be through his efforts on course over the previous 12 months, could win the title.

In 2013 the field increased to 30 players and since 2017 it has been part of the Rolex Series, which means more world ranking points.

The moniker of “Africa’s Major’, which marketers have placed on the tournament in recent years, sits a lot better now that the tournament is no longer by invitation only.

Sun City remains one of South Africa’s enduring shrines to opulence and greed, and the NGC, despite its best efforts to restyle itself, will always be tainted by its birth, which was not about sporting excellence, but a show of defiance through avarice. DM


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