This week, the golf world’s focus turns to Sun City as Gary Player will again host the annual Nedbank Golf Challenge at the Gary Player Country Club in South Africa.
The tournament has come a long way since Sun City was a mere volcanic crater prior to 1978. Sun International founder, Sol Kerzner, came to Gary Player with a vision to build South Africa’s premier resort.
“The first helicopter flight with Sol Kerzner into the vast open bushveld was interesting,” said Gary Player. “I thought to myself, there is no way a golf course, let alone a world-class resort, could be built here. But Sol was a visionary who made things happen.
“Our team had to move an unbelievable amount of dirt. The course was built on top of a dormant volcanic crater so the rock was extremely hard to break through. There was no water and we had to look to the future to make sure this course would stay world-class as we saw the technology boom in golf coming around this time. It was considered extremely long at 8,000 yards when it first opened, but you have the remember the elevation at Sun City makes the ball fly about 10% farther than a seaside course.”
The GPCC was opened in 1979, and has since annually hosted the Nedbank Golf Challenge tournament beginning in 1981 when it was known as the Million Dollar Challenge. The par-72 walking course has and continues to host hundreds of the world’s greatest golfing legends throughout the year for professional events, and many golf enthusiasts travel from near and far to play Gary Player’s namesake course.
As the penultimate event in the Rolex Series and the esteemed Race to Dubai, the NGC brings together some of the most renowned men’s professional golfers, who are competing for big money – an overall prize fund of $7.5 million with the winner’s share totaling an impressive $2.5 million.
The Gary Player Country Club has rightfully been coined as one of the most prestigious golf courses in Africa. The World Golf Awards has voted the course as South Africa’s Best Golf Course, and it is consistently ranked as one the top courses in the world by all golf media. But it’s not just the greens, fairways or bunkers that make playing the GPCC an unforgettable experience.
“It’s the surrounding area that makes the Gary Player Country Club so unique,” said Player. “Sun City shares a boarder with the Pilanesberg Game Reserve, and not many places will you have a herd of elephants peering down and adding extra pressure to sink your putt.”
The world’s first million dollar tournament was played by some of golf’s most legendary players, and an eye-popping purse for the early 1980s. With a small group of five, Seve Ballesteros, Johnny Miller, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Lee Trevino competed for what was golf’s most lucrative prize at the time. Johnny Miller finished as the first ever “Million Dollar” champion. Each year after, the tournament was refined in price and number of players until 2006 when it began to carry Official World Ranking points. In 2016, the NGC replaced the BMW Masters and became part of the European Tour’s final series and soon after in 2017, it was added to the new Rolex Series. Today, the tournament has a 72 player field, and 64 of the players have leading spots in the Race to Dubai rankings.
Of course the Black Knight has his own favorite moments in the event’s history.
“The first tournament in 1981 when it was known as the Million Dollar Challenge and Seve, Jack, Lee and Johnny Miller were all here,” said Player. “Seve wining back to back in 1983 & 1984. 1987 was special when Ian Woosman took home golf’s first million dollar 1st prize.
“All the incredible playoff finishes we have had like when Nick Faldo beat Tiger on what I believe was the fifth extra hole. And maybe most important, when my longtime sponsor Rolex, along with the European Tour, Nedbank and Sun International, decided to include this tournament as part of their Rolex Series, which will no doubt continue to push the tournament to new heights.”
The winning prize for the 2019 champion is not shy, and Nedbank showed its commitment to sponsoring one of the world’s premier golf tournaments this year by increasing the winner’s share by $1 million. Because the NGC plays such a valuable role within the Race to Dubai, the overall points earned was increased from 7,500 to 10,000, making the tournament worth more points than the World Golf Championship events. The points and the ranking earned at the NGC will count both on the Sunshine Tour Order of Merit and the European Tour’s Race to Dubai. Over the years there have been a total of 38 tournament winners, many of whom have returned multiple years in a row to compete in Africa’s Major.
The 2018 winner, Lee Westwood, was well deserving of the winning title. The Englishman had not been victorious on the European Tour since April 2014 and though he was once held the title of World No. 1, his 119th rank made it appear as though he had reached the end of his golf reign. However, Westwood reclaimed his swing playing the final round in an 8-under 64 to finished 15-under, beating runner up, Sergio Garcia, by three shots.
After his momentous win Westwood explained, “I’m a little emotional, to be honest. You’re never sure you’re going to be able to do it again, and I was able to.”
As the 2019 tournament quickly approaches, the field of players is set with a strong contingent from the host country including Ernie Els, Branden Grace, George Coetzee, Zander Lombard, and Louis Oosthuizen. Top players like Tommy Fleetwood, Matthew Fitzpatrick, Henrik Stenson, Ian Poulter and Padraig Harrington have all confirmed their participation in the upcoming event making for a competitive tournament.
The NGC is one of the most spectacular events in South African sport, and the tournament has risen in status over the years and will continue to host some of golf’s most elite players and fans.