MALELANE, SOUTH AFRICA l This will not be another rant about the PGA Tour versus the European Tour. But it’s fascinating to note how the dynamics of what takes place on those two Tours has an impact as far as even South Africa. And it is even more interesting to see the effect in the golf fan’s psyche of a non-American player’s decision to base himself on the PGA Tour.
In South Africa, Ernie Els can do no wrong in the minds of South African fans. He may well have a home in the United States and play a lot of his golf there. But he also plays the European Tour, and has been fairly loyal to the Sunshine Tour.
When Els announced last month that he would not be competing in the 100th South African Open this month, there were frowns in South Africa. Gary Player played in the majority of South African Opens at the height of his career. But then Els later announced he would be playing, alongside Retief Goosen, Tim Clark, Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel.
The willingness of South African golf’s biggest names to return and support their home tournaments is what the Sunshine Tour survives on. And it’s what the South African fan demands for his loyalty.
The country’s youngest star, Oosthuizen, currently holds a similar space as Els in the minds of South African fans. For as long as he has been a member of the European Tour, he has also supported the Sunshine Tour and won some big tournaments back home.
The fact that, following his Open triumph this year, he has still returned home to play in the Nedbank Golf Challenge, Alfred Dunhill Championship, South African Open and has plans to feature in January’s Africa Open, has only increased his stock with local fans, for whom this is their first opportunity to watch their Open champion on home soil.
Schwartzel, another rising star with multiple wins on the European and Sunshine Tours, holds a similar affinity. And this is what Sunshine Tour commissioner Gareth Tindall trades on.
“Our prime responsibility in terms of showcasing our Tour is to create superstars that can go out and make a name for themselves in world golf,” Tindall said. “The downside is that you can lose them. But as long as we have guys like Louis and Charl, I’m positive. I name them because I’ve got a good sense they will support us even though they are going to become bigger stars than they already are.”
Both Oosthuizen and Schwartzel have announced that they will be taking up PGA Tour membership for 2011.
“I’ve been on the European Tour for eight years and this is something new for me. I’m very excited about it,” says Schwartzel.
Yet two other South Africans, Trevor Immelman and Rory Sabbatini, despite their success, appear disconnected from their home fans. Both have focused on the PGA Tour and made a life for themselves in America. For the Europeans, Paul Casey is perhaps a similar example.
“In the mind of a South African golf fan and also a young golfer on our Tour, Trevor is not classified as a proper Sunshine Tour player,” says Tindall. “He’s become Americanised. The difference with Louis is that he’s played in most of our tournaments. All the youngsters on our Tour know him and have played with him. He is a tangible asset to them.
“Louis proved at the Open that a normal, humble guy with a good golf swing can win a major tournament. He’s given hope to hundreds of kids here. At our Q-School, we had 270 golfers playing for 30 spots. They won’t all be superstars, but the interest in the game has risen dramatically following his win. We’ve just got to make sure we have one like Louis every now and then to keep the fire burning.
“For our other stars, well, it’s different strokes for different blokes. But I’ve got to back the guys that are going to back us.”
Oosthuizen and Schwartzel, as well as Els and Goosen, have lent their names to tournaments on the new Glacier Junior Series in South Africa. It’s a series of 30 one-day regional tournaments played countrywide, with the winners making it through to a national final, the winner of which earns a place in the Junior Orange Bowl Invitational in Florida.
This is the second year of this series. Schwartzel travelled home to attend his day last year, making another powerful statement for his support of South African golf development. The Sunshine Tour has also provided these kids with a loyalty programme affording them free access to watch tournaments and parking vouchers for their parents.
The final piece of this puzzle is that these kids are able to watch the likes of Schwartzel and Oosthuizen on home fairways, and aspire to achieve the same.
And Tindall knows better than anybody how important this is for maintaining this country’s uncanny ability to keep producing world-class golfers.
“The world marvels at our golf system. We have the right systems in place in South Africa, and it’s why we produce such good golfers. But it’s all about those icons and creating the stars.”