As the Nedbank Golf Challenge, hosted by Gary Player, moves into a new era on the European Tour, the man who helped launch “Africa’s Major” remains as integral to its continued success as he did when he first designed the golf course and helped conceive the world’s first $1 million tournament.
Grand Slam champion Gary Player was instrumental in launching the tournament in 1981 and helped secure the five-man field of Johnny Miller, Seve Ballesteros, Jack Nicklaus and Lee Trevino, as well as also playing himself.
And 35 years later he is still a major presence during the week of the tournament. Player is a favourite with the fans as well as the world’s top players as he spends the entire week driving through the field, welcoming all of the golfers to his namesake Gary Player Country Club at Sun City. The commitment of Sun International and Nedbank over the years has built this into a world-class event that will now occupy a prominent position on the European Tour calendar, being the last event before the conclusion of the Race to Dubai the following week.
“I really love this tournament and I love Sun City,” said Player, who last year celebrated his 80th birthday with a gala dinner in his honour at Sun City. “To see the Nedbank Golf Challenge grow like it has, and to have been a part of this from the very beginning has been extremely satisfying.”
The 2016 Nedbank Golf Challenge will be played from 10-13 November, the week before the European Tour’s season-ending DP World Tour Championship. The field has been increased to 72 players, and with it the prize money now totals $7 million.
But Player remembers some of the challenges the tournament faced in its early years.
“When Sol Kerzner and I first discussed the idea to host a unique million dollar golf tournament at Sun City, the biggest challenge we had was to build a golf course in time. We flew out there in a helicopter, and we walked through the veld of what would be the site for the Gary Player Country Club. I said to him, ‘Sol, you have one major problem here. There is no water and we have to build on volcanic rock’. He looked at me and said, ‘Gary, I’ll get you the water, you just build me a world-class golf course.’
“To get the likes of Nicklaus, Trevino and Ballesteros for that first Million Dollar Challenge – that was a coup in those days. We were in trouble politically, but they came and played. I told them I thought this would help to break down Apartheid, and I still think it played a small part in its demise.”
In those early days, Player even divided his time between competing in the tournament and hosting the golfers, media, fans, and raking the bunkers himself to ensure the Gary Player Country Club was in the best possible condition. For the first golf event at Sun City the greens had to be artificially dyed to look good on television.
Now the 18-time Major champion can only marvel at the Nedbank Golf Challenge occupying a premier place on the European Tour’s Final Series for the Race to Dubai.
“The Nedbank Golf Challenge was a special tournament from the start, and has become one of the world’s biggest tournaments. We’ve had some of the greatest players in the history of golf compete at Sun City. Jack Nicklaus, Seve Ballesteros, Greg Norman, Nick Faldo, Tiger Woods, Ernie Els, Rory McIlroy, Phil Mickelson, Nick Price, Ian Woosnam, Bernhard Langer and so many others have played in it.
“The tournament and golf course have gone from strength to strength, and I am very proud to see it now become such an important event on the European Tour.”