Gary Player stood on a hill overlooking the vast expanse of Sun City below.
For a moment, he just stared at the strips of green that are the fairways of the Gary Player Country Club. “Can you believe it?” he said under his breath.
In the late 1970s, Player couldn’t believe it when he was asked by hotel magnate Sol Kerzner to build a golf course in the bush in North West. The world couldn’t believe it when this resort announced in July 1981 that it would host the richest golf tournament in the game.
That announcement came from a corner of Africa and it shocked the world of golf. It was so big that newspapers described it as “the golfing coup of the century”. It was going to change the game forever.
This week, 39 years later, the Nedbank Golf Challenge will still captivate golf fans around the world. And the man who was there when it was just a vision will take up his regular position on the first tee and shake the hands of players who come over for a chat.
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It’s sometimes hard to believe that those same hands are the ones that raked bunkers in 1981 as Player jumped in to help the greenkeeping staff prepare the golf course for the first Nedbank Golf Challenge.
The golf course that bears his name is celebrating 40 years as one of the most challenging and iconic tests to golfing talent. As his good friend Lee Trevino once said: “It’s so easy to go back and rebuild a course until it is good, but this one was spot on first time.”
Player says: “You know, what people don’t realise is that we were asked to build a course in a place with no water. And just beneath the ground was this solid base of rock. It was a major challenge to build.”
From those fairways, the tournament has gone through several evolutions to its current status as a premier event on the European Tour’s Rolex Series.
This year marks further changes to a tournament that has continually sought to raise the bar. The winner of Africa’s major will receive $2.5 million (R37 million) in prize money, a major increase on the $1.25 million that Lee Westwood took home last year. The Race to Dubai ranking points have also been increased from 7 500 to 10 000, which makes the Nedbank Golf Challenge worth more than World Golf Championship tournaments.
This year, Player will shake Westwood’s hand as he returns to play for a record fourth title.
The Black Knight will also welcome former champion Henrik Stenson, who used a three wood to such devastating effect in this tournament when he won by nine strokes in 2008.
He’ll also shake the hand of the man he ran across the 18th green to hug in 2017 when Branden Grace broke a decade-long drought of South African winners with his victory.
And he’ll be thrilled to see the return of Ernie Els – the most successful player in the history of the tournament with more money earned than any other – for his 19th spell.
He’ll smile at a South African challenge that features Louis Oosthuizen, as well as a new generation of stars in Erik van Rooyen, Justin Harding and Christiaan Bezuidenhout.
Tommy Fleetwood, Ian Poulter, Padraig Harrington and Martin Kaymer will also make a stop to shake Player’s hand on the first tee box.
And, in a moment of rare quiet for the great man this week, he will no doubt mutter to himself again, “Can you believe it?”
Tee-off time is 9am.