/ 2 December 2011

Golf tournaments battle for December

Bob Dylan wailed that the “times they are a-changin'” and that could indeed apply to the Nedbank Golf Challenge, which teed off on Thursday. With the winds of change blowing through Sun City, the Nedbank Golf Challenge as we know it could be a thing of the past by late 2013.

That is largely because of South Africa possibly staging of a World Golf Championship event, which the local Sunshine Tour signed for in the days after Charl Schwartzel’s Masters victory in April. At the time it was said that it would be the richest purse in golf, would attract the world’s top 70 golfers and would be called the “Tournament of Hope”, to tie in with World Aids Day, December 1 — a date that placed it on a collision course with the Nedbank Golf Challenge.

Immediate questions were raised about whether or not it would usurp the Nedbank Golf Challenge, or if the two tournaments would merge.

But before those details are cleared up the Sunshine Tour still appears to be in the process of getting its ducks in a row. As it is, they have already had to shift their start date from December 2012 to December 2013.

“The first week in December 2013 is the confirmed date they’ve [International Federation of PGA Tours] given us,” said Sunshine Tour executive director Selwyn Nathan. “We’re just finalising one or two commercial issues. Then, hopefully, get all the paperwork done and signed in April at the US Masters. That’s the target.”

So, it is not signed and sealed just yet, and that is why Nedbank Golf Challenge tournament director Alastair Roper refuses to be drawn on the implications of the World Golf Championship coming to rest on his turf. “It’s a bit of an open-ended question, because I don’t know what we’re up against. If it’s a World Golf Championship event, which is what they came out and said it would be, then obviously there’s a problem,” he said.

The best interests of SA golf
Nathan appears keen to explore the idea of merging the two events and the two parties have had preliminary discussions. “I think it would be in the best interests of South African golf. But every­body has a different agenda. Our agenda is to grow the game, make it more competitive for our players and have a world championship full-field event. The Nedbank Golf Challenge is a limited event and the World Golf Championship has a status — you can’t compare the two. But we’ve got to go through this process. Until we’ve got everything signed, sealed and delivered, we’re not in a position to go to Sun International or Nedbank,” he said.

Roper remains open to discussion, but recognises that there are stumbling blocks, not least of which is the fact that banking giants HSBC are a title sponsor of one of the four existing World Golf Championship events. The South African event would make it five, but Sun International has just signed a new four-year deal with Nedbank, which will kick off in 2012.

“If it’s a World Golf Championship event, it would be impossible to take Nedbank into that and call it the ‘Nedbank Golf Challenge — World Golf Championship’ event, because the contractual obligations that the tours have with their sponsors are that each company has exclusivity, as far as product goes. So, banking is covered by HSBC,” said Roper.

So, where does that leave the two parties? If Nathan and company get their December 2013 date signed in April, it would appear that the Nedbank Golf Challenge would have to either join them or move dates.

“Obviously I’m concerned,” said Roper. “That’s why I’m saying that we would have to evaluate all the implications if this should happen. Maybe we’ve got to move our week and we go to October? Who knows? Maybe it’s a better time for us, anyway, from a field perspective.”

Roper’s preference is for a week in October, which he believes remains open and which he thinks would be ideally suited to the proposed World Golf Championship event. But, the Sunshine Tour appears set on December, which is probably why Roper is open to the idea of moving the Nedbank Golf Challenge – despite the tournament enjoying a 30-year history, the tag of “Africa’s Major” and a permanent spot on the sporting calendar.

“It’s not the first time that something has clashed with us,” said Roper, referring to the Chevron World Challenge, hosted in California by Tiger Woods on the same weekend as the Nedbank Gold Challenge. In Roper’s opinion, Woods “nicked” the idea for the similar format event after appearing at the Nedbank Golf Challenge in 1998. As a result, Roper has struggled to attract Americans to Sun City, a situation made even more difficult by the tournament’s proximity to the American Thanksgiving celebration.

But the Nedbank Golf Challenge has survived and perhaps what is even more revealing is that Roper is willing to consider shaking up the entire event. Presently, the year’s four major champions and the top money winner on the Sunshine Tour are invited, after which the world rankings are followed, to complete the field of 12.

“We must make a call,” said Roper. “Do we keep our event in the same structure – meaning, do we change our selection criteria? We could turn around tomorrow and say we’re going to make this event purely invitation only, we’re going to send out the invitations in February and we’re going to invite 12 players we believe will appeal to the public, whether it be because of their ranking or being marquee players”.