/ 4 December 2009

Tiger steals South Africa’s thunder — again

Rams Mabote

Tiger Woods has made it a habit to steal the thunder of the Nedbank Golf Challenge (NGC), which this year teed off on December 3 at the Gary Player Country Club.

It is understood that when he made his first and only appearance at the then-Million Dollar Challenge in 1988, the tournament attracted its biggest attendance (at least of black revellers).

Just as well he lost to the three-time champion Nick Price that year, but even then that was in the play-off and gave fans more value for their money.

Even though he has turned his back on the NGC, Woods continues to loom over it. He moved his own tournament, the Chevron World Challenge back a week, meaning it is also under way in California as I write.

The best golfers in the world have since chosen the Chevron ahead of the NGC and it continues to erode the lustre of Africa’s own major, as the NGC — arguably one of the best-paid tournaments in the world — is called.

Just as we are getting used to a less than satisfactory field, Woods gets involved in a car accident on the eve of the NGC. So, when headlines are supposed to be about the 12 men chasing the big purse, they are again about Woods.

Some of the world’s best golfers who have played here will be in California. However, the tournament should thank its stars — and, I suspect, the weather and the real chance of a win here compared with at the Chevron — that world number 10 and Irish sensation Rory McIlroy is making his debut appearance at the NGC.

There is no doubt that McIlroy could have made it to the Chevron, which is more prestigious (despite the NGC prize money) and probably easier to reach from Ireland.

There are only two top 10 players participating in the NGC. Swede Henrik Stenson, who won here last year is back to defend his title.

It is not the weak field that bothers golf fans. If you take a cursory look at the recent record of the 12 players, only McIlroy has been impressive. He has eight top 10 finishes in the last 10 tournaments. In fact, he has finished fourth, third and second respectively in the past three tournaments.

This means that he has had two runner-up finishes in the past three weeks. This could be his weekend to finally taste victory before the end of the year and add to his only other victory this year — the Dubai Desert Classic.

Stenson has had a disastrous year, but he may just remember how he finished nine strokes ahead of Kenny Perry when he won last year. Englishman Ross Fisher won the World Match Play a month ago and would like to make his arrival felt in South Africa, as he did recently in Asia.

But truth be told, it is not easy to call this one, not because of what the contenders have but mostly because of what they do not have — many wins to their names, but none of them recent.

South African fans can only hope that the dark spell that has befallen our stars internationally will finally be cast away.
Between Retief Goosen, former Masters’ winner Trevor Immelman, Tim Clark and former SA Open champion Richard Sterne, there is a great chance to cause an upset.