Top-class field for 2009

by Jana Kotze on

Rory McIlroy © Gallo Image

Two multiple major championship winners, the current Masters champion, the current     Players’ champion, the hottest young property in world golf, five Presidents Cup players, three Ryder Cup players and a combined more than $200 million in career prize-money.

The field for the 2009 Nedbank Golf Challenge at Sun City from 3 to 6 December will deliver all of this and more, another eagerly anticipated spectacle for local golf fans to savour. There will be five Sun City debutants in the field, as well as three South Africans for the home galleries to support.

Heading the bill is defending champion Henrik Stenson from Sweden, who obliterated the remainder of the field in 2008 with an incredible combination of length off the tee, precise iron play and deadly putting. His nine-shot win was the second-highest victory margin in the history of the tournament, eclipsed only by Nick Price’s astonishing twelve shot win over Mark McNulty in 1993.

Stenson confirmed immediately after lifting the famous crystal ball trophy last year that he would be coming back to defend his title on a course that suits his game perfectly and in the hot conditions in which he thrives, and he brings the added confidence of his victory in this year’s Players Championship at Sawgrass, regarded by the players as the unofficial fifth major.

He was also one of the most consistent players in the 2009 Majors, with two top-10s at the US Open and PGA, a tie for 13th at the Open Championship and a 38th a the Masters.

Arguably the sternest challenge to his title defence will come from the other previous winner of this title, South African Retief Goosen, who has also finished second after losing out in playoffs either side of his win in 2004. With two US Open titles to his name and his much-publicised swing changes now embedded, Goosen clearly has the ‘taste’ for competition again after something of a lull last year.

Big-hitting Angel Cabrera, who was a serious contender on his first visit to Sun City before a final round of 80 squashed his victory chances, will be out to bury that memory, as he returns to South Africa as Masters champion.

While many felt desperately sorry for Kenny Perry and his bogey-bogey finish that gave Cabrera the opportunity of a sudden death playoff, no one could fault the Argentine’s calm and incredible short game touch when it mattered most.

His second major title after his previous US Open, confirmed him as one of the greats of the era and his combination of brute power and delicate touch will make him a definite threat around the Gary Player Country Club layout.

After Stenson’s automatic invitation as defending champion, the next invite went to the winner of the Sunshine Tour’s Order of Merit, giving hugely talented Pretorian Richard Sterne his first crack at ‘Africa’s Major’. Sterne ran away with last year’s money title, finishing the year with back-to-back victories in two of the Tour’s co-sanctioned events, the Dunhill Championship and the SA Open, the latter taking him over R6 million in earnings on the Sunshine Tour alone.

Joining Sterne as a Nedbank Golf Challenge debutant is the hottest young player to arrive on the professional golf scene since Sergio Garcia laid down the gauntlet to Tiger Woods at the 1999 PGA Championship. Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy won his first European Tour title this year – the youngest to win on tour since Garcia – and has already amassed almost 4 million Euros in prize money in just his second full year as a professional.

At the time of the field announcement, McIlroy was in second place on the European Tour’s race to Dubai, trailing only Lee Westwood, who leapfrogged McIlory with his win at the Portuguese Open this past weekend.

A popular invitee for the local fans will be Tim Clark, who stunned the Presidents Cup galleries recently with his 18th-hole eagle to win a point in one of his fourball matches with partner Vijay Singh and then demolished former Masters champion Zach Johnson in the singles with a birdie barrage.

Clark came agonisingly closer to his first PGA Tour win this year, losing in a playoff at the Crowne Plaza Invitational, but took his career tour earnings past $13 million in another stellar year.

Two Americans will make their first appearances at the event, having taken the PGA Tour by storm in recent years. Hunter Mahan has already amassed more than $10 million in PGA Tour earnings after turning pro less than five years ago, and has shown an uncanny ability to ‘go low’, with six rounds of 62 on tour so far, one of them in this year’s runner-up placing to Tiger Woods at the AT&T National.

A member of the Presidents Cup-winning American team, Mahan also had top-10 finishes at the Masters and US Open, as well as a tie for 16th at the final major of the season, the PGA, and 27th place in the final FedEx Cup standings. His compatriot and fellow Nedbank rookie, Nick Watney has completed an even better year, securing 12th place on the FedEx Cup standings thanks to his second tour win at the Buick Invitational and a number of other top-10s.

Watney won his first tour event in 2007 but experienced something of a slump in 2008, finishing down in 121st position on the money list. However, 2009 has produced more than $3 million in prize money, a leap up the world rankings bettered only by YE Yang this year, and a real sense of belonging in golf’s big time.

The final first-timer alongside McIlroy, Sterne and the two American players, is Englishman Ross Fisher, another consistent performer in the 2009 Majors, making all four cuts and recording a top-5 at the US Open. He also led the Open Championship early in the final round before a heart-breaking quadruple bogey put paid to his challenge.

With two wins on the European Tour – the 2008 European Open being particularly memorable – a second place finish to Paul Casey at this year’s BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth and a semifinal at the WGC Accenture World Matchplay, he clearly has the game and the temperament to challenge for this title.

Fisher will be joined by fellow countryman Luke Donald, making his fourth visit to Sun City. The Ryder Cup player, who has two wins on each of the PGA and European tours, went over the $25 million mark in career earnings this year and, on his first visit to Sun City in 2005, finished just one shot out of the four-man playoff won by Jim Furyk.

The two players completing the 12-man field are Swede Robert Karlsson and Australian Robert Allenby. Karlsson made his first appearance at Sun City last year on the back of his European Order of Merit victory in 2008, but this year has been a frustrating one for him, affected by vision problems that didn’t allow him to compete for much of the season. However, his third place finish in the Nedbank last year will be an excellent memory as he looks to finish the year in style.

Allenby will be making his third trip to Sun City after yet another year in which his consistency has been a factor in taking him past $20 million in PGA Tour career earnings, as well as earning him a fifth spot in the Presidents Cup International team.

Understandably, Tournament Director Alistair Roper is delighted with the quality of the field gathered for the event, particularly given the unusually difficult circumstances in which invitations were being issued. “This is the first time we have ever had the same dates as Tiger Woods’ Chevron World Challenge,” said Roper, “and 15 of the world’s top 20 accepted invitations there.

“Added to that complication is the fact that, with the new rules governing grooves on clubs coming in to play on tour next year, virtually all the players are using this time of the year to go and test clubs and balls with their manufacturing sponsors, most of whom are based in California. But even with these obstacles, we have a field of incredible quality, with all of them showing excellent form coming in to the tournament,” he adds.

“This year has shown the depth of quality there is in professional golf at the moment, with some relatively surprising major winners and a number of new names winning on both the PGA and European Tours. We look forward to another week of high quality golf and world class competition.”

“The challenge of delivering a top class Nedbank Golf Challenge field in 2009 was possibly the greatest ever. Despite that, this year’s line up features a truly excellent mix of the world’s best players of 2009 and the world’s best over recent years. South African fans will once again be treated to a spectacular that we are confident will thrill and delight” says Greg Garden, Divisional Executive, Nedbank Group Marketing.

The full field is:

Henrik Stenson (Sweden)
Richard Sterne (SA)
Robert Allenby (Australia)
Angel Cabrera (Argentina)
Tim Clark (SA)
Luke Donald (England)
Ross Fisher (England)
Retief Goosen (SA)
Robert Karlsson (Sweden)
Hunter Mahan (US)
Rory McIlroy (Northern Ireland)
Nick Watney (US)

Source: Nedbank Golf Challenge Sun City 09

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