JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA | The East may well be where the growth of golf lies, but the southern tip of Africa has long established itself as fertile ground for the game, some of its leading players and sponsors.
South Africa was recently chosen as the host of the Volvo Champions tournament, which had to be shifted away from Bahrain, the scene of civil resistance in February that turned deadly.
That brings to five the number of European Tour events now hosted in South Africa. Traditionally, the country hosts four tournaments co-sanctioned by the Sunshine Tour and European Tour.
And there is the looming possibility of a World Golf Championships tournament. Although it was announced with much fanfare at The Masters following Charl Schwartzel’s triumph, the likelihood is that this will only materialise in 2013.
In its entirety, the Sunshine Tour consists of roughly 27 tournaments – the biggest of which are played in the summer months from November through February. But despite tough economic conditions, South Africa has managed to remain highly relevant in world golf, not only through the constant production of great players, but also through providing playing opportunities for golfers from around the world seeking to take the next step up in their careers.
And the Sunshine Tour’s success has come through a fine balance of not attempting to compete with the major tours, but at the same time not suffering from an inferiority complex either.
“That’s what the Sunshine Tour is all about,” says Selwyn Nathan, the commissioner of the Sunshine Tour. “We’ve had some of the biggest names in golf history come through the Sunshine Tour. Tom Lehman, John Daly, Corey Pavin, Seve Ballesteros, Hale Irwin, Nick Faldo, Ian Woosnam and others.
“The Sunshine Tour is a great breeding ground. I think we’ve done a great job in this respect for the past 50 years. As long as we keep believing that our Tour is a platform to greater things for players, then it will continue to grow. But if you try and say that our Tour has to have the biggest money and the biggest players, then we’re going to finish up like Australia.
“Australia has managed to pay a lot of money to get one decent field in the Australian Open. Fortunately, the history of the Sunshine Tour is that we have not paid huge sums of money to get people to play. Unfortunately, with the calendar like it is, we are competing against other countries that will pay exorbitant amounts of money to get players to their events.
“I don’t believe our sponsors can afford to go and spend $2 million on appearance fees. Of course, we do incentivize players through paying expenses for travel and so on. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.”
Retief Goosen is also pleased with the way his home Tour keeps growing.
“I’m very happy with where it is, and where it’s going. We’ve got this extra Volvo event now, and it’s great to see. South Africa has great golf courses and great weather, and it’s good to see how golf is growing here.”
And England’s Robert Rock is another who has steadily used the Sunshine Tour as a platform to his first European Tour title in the Italian Open this year.
“The great thing about the South African tournaments is that you can always rely on playing a fantastic course. And there’s a fantastic standard of golf as well. This year I opted to play in South Africa rather than Singapore and Malaysia, which are bigger prize funds. But given the choice, I’ll always play South Africa over Asia.”
As the promoter of two of South Africa’s four co-sanctioned tournaments in the South African Open and the Africa Open, Khaya Ngqula sees tremendous value in the country’s golf offering.
“South Africa has an exceptional heritage as a golfing nation, we have wonderful depth, superb golf courses and, you know, we live in an endless summer,” he told South Africa’s Sunday Times recently.
“Our aim is to tap into all these positives and, in partnership with our stakeholders – local golfers, the Sunshine Tour, national and provincial governments and sponsors – to use the South African Open to present our country and our golf to the world.”
Of course, it’s not all as rosy as a bushveld sunset.
“I think if we can work out this world calendar with the Australians and Asia and Europe and America that we don’t have conflicting events, then I think there is room for even more growth,” says Nathan, ever the realist when it comes to professional golf.
“But that’s the way life works. People get better opportunities and they move on. But it’s what we’ve always done, and it’s what we keep doing. And as they say, nothing’s broken.”