/ 3 December 2010

Out of the Woods

It has been 12 years since the world’s leading golfer has been in the line-up at the Nedbank Golf Challenge, which teed off on Thursday at the Gary Player Country Club at Sun City.

The reasons are simple really. Over those years, there has been only one number one, Tiger Woods, with a short-lived interruption between 2004 and 2005, and the owners of Africa’s Major have not been able to attract Woods back again.

Lee Westwood, in his fifth week as the leading golfer in the world, is not likely to bring out the record crowds that Woods attracted to Sun City in 1998, but there is no doubt that the presence of the on-form Englishman has brought back the shine to the Nedbank Challenge.

He is playing solid golf and he seems to have shed the winless good golf that he became known for. In fact, he is even showing the aggression that reminds one of Woods himself. Take his loss last week at the Dubai World Championship. On the 18th, lying a shot behind leader and fellow Englishman Ian Poulter, Westwood took a huge risk trying to make the green for two and, hopefully, eagle the hole and beat Poulter, at best or, at worst, make a birdie and force a play-off. It was not to be. But he finished in style, dropping a mother of a putt to save par and retain his second spot.

Unlike Woods over the years, Westwood is not always the favourite to win any tournament in which he plays. And he is not the bookies’ outright choice to take home the lucrative $1,2-million on Sunday.

But there is one thing predictable about Westwood — he is consistent and he has made a habit of being on the first page of the leader board, not only on the last day but throughout most tournaments he has played.

As he makes his third appearance in this tournament, which he played in 2000 and 2001, Westwood would want to finish his successful year with another victory.

He came close in 2000 when he lost in a play-off to Ernie Els, incidentally one of the only five play-offs in the tournament’s 29-year history. With Els back on the field, Westwood is probably planning to take a decade-late revenge and prove that he is indeed the new kid on the block.

Being a long hitter and a player with a high consistency rate of hitting fairways — a serious requirement on this course — Westwood has a good chance to win, more so because he has only 11 men to beat.

Favourite son
Truth is, everyone on the line-up has what it takes to lift the trophy and be remembered as the 30th champion of Africa’s Major, especially Spaniard Miguel Ángel Jiménez, who has won three times on the European Tour this season, and on-form Edoardo Molinari, who has claimed two victories in the past five months.

That said, Jiménez’s record in this tournament is as unattractive as his ponytail — he has finished last twice and 11th once in his three visits.

Counting in his favour, though, is that Jiménez is a lovable golfer. He always seems to attract crowd attention and he is never short of accolades, even with the dismal displays he has given here before. The crowds would be thrilled if he won.

It is a strong field though, featuring four Major winners, the defending champion, a three-time winner and the world number one. Clichéd as it may be, the truth is that anyone of the men on the course can win it.

Els, the Nedbank Challenge’s favourite son, gave it a miss for two successive years. He would love to mark his return with a win. The majority of the fans would love that too, I suspect.

Not that they would mind if Retief Goosen, who virtually gave the cup to Australian Robert Allenby last year, wins it. His season has not been hot, but it cannot be described as cold either. Finishing it with a spark in front of home crowds would be rewarding.