When the big cat’s away …

This weekend’s Nedbank Golf Challenge has already made the headlines, but it is likely to be remembered mostly for the late withdrawals by big-name stars.

First it was world number three and two-time defending champion Jim Furyk withdrawing on ”doctor’s” orders. Then reluctant genius Sergio Garcia said he needed to rest for three months. British Open Champion Padraig Harrington, who was about to grace the challenge for the first time, also pulled out.

If the service at the Palace of the Lost City, where the luminaries stay during the tournament, is anything to go by, a hasty retreat is understandable.

After spending the weekend at Sun City for the Pro-Am of the Nedbank Affinity Cup, I was appalled by the service. Housekeeping was late, if it came at all. Food was unimpressive and sometimes stale. Employees were unwelcoming. And, if I was one of the world’s best golfers and had experienced this before, I would find any excuse not to return, even if it meant missing a shot at millions of bucks. But I digress.

Word is that Ernie Els is back on song and bookmakers believe he could be burning hot at the Gary Player Country Club. But every player on the card in the 12-man line-up, fortune tellers will tell you, has a million-dollar chance of upsetting the field and winning the Nedbank Golf Challenge.

At world number 74, Charl Schwartzel is the only player so far off the top ranking, but even he could be in with a chance. After all, the gap in points between world number one Tiger Woods and everyone else in the USPGA is huge. If you remove Woods from the rankings, Schwartzel could have an even chance to be world number one — as with any other player in the top 100.

The moral of the story? When Woods is not playing golf, anyone is a potential champion. Even Ernie Els conceded that much when he won a record seventh World Match-Play Championship title at Wentworth a few weeks ago.

Els said: ”Obviously the world number one [Tiger Woods] wasn’t here, but we had some really fine players and you really had to play some good golf to get through.”

God bless him for that. Golf is easy without Woods. But for the spectator, golf is boring with Tiger Woods. Fortunately for local fans and any visiting tourists, most people accept that South Africa have more chance of winning the Fifa World Cup in 2010 than there is of Woods gracing the Nedbank Challenge any time soon again.

He came here once; he did not win, but pulled the crowds like no one else.

This weekend’s tournament offers a world standard purse of $4 385 000 and is considered Africa’s Major. Many fans will back any South African to win. Els remains the all-time local crowd favourite. Retief Goosen, who has had his worst season, dropping from world number six to 20, will also get support from the locals.

Rory Sabbatini has been the best-performing South African in the past season. With one USPGA victory under his belt, two near misses and a few other challenges in the Majors, his inclusion in the line-up should shore up the fairways, hot up the greens and provide enough enthusiasm among the fans, who really need another hero in the absence of Woods.

Trevor Immelman just made it through the back door after the successive withdrawals of top names. This leaves him and Schwartzel as the only local underdogs. Schwartzel is my favourite to win, not because he is better than anyone else, but because I just like him and I think he deserves something big. The Nedbank Challenge, on home soil, in front of his number one fan would be good.

Last year’s electrifying finish that saw Furyk upstage Henrik Stenson by two strokes should set the scene for another fight this year. With Woods not playing, even the bookmakers will have some competition — there will be more than just one player on which to place the money.

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