By Mathieu Wood
For more than four decades, the Nedbank Golf Challenge has welcomed a host of the game’s global icons to Sun City.
First held in 1981, the inaugural tournament – the first with a million-dollar purse – featured five players and saw American Johnny Miller overcome Seve Ballesteros over nine play-off holes to win the title.
By 2013, when it first formed part of the DP World Tour schedule, the field had expanded to 30 players but throughout the event's evolution South African legend Gary Player's association has remained a chief feature.
Held at Gary Player Country Club, the Nedbank Golf Challenge will, from next year, be held in honour of the nine-time Major Champion, who played in the event's first staging, in recognition of his contribution to the sport internationally.
Previously known as the Million Dollar Challenge, greats of the game from Ballesteros to Bernhard Langer and Sir Nick Faldo have all hoisted the famous crystal trophy awarded to the winner.
However, for a tournament regarded as ‘Africa’s Major’, it feels fitting that three of the four record three-time winners of this prestigious title are from the continent.
South African David Frost became the first man to win on three occasions during a remarkable four-year stretch between 1989-92.
In fact, the nineties proved to be a decade of true African dominance. Later that decade, Zimbabwe’s Nick Price won the title three times, first triumphing by a record 12 shots in 1993 and then winning in both 1997 and 1998.
A year later, Ernie Els won the first of his three Nedbank Golf Challenge in a four-year span as he ushered in a changing of the guard in South African golf.
Since then, there have been further stories of home success by fellow Major winners Retief Goosen in 2004 and Trevor Immelman in 2007, while Branden Grace won in 2017, when it was part of the Rolex Series.
Speaking earlier this season after a new three-year agreement for the Nedbank Golf Challenge to remain on the DP World Tour until 2026, Player said: “The legacy of a tournament such as this reflects the legacy of the many great people involved who through their passion for this event have seen it thrive.
“‘Africa’s Major’ is all about the spirit of South Africa to overcome and inspire, and I am truly humbled to be a part of something that for one week every year at Sun City brings us all together in celebration of this spirit."
Defending champion Tommy Fleetwood will this week aim to become the fifth three-time champion as he goes for his third consecutive win at Sun City.
But standing in his way is a stellar 66-strong player field including Major Champions, Rolex Series winners and Ryder Cup stars, at the penultimate event of the 2023 DP World Tour season.
Yet, a quarter of a century on from the first South African winner of the event, could it be that another home favourite emerges victorious at Sun City?
We spoke to Ockie Strydom, a two-time DP World Tour winner this season, along with Zander Lombard and Hennie du Plessis to hear their thoughts about the special significance of playing on home soil at the Nedbank Golf Challenge.
What does it mean to play in 'Africa's Major'?
OS: It's nice to be back home. I love Sun City. I know the course, know the greens. All the South African boys have got an advantage. Let’s see what happens this week!
ZL: It’s really awesome. There are lots of family members, friends and supporters who make it special out on the course and create a good atmosphere. As a South African playing in the Nedbank, it always feels special. I am really looking forward to this week.
HDP: It feels a little bit surreal to be making my Nedbank Golf Challenge debut. I have been coming here since I was seven years old and haven’t missed one in 15 years so it’s an absolute privilege and a blessing to be here.
What were your earliest memories of coming to watch at Sun City?
OS: I certainly remember watching Nick Price and Tiger Woods in 1998. You were thinking back then that you’d want to be in their shoes one day and now I am.
ZL: Every year growing up I would come with my parents and a few friends for the weekend. We would watch how the best in the world performed. It’s always been fun to watch, especially when it was a super limited field. There was an intense atmosphere and that was awesome to watch.
HDP: I have so many memories from over the years it is hard to pick out one. I was in the stands when Branden Grace won in 2017, it’s also been very cool to see the likes of Jim Furyk, Sergio Garcia and others win.
What have you learned from playing at Sun City that you can take into this week?
OS: On the Sunshine Tour we play here a lot, typically in tougher conditions. The course is a little bit firmer for us when we play it. It is a little wet from the rain yesterday, making it play softer and a lot greener. For us to be playing it in the conditions that we are is a good advantage for us home hopes.
ZL: I know the course really well but come tournament week it plays different. The key is finding the greens. They are so small and if you get short sided you can quickly make sloppy bogeys. Like we have seen in the past, there haven’t been low scores the last four or five editions. Some of the course changes that have been made have been great. It’s a course that has stood the test of time. There were just a few new tees that have been put in and it plays super tough.
HDP: For a South African it is a dream come true to make my debut in this event. I am just trying to enjoy it, soak it all in and make the most of the opportunity.