For South African golfers, the Nedbank Golf Challenge has been the centrepiece of the year for 33 years, and now Branden Grace, Darren Fichardt and Dawie van der Walt are getting a taste of the action for the first time.
While the event was a 12-man show, fans were unable to judge how good some of the up-and-coming golfers of the Sunshine Tour were – and even when the leader of the Sunshine Tour Order of Merit got into the tournament, that player was often already on the hit-list of the recruiters as a player of sufficient status to draw the crowds.
So when Grace won the Order of Merit last year, his place in the Nedbank Golf Challenge was an intriguing possibility.
And with the expanded 30-man format making its debut this year, there is an exemption category which allows the current top two players on the Sunshine Tour Order of Merit access if the field is not already full – and that opened the doors for Fichardt and Van Der Walt on 18 November.
Grace is ecstatic to have made it into the field: “I’m stoked to be here!” he said. “I missed out by one spot last year, so I’m happy to finally be here. I have watched this tournament from when I was young. I don’t think I’ve missed one from when Ernie (Els) started making his mark. I know my way around this course, but it’s different when you’re playing the Nedbank Golf Challenge. There’s more pressure, but I’m sure this will be as fun as it looks on TV.”
Fichardt got to the top of the Order of Merit on the back of his Africa Open victory in February. He also came second in the Tshwane Open behind Van der Walt and shared second in the Golden Pilsener Zimbabwe Open.
“I’m very happy to be here,” said Fichardt during the pro-am as he prepared to tee off on Thursday in an event he has only watched from afar until now. “It’s great to play this course again. It seems to be reasonable – they could have made it a lot tougher.”
His own game is in reasonable shape, despite a spectacular slide out of contention at the halfway mark of last week’s Alfred Dunhill Championship with a quintuple-bogey 10 on the 18th in the second round. “I’m playing well, although I didn’t play well on the last hole last week, and I’m excited,” he said. “I’m feeling good about the week.”
Van der Walt won the Tshwane Open, and has spent most of his year trying to chase down a chance to play in the US PGA Tour. When that course of action was unsuccessful, he turned his attention to Europe, and home soil in South Africa was where he started the two years exemption he gained from his Tshwane win.
These three players will give local professionals a glimpse of what can be achieved through consistently good performances in local events – and just one great result in an event co-sanctioned by the Sunshine Tour and the European Tour can turn a good year into a great one with a year-end barnstormer at Gary Player Country Club.