A million dollar waste

2008-12-12 00:00

THE 28th Nedbank Golf Challenge has come and gone to general acclaim, but this is not a tournament that does it for me. The prowess of the golfers is to be admired, but the week itself is more like a festival for the favoured than an authentic competition for a valued title.

SuperSport attempts to support the myth that it is “Africa’s major”, but the truth is that the NGC is short not only of the 108 or so golfers that make up a proper field for the truly big events, but also 95% of the excitement.

It has always been thus from its first seedy beginnings as the “Million Dollar” way back in 1980, when only an obscene bribe could entice four of Gary Player’s golfing friends to join him for a gig in a discarded part of apartheid South Africa. The minute field then was “enhanced” by a handful of washed-up movie stars whose golf would have shamed the most recently begun beginners.

Ironically, that first Million Dollar provided the best finish of them all when Johnny Miller and Seve Ballesteros went toe-to-toe for nine sudden-death play-off holes before Ballesteros finally cracked and made a bogey on the 18th at the third time of asking. Apart from the duel between these two, most of the excitement came from the gallery’s efforts to evade the wayward shots of the celebrity palookas.

The grubby little tournament became an end-of-year event at which the country’s “just have to be seen” businessmen and socialites became regular attendees who enjoyed being fawned over by the casino resort’s management despite the insufferable heat, shoddy service, poor food and generally dull golf on the worst watching course in the country. As the apartheid crisis deepened the quality of the golfers in the field deteriorated.

In 1994 the Million Dollar was rescued by the end of apartheid and the arrival on the world scene of Ernie Els. At last South Africans had a genuine golfing hero whom the country adored as much for his ingenuous, beguiling nature as his made-in-heaven swing. The tournament morphed into the Nedbank Golf Challenge some time during the Els years, but its main value was that it provided South African golfing fans a rare live view of the Big Easy.

The NGC became a major showcase for Sun City in its campaign to make the resort a top tourist destination. Television coverage improved with the emergence of a competitor to the state-run SABC, and the quality of golfers who wanted to make the long journey to Mandela-land also improved. For a few years the NGC became an event in which the world’s top golfers, including Tiger Woods, were happy to play.

This was due in part to the opportunity to trouser a huge wad of cash even if they played poorly, as many did, but also to the fabulous hospitality provided by the resort to the golfers and their families. As for the sponsors, Nedbank persuaded itself that it was doing its bit to promote South Africa, but one suspects that its executives have been seduced by their 15 minutes in the company of the good and great of world golf.

But Ernie looks as though he has handed in his card at the NGC for the last time. He said he wants to spend more time with his family prior to the start of the PGA Tour, but somewhat negated this rationale by agreeing to play in the SA Open in the two weeks following the NGC.

It is thought that the whole Sun City thing has begun to pall for Ernie. The enforced socialising every night and the battle of playing a long and difficult course in stultifying heat have taken their toll. He may play in it again, but the message is clear — this is no longer a must-appear for him. Without him the NGC will struggle to maintain its hold on golf fans.

I am amazed that Nedbank has signed up for another three years. We are at the start of the worst economic slowdown since the Great Depression. No one knows what lies ahead, least of all the executives at Nedbank who are part of an industry that got the world into this mess in the first place. One imagines that their top men would be looking to cut back on any expenditure.

Above all, they should be aiming to preserve jobs. How good will it look in six months’ time if Nedbank is forced to lay off staff? How much worse will it seem if, at the end of a grim 2009, they are seen to be sponsoring a golf tournament in which a handful of tired professionals each pockets at least R2 million for playing four rounds of ordinary golf while the winner takes home a cool R13 million?

Nevertheless, I was staggered by the quality of golf played by Henrik Stenson. The Gary Player course is a brutal test for any but the best of golfers. To put it into perspective, I am a three-handicap golfer, but playing off the back tees I would be pressed to break 400 for four rounds. Stenson’s four-round score was 267. He was sublime.

•Ray White is a former UCB president and championship golfer.

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