LALI STANDER: Unheeded, the unwritten rules of SA golf could disappear
As the end of the year rapidly approaches, I’m starting to look forward to the European Tour rolling into town.
From December, we will once again have our quota of three co-sanctioned events, meaning that not only will we attract some of the game’s foreign stars, but we will also give our home-grown players an opportunity to earn in euros.
For many, the co-sanctioned events represent the focal points of their season, with so much at stake.
Those who play well will earn good money. For many the earnings will carry them through the next year, while others will make inroads into securing their European Tour or Challenge Tour cards.
These three events could make or break a season — or even a career. Sad then that for some of our global stars, the trip home to SA is suddenly a bit too far. Understandable, in some ways, because most of our US Tour-based players have relocated Stateside and have families they would be leaving behind. For them, it’s not so much a trip “home” to SA as it is a trip away from their new home.
Yet the difference they make when they do play is immense.
Ernie Els, for the greater part of his career, continued to return to SA to support the local tour. Yes, there were times when he stayed away, but it undoubtedly moved the needle every time the Big Easy teed it up in SA.
Retief Goosen, too, was impeccable in his support of the Sunshine Tour. Year in and year out the Goose would play in the SA Open and other co-sanctioned events, even during his lean years as he approached the senior tour.
Gary Player’s loyalty to SA was — and remains — immense. During his playing career he very much carried the Sunshine Tour on his shoulders, and he played multiple events, despite receiving big offers to play overseas. His legacy in SA will never be challenged. In all, he captured 60 Sunshine Tour titles — a full 30 more than the next on the list, Mark McNulty. The nearest active player, Jean Hugo, has 19 wins.
Player’s record in the big three events, the SA Open (13 wins), SA PGA Championship (3) and SA Masters (11) is exactly as you would expect it to be — peerless.
“Back in the 70s, the PGA Championship was the biggest tournament in SA,” explained Dale Hayes, a three-time winner of the event. “It had the biggest purse and had the best fields. And it had Gary Player.
“When Gary played in an event it became so much bigger. There were more spectators, more media attention and you played harder, because if you won a tournament that Gary was playing in, it was a huge achievement. Mind you, he didn’t lose very often.”
If you think Player was simply taking advantage of weak fields, you’d be horribly wrong. Other than the many wonderful Southern African golfers of the time, Player would also have come up, at various times, against Major champions Tom Weiskopf, Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo, Sandy Lyle, Hale Irwin, Lanny Wadkins, Lee Trevino, Tony Jacklin and Bernhard Langer.
The reality is that Player was, in all likelihood, the best golfer in the world at the time — and he helped make the Sunshine Tour a popular destination for world-class golfers.
Our latest crop of superstars is confronted by similar travel choices to those faced by Player, Els and Goosen. Louis Oosthuizen, Branden Grace, Charl Schwartzel, Dylan Frittelli and Erik van Rooyen have all taken up residence in the US and one could almost forgive them for having passed up the opportunity to play in SA after a long year of golf, travel and Covid-19. Almost.
You see, as far back as I can remember, there have always been two unwritten rules when it comes to planning your playing schedule: one is to always play your national open and the other, to defend your titles. By doing so, players acknowledge their roots and give back to the tours that helped make them into the stars they are. It’s the golfing version of paying it forward.
Who can forget the excitement in January 2020, when Oosthuizen — seeking back-to-back titles, chased Grace all the way to the finish line at Randpark? Outside of a Major, it should be the title our players want to win the most.
Sadly, these days these “rules” are becoming guidelines that can as easily be followed or ignored. It’s a crying shame, because an event as big as the SA Open — the second-oldest national golf championship, played on the iconic Gary Player Country Club layout at Sun City — should attract all of our golfing stars with ease, not only Frittelli, who will be making his seventh consecutive appearance in the country’s flagship event.
There are still a few weeks to go — let’s hope our international stars see it that way.
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