Sport

NEDBANK GOLF CHALLENGE

Fleetwood looking for a hat-trick, but Thomas and Homa Sun City debut poses a threat

Fleetwood looking for a hat-trick, but Thomas and Homa Sun City debut poses a threat
Tommy Fleetwood of England poses with the Nedbank Golf Challenge trophy during Day Four of the competition at Gary Player Country Club on 13 November 2022 in Sun City, South Africa. (Photo: Stuart Franklin / Getty Images)

The 41st staging of the Nedbank Golf Challenge will have a strong field, including debutant American stars Justin Thomas and Max Homa.

David Frost, Nick Price, Ernie Els and Lee Westwood each have their names engraved on the base of the crystal Nedbank Golf Challenge (NGC) winners’ trophy three times, but not consecutively.

English Ryder Cup star Tommy Fleetwood could become the first player to win “Africa’s Major” three times in a row at the 41st staging of the tournament this weekend.

Frost, Price and Els won their titles when the event was still a limited-field, by-invitation-only tournament. Since 2013, the NGC formed part of the European Tour (now DP World Tour) with the field increased to 30 players.

This year’s $6-million event is the penultimate tournament on the 2023 DP World Tour schedule, carrying an increased number of Race to Dubai Ranking Points as the 66-man field contests for a place in the season-ending DP World Tour Championship. 

Fleetwood won the NGC last year and in 2019, with the 2020 and 2021 editions cancelled due to the Covid pandemic. It would be quite some feat if he were to remain the only winner at Sun City over the last five years.

“Nobody has ever won this event three times in a row, so I can’t wait to give that a go,” Fleetwood said. And coming into the event, his form has been decent.

He was one of the stars of the victorious European Team at the recent Ryder Cup in Rome and has been a consistent performer on the DP World Tour in 2023.

With nine top 10s worldwide since the start of the year, Fleetwood is now hoping the memories from his stellar record at the Gary Player Golf Course and Country Club inspire him to a seventh DP World Tour title.

“I’ve played really well. You should always look at the positives and I think this year has been arguably my most consistent year,” Fleetwood said.

“I am very happy with how I’ve been playing. Yes, there’s not been a win, but I’ve been very, very close. Things could have gone either way in certain events.

“It’s always nice when you come back to somewhere where you have memories of getting on holes and you see good shots.

“You never really feel truly comfortable on this course. But I guess when you’ve played well, you’re going to feel as comfortable as possible and having the experience coming down the stretch and winning is very, very important and nice to have. We’ll see. But it is nice.”

Fleetwood hasn’t played competitively for a month but feels his game coming into the NGC is in good shape. 

“A month off isn’t that long, but it feels like a year,” Fleetwood said. 

“Anytime we take some time off, it just feels like you’ve been away for so long. But I’m really happy to be back.

“I always feel like I do plenty of practice and play, but it’s just not quite the same as being in that competitive environment.”

Justin Thomas of Team United States plays his second shot on the 16th hole during the 2023 Ryder Cup at Marco Simone Golf Club on 30 September 2023 in Rome, Italy. (Photo: Jamie Squire / Getty Images)

Max Homa of Team United States plays his second shot on the 12th hole during the 2023 Ryder Cup at Marco Simone Golf Club on 30 September 2023 in Rome, Italy. (Photo: Jamie Squire / Getty Images)

Strong field 

It won’t be simple for the popular 32-year-old Englishman as the field is stacked with some serious talent for the 2023 event, which tees off at the famous resort on 9 November.

Two-time major winner Justin Thomas will make his debut. The successful American has been in South Africa for more than a week, playing a little in the Western Cape and keeping his fans amused with his safari exploits on his social media channels.

“It’s been spectacular. I know what I’ve seen on TV [about South Africa], but you don’t know what to expect until you get here. It’s been great,” Thomas said.

“We had an unbelievable little holiday before this week and everybody treated us so well. It’s a shame it’s so far away because my wife and I said we’d love to come here again. Everybody has treated us better than we deserve, I feel.

“It’s one thing running into fans in the States because there’s an opportunity they could see you again. But in South Africa, this is a chance for a lot of fans to get to see Max Homa for the first time.

“I’m enjoying it. If we can come here and inspire people, that’s a successful trip, and we’re fortunate to play in a great tournament on a great golf course while we’re doing it.”

Compatriot Homa, who was one of the stars on the US Ryder Cup team, will also make his Sun City debut.

There has been no American winner of the Nedbank Golf Challenge since Jim Furyk lifted the iconic trophy in Sun City, and the six-time PGA Tour winner is excited to make his maiden appearance in South Africa.

“There has been a lot of kindness and a lot of smiles. People are saying thank you for coming to South Africa. I never thought that would be a common sentiment. Everyone is superexcited for the golf tournament and it’s fun to be a part of that,” said Homa.

“When I was growing up, I watched this tournament and tons of DP World Tour events that I always wanted to play in. With the previous PGA Tour schedule, it would be wild to try to do this.

“But now with a real off-season for us, I made it a point to play at least one over here. To be able to get a spot here and play has been a dream. You want to experience what golf at large has to offer and this has been a pretty special week so far.

“To win here would be amazing. You come to do something new, and this is ‘Africa’s Major’. It’s a big deal to the players and this entire country. You want to come over here and perform and put on a show, so getting a win here would be tremendous.”

Fleetwood will be among a quartet of players from Europe’s Ryder Cup-winning side at Marco Simone Golf and Country Club in action.

Joining him are Justin Rose, Robert MacIntyre and Nicolai Højgaard, while vice-captain Francesco Molinari is returning to the event for the first time in six years.

Rose, who was born in Johannesburg, is returning to Sun City for the first time in a decade.

MacIntyre comes into the week on the back of his seventh top 10 of the campaign in Qatar last month, while Højgaard has impressed on both sides of the Atlantic this year and is joined by twin brother and four-time DP World Tour winner, Rasmus, in South Africa.

There are only six South Africans in the field with former NGC winner Branden Grace, one of the few LIV Golf members, playing this week. DM

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