On a course which can dish up some extremely nasty surprises – and that’s not just the Mozambique Spitting Cobras we’re talking about – it is vital to have one’s wits about you when playing at Gary Player Country Club and for the golfers teeing off in the Nedbank Golf Challenge from Thursday, one lapse in concentration can prove fatal to their chances of winning the prestigious event.
Find the fairway off the tee and then attack the right flags, and birdies and eagles are there to be made, but many a good round has been ruined by one mistake and one bad hole at Sun City.
“Course-management is absolutely key here because there are really small greens and the wind always seems to gust and swirl. So you have to be really aware and focused on every hole. And it’s a different challenge playing here now compared to winter, because now the rough is up. A few of the Europeans don’t like the grass and you have to get used to the kikuyu rough.
“The course is especially narrow, with a lot of slopes left-to-right so a draw is preferable. And those really small greens are probably the smallest we play on all year, so ball-striking is going to be at a premium. You have to keep the 6s off your card and try and get as many 3s and 4s as you can. But I think the South Africans have a big advantage and the course sets up well for us,” Erik van Rooyen, the country’s second-highest ranked golfer, said on Wednesday.
Defending champion Lee Westwood knows how to conquer the Gary Player Country Club course better than most, having won a record-equalling three Nedbank Golf Challenge titles as well as a Dimension Data ProAm win here.
“I’ve won four times here so I know the course well, where they put the flags and I read the greens pretty well. Distance-control, with the elevation changes and extremes in temperature, is crucial and you need to know how to handle the variations in conditions. I have a pretty good game-plan for the course, formulated over the years since 1994/95, and it’s a good course for course-management.
“Knowing when to be aggressive and when to just back off a bit and play to the middle of the greens is vital. The green-speeds seem a bit quicker this year and it’s a bit like Augusta in that the more you play it, the more familiar you are with it and the more comfortable you are on it. You have to think from the start and that’s the sign of a good course,” Westwood said.
While Westwood, who last year joined Ernie Els, Nick Price and David Frost as the only three-time winners of the Nedbank Golf Challenge and probably has the penthouse suite at the Palace, there are some extremely exciting younger golfers who have come to Sun City with high hopes.
Tommy Fleetwood is already world famous after his heroics in the Ryder Cup and is the highest-ranked golfer in the field at 18th. But he considers the Nedbank Golf Challenge to be one of the biggest events of the year.
“I’ve played here for a few years now and there’s always a great atmosphere, it’s such a big event and it’s only getting bigger in terms of how important it is to the season, it’s one of the biggest, for sure. I always watched on TV and I have massive memories of the tournament, I’ve always enjoyed it. Everybody has a smile on their face here and there’s lots to take your mind off golf.
“I love the golf course and I want to make a big push for the last couple of events, I’ve put some good work in and I’ll try and make it count.
“The course is in great condition and even though the rough is not as up as it has been in the past, that won’t make much difference. It still won’t do you any good missing fairways, you have to drive well and hit a lot of greens. You don’t have to be too aggressive because the greens are not massive; you don’t have to be guns all blazing firing for the pins,” Fleetwood said.
But look out too for Van Rooyen, who could be South Africa’s best hope now that Louis Oosthuizen is battling with kidney stones, English star Matthew Fitzpatrick and the in-form American Kurt Kitayama, who is little-known but is 11th in the Race to Dubai and contended strongly at the last South African Open.