They’re a generation apart, but Ernie Els and Charl Schwartzel both remember their first visit to watch a golf tournament – and it was the Nedbank Golf Challenge at the Gary Player Country Club.
Els is one of the modern legends of the game with four major championships under his belt, a place in the World Golf Hall of Fame, and one of South Africa’s most beloved sports heroes. And Schwartzel is beginning to trace an arc of achievement with his 2011 Masters victory and a handful of victories around the world that sometimes defy golfing logic.
The memories they share of a day at the golf have been part of what has driven them on and has made them such enthusiastic competitors at the tournament that has been dubbed ‘Africa’s Major’.
“I think I was 12 and it was the very first one back in 1981,” said Els. “I came here as a spectator with my uncle. We drove up from Kempton Park for a day and I think I lost them, because I was following some players. It must have been Gary Player.
“I remember wandering up by the 13th tee and I was so thirsty I thought I was going to die! One of the caddies gave me a Coke and he must have really thought I was in bad shape. It’s those kinds of things that you remember.
“I used to watch on TV and as a spectator here for many years. I’m in the same boat as a lot of the other South African guys. When I got my first nod to play it was a dream come true.
“It always felt like a very special event and it still feels like that. I can see where it comes from, because every South African player wanted to get a chance to play the Nedbank Golf Challenge.
“We’ve all got stories as spectators here. When I was in the army I used to swim in the 18th pond late at night. Those were different days!” laughed Els.
Schwartzel also has a tale to tell which reeks of just a little illegality: “My dad brought me here for the first time – it must have been 19 years ago now. I came to see my idols play here – Ernie Els, Nick Price, Retief Goosen.
“And I remember Ernie was on the putting green, and he left to go and tee off or something, He’d left three balls behind. I looked around to make sure no-one was looking, nipped under the ropes and I had three Titleist balls for my bag,” he said.
But beyond those memories lies an important contribution the tournament has made to Schwartzel’s golfing formation. “It’s nice to be back and Sun City has always been a special place,” he said. “To come back for the Nedbank and to Sun City is great; there are not many tournaments that match up to it. It’s a tournament that has a lot of meaning to me.”
And Els didn’t even ask Schwartzel for the balls back.