Top players shun Sun City Challenge

Defending champion Trevor Immelman may have been joined by Sergio Garcia, Robert Karlsson and Lee Westwood at the Nedbank Golf Challenge tee off on Thursday, but this great event is still struggling to attract a full field of the world’s top-ranked players.

Even a purse of $1,2-million (about R12-million) for the winner has done little to entice the multimillion-dollar athletes to Sun City.

There is even no Ernie Els, the only South African who has played every year since the start of the challenge 17 years ago and who has won it a record three times.

The Big Easy has cited undisclosed family commitments as his reason for opting out.

South Africa’s almost-been and second favourite golfing son Retief Goosen is also watching from the comfort of his home this year as he is not ranked high enough to be considered.

Two-time winner Jim Furyk (11) is once again conspicuously absent while world number one Tiger Woods, even if he had three fully fit knees, is unlikely to ever grace the South Africa signature tournament again.

Lost its shine
In short, the glorious December diary annual event seems to have lost its shine.

Although, like the Rand Show and the annual circus, it remains one of the greatest attractions for its fans, the truth is the Nedbank Challenge is being characterised by mediocre leaderboards and late cancellations year after year.

In fact, in the starting line-up, there are only three top 10 players, Spain’s Garcia (2), sixth-placed Karlsson — one of the favourites to lift the trophy and the lucrative $1,2-million cheque on Sunday, and Westwood (10).

Just a little over 72 hours to tee off at the prestigious Gary Player Country Club in Sun City, world number nine and arguably the most exciting prospect of 2008, Anthony Kim, withdrew citing injury.

To add insult to this injury, the organisers could not find a replacement ranked between number nine and 17.

Instead, England’s Luke Donald, who dropped to number 18 in this dismal season, is the only player who agreed to the last-minute request and take to the field at the majestic Rustenburg course.

It is a substantial climb down from the years when the course hosted the top 10 golfers in the world without breaking a sweat.

However, to its credit, the Nedbank Challenge has managed to remain a world-class event and the five Top 20 players in the line-up this year have ensured that it retains a measure of respectability.

Attracting five golfers among and near the top end of the sport for a tournament of only 12 players is a credible achievement.

Defending champion and the reigning US Masters champion Immelman, himself a last-minute substitute last year, tore the form book to shreds and went on to win the challenge and bring it back home after two successive years in foreign hands.

The 22-ranked South African followed his victory on the magnificent Gary Player Course with his historical denial of Tiger Woods a record fifth Masters’ title at Augusta.

Immelman then disappeared from the scene, missing numerous cuts and mustering even fewer top 10 finishes in a season he would like to forget.

Be that as it may, Immelman is a great golfer and one of the men to watch, not because he is South African, but because he has the right temperament to rise against all odds.

Player to look out for
Realistically, all bets should favour the in-form Garcia. He remains without a major title and risks being remembered as the best golfer never to have won a major.

Coming from a low ranking in 2007, Garcia turned on the power in 2008 and challenged for honours in almost every tournament he played. The Spaniard’s record for this year is particularly impressive and sends a bold message that he is among the best to watch next year.

He played 19 US PGA events, made 18 cuts, won one, was runner-up three times and made six top 10 finishes — earning a whopping $4,8-million.

Although he disappointed against Kim at this year’s Ryder Cup, Garcia made a stunning come-back and finished the year on a high winning the HSBC Champions in Hong Kong, displacing Phil Mickelson as world number two.

Legend has it that Sun City continues to overwhelm Garcia. No, not the fairways and greens, but the resort itself.

Those in the know say the party animal in the young, gifted and funky man hardly sleeps the minute he arrives at the resort, allegedly partying up a storm to the detriment of his performance in the tournament.

Although he won here in 2001 and 2003, he has since discovered that Sun City has more to offer than just golf, and therefore he remains the best bet for a good win or a great disappointment.

If on song, Garcia is one of the best ball strikers, dresses well and wears an infectious smile, even when he is losing — one thing you cannot say about Woods.

If Garcia lives up to his antics and has fun over these four days, the door opens for one of the most consistent but boring players, Karlsson.

The Swede won twice in Europe this year and has been one of the most consistent in the world in 2008.

The two underdogs are the old men in the line-up, US Kenny Perry ranked 19th and golf’s own Mr Personality, the cigar-smoking pony-tailed Spaniard Miguel Jiminez, ranked 20th.

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