The Green Monster of “Africa’s Major”on October 24, 2012
In 1997, Phil Mickelson brought the flop shot to Sun City.
“Lefty”, the man with the hands as soft as a San Diego sunset, looked at his ball where it lay in the rough just left of the first green at the Gary Player Country Club.
He opened the face of his wedge, took that fearless full swing of his, and waited for the “plop” sound of his ball on the green.
It never came. The ball remained exactly where it was – nestled in the kikuyu rough that is the stuff of legend at this course.
Mickelson stared in disbelief, wondering how he managed to hit right under the ball and not move it.
Since it opened in 1979, the Gary Player Country Club has remained a fierce challenge for the world’s best players, including every single world number one, all of whom have teed it up in the Nedbank Golf Challenge on this par-72 layout.
It’s a course that is like a green carpet walk into the very heart of Africa, moulded and shaped in the crater of an extinct volcano, surrounded by the spectacular Pilanesberg mountains, armed with its trademark clover-shaped greens, and guarded by a merciless sun that makes it as much of a physical challenge as a mental one.
But it didn’t start out this way. In fact, designer Gary Player will tell you it very nearly didn’t start out at all.
When Player was first taken to the site and asked to design a golf course as the heart of what would later become the Sun City resort, he couldn’t believe what he was hearing.
“There was cattle and barbed wire and manure all over the place. In America the name for cow dung is a meadow muffin. I said to them, ‘Gentlemen, that’s all you’ve got here – a giant meadow muffin’. How wrong I was.”
Player went on to shape one of the greatest golf courses in the game – the first in South Africa to be constructed according to United States Golf Association (USGA) specifications.
“It was a very difficult golf course to build,” he recalls. “We had a lot of sheer rock underneath. We had to move rocks that were as big as ten feet.”
Nick Price was the first player to really understand this course. With his three Nedbank Golf Challenge victories, including a playoff victory over world number one Tiger Woods for his 1998 title, and once the holder of the tournament record of 24-under-par 264 in 1993, Price is very clear as to how you play this course.“There’s a lot of strategy involved. You’ve got to be patient. It’s important to play the key holes well. All the par-threes are vital. Of the par-fours, holes three and eight in particular are really tough holes. You’ve also got to birdie the par-fives, and then take the rest as it comes.”
In 1999, Ernie Els, the player with the most appearances in the Nedbank Golf Challenge of 16, bettered Price’s record with his new tournament mark of 25-under-par 263.
Els is equally fond of this golf course, singling out probably the toughest hole on the course – the par-four eighth – and the par-four 18th.
“Eight is just a great hole. For me, it’s one of the best holes in golf. And 18 is one of the greatest finishing holes I play all year. I love it.”
The par-five ninth is the course’s signature hole, and is described by Player as “a truly heroic par-five”.
The Gary Player Country Club remains an incredible test, and it’s sure to do so again in this year’s Nedbank Golf Challenge.
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