By Robson Sharuko
HARARE-BRITISH Open champion Henrik Stenson, whose talent finally delivered a Major golf title this year after years of knocking on the door to join the exclusive club of golfers who have triumphed in the four tournaments that matter, will headline a cast of world-class professionals at this year’s Nedbank Golf Challenge in Sun City, South Africa.
The tournament, the richest golf tourney in Africa with a US$7 million purse, will be hosted by South African golf legend Gary Player who designed the course and, unlike its traditional slot in December, it will now be staged in November as part of the Race to Dubai’s Final Series.
The tournament will run from November 10-13.
Formerly known as the Million Dollar Challenge, the Nedbank Golf Challenge has transformed itself, over the years, into one of the best tournaments in the world, usually attracting a galaxy of stars lured by the rich pickings that come with playing in the tourney, and the adventure of playing in Africa.
This year’s winner will take home a cool US$1.1 million while the runner-up will pocket US$778,000 with the third-placed golfer taking US$438,000, the fourth winning US$350,000 and the fifth-placed golfer banking US$297,000.
All the 72 golfers will go home with at least US$11,200.
Golf tournaments have been flexing their financial muscles in recent years and this year’s Players Tournament had a US$10.5 million purse with all the four Major titles – the Masters, the US Open, the PGA Championship and the British Open – having purses of US$10 million.
Stenson, who became the first Swedish golfer to win the British Open, will arrive in South Africa after finally breaking into the exclusive club of Major winners following a sensational performance at Royal Troon that saw him defeat United States ace Phil Mickelson in one of the greatest final round duels in a Major.
The Swede produced the lowest closing round, in a Major tournament, tying the record of 63 held by Johnny Miller, to beat a charging Mickelson who, despite shooting an impressive 65 in that final round, still had to settle for second place in this year’s battle for the Claret Jug.
The highlight of Stenson’s magical round was a 20-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole that turned, at the very end, to sink into the hole for a 20-under par 264, the lowest 72-hole score ever in a Major tournament.
Understandably, the organisers of the 2016 Nedbank Golf Challenge have rushed to ride on Stenson’s star quality, to publicize their event, especially in the year that the Swede produced one of the greatest performances in a Major tournament.
“Henrik Stenson, the world’s fifth ranked player, will bring his Major-winning presence to the star-studded cast of the Nedbank Golf Challenge hosted by Gary Player in the penultimate event of the European Tour’s Race to Dubai,” the organisers said on their official website.
“The Swede will be joined at the Gary Player Country Club in South Africa’s magnificent Sun City resort by defending champion Marc Leishman, who forced Stenson into second place last year with an inspired performance as he raced to a six-shot victory.
“Stenson, winner of the Nedbank Golf Challenge in 2008, is relishing a return to Sun City where he will look to close out the greatest season of his career by adding what is dubbed ‘Africa’s Major’ to the Olympic silver medal and Claret Jug he won so spectacularly at Royal Troon after an unforgettable battle with Phil Mickelson.
“Now part of the Race to Dubai’s Final Series, the Nedbank Golf Challenge will welcome 72 of the world’s best players to contest a US$7 million prize fund as the battle to be crowned the European Tour’s number one player nears its climax.”
Among those 72 will be South Africa’s highest ranked trio of Branden Grace (13th), former Open champion Louis Oosthuizen (20th) and former Masters Champion Charl Schwartzel (25th), as well as George Coetzee.
Other notable appearances in the first wave of star names released by tournament organisers include European Ryder Cup players Rafa Cabrera Bello, Thomas Pieters, Andy Sullivan and Chris Wood.
Stenson said: “The Nedbank Golf Challenge is one of those tournaments which grabs the attention at the end of the year, and now that it is part of the Race to Dubai’s Final Series it has taken another step up in terms of importance.
“Sun City is such a great resort as well and it’s a week I really enjoy at the end of the season.
“I am second on the Race to Dubai at the moment and I know that if I can win the Nedbank Golf Challenge then I will have a great chance to finish the season as number one, which would be the perfect way to end what has obviously been a very special year for me.”
A Major win was “the one thing really missing from my career”, Stenson said, adding: “It’s very cool to be introduced on the first tee everywhere you go as The Open champion, and I think I will get an amazing reception at Sun City because the crowds there are always brilliant down in South Africa.”
Stenson last won the Nedbank Golf Challenge in 2008 while Trevor Immelman was the last South African to triumph in 2007 during an era when golfers from this region regularly won the tournament.
Retief Goosen won in 2004, Ernie Els won 1999, 2000 and 2002, Zimbabwe’s Nick Price won back-to-back tournaments in 1997 and 1998, having also won the tournament in 1993, while Mark McNulty, the other Zimbabwean star, won way back in 1986.