A Class Act from ‘Down Under’on December 6, 2009
Robert Allenby became the first Australian champion of the Nedbank Golf Challenge, and it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy, writes John Botha.
The 29th Nedbank Golf Challenge developed into a drama consisting of many acts, with a finale that could never have been predicted with any confidence. The sub-plots over the four days were many and varied, and before the final curtain came down, the record-sized audience were entertained with some spellbinding action with many a twist and turn.
Before the opening act, it was never certain that the golf fans would again come out in their droves, but despite the suggestions by some that the depressed economy might see crowds dwindle, quite the opposite happened. A total of 64,922 made up the gallery of enthusiastic supporters throughout the four rounds, which included a crowd of 18,725 on the final day. This constituted the biggest ever crowd at the Gary Player Country Club and long before the final putt dropped, they were all glad they had come.
Even the fact that one of the leading men, the 20-year-old sensation Rory McIlroy, had to leave halfway through the performance without an understudy, did nothing to dilute the heady cocktail that was served up by the cast made up of 11 of the world’s best golfers.
There had been much talk of the failure of an Australian to win in Sun City in 29 years, and over this period the best from ‘Down Under’ have competed – including former world number one Greg Norman, the former US Open Champion David Graham, former PGA Champion Steve Elkington, and Stuart Appleby, who fared best of the Aussies with a tie for second place in 2004.
It was the mild-mannered Robert Allenby who set the early pace, albeit by a single shot, from Retief Goosen and Tim Clark. Another three players, Robert Karlsson, Hunter Mahan and defending champion Henrik Stenson were bracketed on 2-under par, and with the back markers, an out-of-sorts Rory McIlroy, Ross Fisher and Nick Watney on one-over par, so it was still anybody’s tournament. This changed at the halfway mark, as Goosen took the lead, a stroke ahead of US Masters Champion Angel Cabrera. McIlroy and Sterne, who scored 76 and 75 respectively, had probably played themselves out of contention, and the chances of Nick Watney, who had posted a pair of 73s, also seemed remote. Watney promptly fired a course record-equaling 63 in the third round, and suddenly things looked wide open.
Retief Goosen will look back on this tournament and realise that he had a golden opportunity to close out his opposition, and although he started the final round two shots clear of Allenby and Cabrera, he frittered away shots and eventually finished 5th after signing for an error-riddled 75. Angel Cabrera also failed to find any of the magic that had seen him play the first 54 holes in 10-inder par, and the powerful Argentinean also signed for a 75. During the closing stages all of Tim Clark, Ross Fisher, Henrik Stenson and Allenby had their chances, but after regulation play it was Stenson and Allenby that were tied on 11-under. After playing the 18th hole twice in regulation figures and remaining deadlocked, Stenson was the first to look vulnerable when he missed the putting surface with his approach and allowed his chip to trundle well past the hole. His putt came up well short, and the Aussie, who had rifled a perfect six-iron to within two metres, had two putts for the win.
Throughout the week Robert Allenby went out of his way to endear himself to his Pro-Am partners, the media and the large galleries. Traditionally there has been fierce competition between South Africans on rugby fields and cricket pitches, but the partisan crowd was quick to acknowledge that Allenby was a worthy champion, and everyone agreed that they cannot wait for next year when he will return to defend his title as Africa’s Major Champion.