Leopard Creek hosts 50th co-sanctioned event
The Alfred Dunhill Championship this week marks a significant milestone in a unique relationship, as Leopard Creek Country Club hosts the 50th event to be co-sanctioned between the Sunshine Tour and the European Tour.
It was 1995 and the predecessor to this week’s tournament – the Lexington South African PGA Championship – that launched the association 17 years ago, an event appropriately won, given his eminent status as both South African talisman and leading light on the European Tour, by Ernie Els.
Els’ two-shot victory at the Wanderers Club in Johannesburg in February of that year was the first of nine different events to be co-sanctioned between the two tours in the almost two decades since, with the inaugural Tshwane Open in February next year set to mark the 10th.
Sunshine Tour players have long played a major role in the history of the European Tour since its inception in 1972, with 31 different players from South Africa capturing 110 titles in that time – 27 of which by the prodigious Els.
The 42-year-old heads the European Tour official career money list with €28 300 444, a figure that was bolstered considerably by the Big Easy’s stunning victory at the 141st Open Championship at Royal Lytham & St Annes last July.
Before that point, there had seemed to be a changing of the guard in the offing in South African and therefore European Tour golf, headlined by the incredible rise of Branden Grace, who after reclaiming his card at the 2011 Qualifying School captured three titles in the first four months of the 2012 season before adding a fourth at the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in October.
And Grace, at 36th, is one of five South Africans inside the top 50 of the Official World Golf Ranking currently, with Louis Oosthuizen (fifth), Charl Schwartzel (23rd), Els (24th) and George Coetzee (49th).
Last week, the European Tour’s 2013 Race to Dubai was launched at the inaugural Nelson Mandela Championship presented by ISPS Handa in Durban and in a true sign of the strength, and indeed success, of the relationship, was the first of at least six events set to be staged in South Africa in the new season, co-sanctioned between the European Tour and the Sunshine Tour.
“In terms of co-sanctioned arrangements, at 17 years it’s the longest partnership we have had with any tour,” said Keith Waters, the European Tour’s Chief Operating Officer and Director of International Policy.
“There are some natural positives partnering the Sunshine Tour in terms of the geography; the time change is only one or two hours from Europe so as regards to media coverage, television coverage, the benefits are clear.
“The climate obviously complements our European season and then the quality of the courses, the language and culture have all been very positive in building the relationship.
“This relationship extends to television matters in which Sunshine Tour Productions – a partnership that is jointly owned by European Tour Productions and the Sunshine Tour – produces and distributes all the live and recorded programming for Sunshine Tour and co-sanctioned events with the European Tour.
“But in everything we do it is still today a genuine 50-50 partnership, whether that’s money, operations, television, staff, or playing opportunities and that equality makes for a very healthy relationship.”
Dale Hayes was the first South African to become European Tour No 1 in 1975, three years after the Tour’s formation, but it is post-1995 that the country’s players have come to the very forefront of European golf, with four consecutive Order of Merit winners following the turn of the century as Retief Goosen took top spot in 2000 and 2001, and Els did the same in the subsequent two years.
In each of the last three years, meanwhile, there has been a South African major winner, from Oosthuizen’s maiden major triumph at the 139th Open Championship at St Andrews, his friend Schwartzel’s success at the Masters in 2011 and of course Els’ victory on the Southport coast earlier this year.
Selwyn Nathan, Executive Director of the Sunshine Tour, was equally gracious in his assessment of how the unrivalled bond has helped elevate both tours, and its membership, since 1995.
He said: “The relationship we have built with the European Tour in these 50 tournaments is an integral part of the success of the Sunshine Tour.
“It has created opportunities for the great South African players we see taking their place on the world stage right now, and, because the relationship keeps getting stronger, there are more players emerging here in South Africa.
“It is a partnership that is most visible in the six co-sanctioned events we now share, but those events represent something that is perhaps more important than that – a genuine sharing of resources and ideas for the betterment of players on both sides.
“As we continue to develop that relationship, I’m sure there will be refinements to the way we do things, and they will be done, as they always have been, in the spirit of co-operation and respect.”
The Alfred Dunhill Championship, being contested for the ninth time at the magnificent Leopard Creek Country Club in Mpumalanga, will be defended this week by South African Garth Mulroy.