This article has been reproduced from The 14th Edition of The European Tour Yearbook which can be purchased at a special price direct via the Order Form.
Mark McNulty was only six years old when the Mercedes-Benz South African Open was last played at East London. Gary Player, 13 times winner of the Championship, took the title 37 years ago and had he been present for the Championship this year he would have seen few changes to a course that by modern-day standards could be described accurately enough as old fashioned.
Professionals these days have become accustomed to playing American-style target golf but at East London the secret to scoring well requires imagination, patience, a strong mind-set, a comprehensive repertoire of shots and an ability to read grainy greens. McNulty proved over the four rounds - the last played in a testing swirling wind that got up in the afternoon – that, at times, there is nothing to beat experience. There are other, younger, players who hit the ball further than McNulty - although a new driver has helped him add ten yards off the tee - and there are fitter, more athletic younger players around, but it was McNulty’s 20 years experience that enabled the respected international campaigner to score his second Mercedes-Benz South African Open triumph.
Winning these days is never easy and McNulty left it late. He could not claim his victory until after he had holed a 25 foot putt on the last green to get the better of talented 20 year old Justin Rose, runner-up for the second week running on the ‘Sunshine Tour Swing’ of The European Tour International Schedule. For McNulty, who had not won on The European Tour since taking the 1996 TNT Dutch Open, it was an emotional moment.
For a long-time campaigner McNulty’s success at East London was his 49th international victory. Only five players have done better than him in European Tour, Sunshine Tour events and National Championships. Seve Ballesteros, whose 88 international successes only underlines the contribution he made to European and world golf, may be, sadly, just a shadow of himself, but the record is there to celebrate the fact that he remains the most prolific winner on Tour ahead of Arnold Palmer and Gary Player, on the list because they are both Honorary Life Members, Greg Norman and Bernhard Langer. McNulty comes in at sixth spot despite having suffered a series of injuries over the years that have severely disrupted his schedules. His all round game is a lethal mixture of competence, consistency and class. Consider, for example, this statistic on the McNulty CV. In a 12 year spell between 1985 and 1996 he played 172 European Tour events and missed the cut just 17 times.
The South African-based Zimbabwean is the complete professional and when the wind blew for the later starters on the final day at East London there was ample proof of that. While others were bamboozled by the breeze which blew strongly off the Indian ocean most days, he mastered it superbly and was equal to the challenge thrown down in particular by Rose. South Africans Roger Wessels and Hennie Otto, Sweden’s Challenge Tour graduate Mickael Lundberg and Danish Ryder Cup star Thomas Björn were also involved in the title hunt but for Rose and McNulty, playing together on the last day, the battle assumed an engrossingly exciting match-play characteristic of enthusiasm against experience. In the end as they battled head to head, a missed putt of eight feet on the 11th and a bogey at the 12th, proved expensive mistakes for Rose.
The English golfer’s overall performance, however, underlined how much he has improved as a player. He never stopped believing in himself despite all his gut-wrenching early knock backs. Following his runner-up spot to Adam Scott at Houghton the week before, Rose had achieved one of his early goals. After having had to cope three times with the traumatic tensions of the Qualifying School, the 212,401 euro (£135,443) he had earned in two weeks was more than enough to ensure his card for 2002. Rose then identified victory as his next target to match that of Scott, who had to pull out of the East London tournament with a recurrence of knee trouble.
Amazingly Rose might never have been in East London but for the generosity of local professional Shane Howe, who had been offered a guest spot in the event. Keen to give Rose, whose official ranking was too low for automatic entry, a spot in the field, officials took an unusual step. They asked Howe if he would withdraw to let the young Englishman in and he graciously agreed.
Yet nothing Rose did on the week can deflect from the proud performance of 47 year old McNulty who, by grinding out this latest triumph, became the oldest player from Southern Africa to take a European Tour title. He has holed many crucial putts in his illustrious career but that 25 foot winner at East London was certainly one of his most impressive - indeed a perfect match for those luxury saloons that roll off sponsor Mercedes Benz’s assembly line a few miles down the coast.Renton Laidlaw