The Cape of Good Golf

South Africa’s golfers garner more major championships than any nationality other than Americans
| By Jeff Williams | From Adrien Brody, September/October 2010
The Cape of Good Golf
Cliff Welch/Icon SMI
2008 Masters Champion Trevor Immelman kids around with this childhood hero Gary Player on the first tee at the Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Georgia.

Gary Player, Bobby Locke, Nick Price, Ernie Els, Retief Goosen, Trevor Immelman, Sally Little. And now, Louis Oosthuizen. An eight-some of major championship winners that share a single, and special, trait. They are all South Africans.

South Africa. Land of 50 million souls with an outstanding sporting pedigree, and while cricket and rugby (and now soccer) are the games of the masses, the golfers of South Africa have made an indelible impression on the game worldwide.

And what an impression Oosthuizen made the third week of July, winning the British Open at St Andrews with one of the finest performances in championship golf history. Oosthuizen won by seven shots, crushing the field with pinpoint driving, knowing iron-play and superb putting, an exhibition nothing short of world class and one that continues the world-class legacy of the South African golf.

Going back five generations, there was Bobby Locke, winner of four British Open championships. He was followed by the nonpareil Gary Player, one of the game's all-time greats with nine major championships. In Player's spike marks came other major championship winners—Ernie Els, Retief Goosen, Trevor Immelman. And we must include Nick Price, raised in neighboring Zimbabwe (then it was Rhodesia), but born to British parents in Durban. And we also must not leave out Sally Little, an LPGA major championship winner.

"Isn't it remarkable to think that South Africa has won more major championships post war than any country on the planet except America," says Player. "It's a big feather in our cap, isn't it?"

While Great Britain has produced a number of top-flight players since World War II—Nick Faldo, Tony Jacklin, Sandy Lyle, Ian Woosnam, the non-major winning Colin Montgomerie—South Africa has churned them out consistently. Male players from Great Britain, including England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, have won 16 major championships since 1946 when tournament golf was resumed after World War II. South African men have won 23 in that time period.

Just look at the PGA Tour today, where players such as Tim Clark (recent winner of the Players Championship), Rory Sabbatini, Els, Goosen and Immelman play regularly, where David Frost was a stalwart before joining the Champions Tour alongside Price. Brandon de Jonge (Zimbabwe), Garth Mulroy and the Pappas brothers, Deane and Brenden, are trying to make names for themselves. In Europe, Charl Schwartzel and Louis Oosthuizen are contenders. Lurking on the horizon is Thomas Aiken.

"It took the world, particularly America, a long time to realize how many wonderful golfers South Africa has produced," says Player. "When I first came to America, it was 'Do you have golf courses back there? Do you have big highways there?' I tried to explain that it was just as sophisticated as the United States."

There is a long history of golf in South Africa, one that rivals the game in the United States. When General Sir Henry Torrens was sent to command British troops in the Cape colony of South Africa in 1885, the old boy missed his golf so dearly that among the very first things he did was conjure up a golf course.

As the lore goes, nine days after assuming command Torrens rounded up potential players for a meeting, established the Cape Golf Club at the Wynberg military encampment, figured out a routing, and by early 1886 the first golf course in South Africa was established. For good measure, he won the club's first tournament.

Little did the general know that he had not only satisfied his longing for his favorite recreation, but the seeds of the game he had planted would be sown by immigrants throughout the country, to Johannesburg, to Durban, to Port Elizabeth and, of course, to the lovely contemporary city of Cape Town. In a country where cricket and rugby occupied dual thrones among the sporting royalty, golf would grow with such vigor that it would soon rival the mother country in quality of courses and quality of players.

But just how is it that South Africa has managed to produce not merely competitive, or successful professional players, but those of such excellent championship pedigree?

"It's the weather, you can't beat it," says Player.

"The weather, you can play all year round. There is no off-season," says Tim Clark.

"The weather. It's unbelievable weather 365 days a year," says Nick Price.

The weather, similar to that of the central coast of California (think Monterey Peninsula, think Pebble Beach), is ideally conducive to playing the game, but there must be something else, some driving force that has led this country of about 50 million to churn out champions on an impressive scale.

"We are a sporting nation, just like the United States," says Els. "Seems like everyone plays a sport, cricket, rugby, soccer, tennis, golf. We are quite athletic as a nation and quite competitive. You know, you look about age 13 or 14 how you are as say a rugby player. If you don't think you can be the best, then you might look at golf, which is what I did."

Fostering that competitive spirit is a private club system that embraces junior players and allows them access to their courses for a pittance, and junior golf programs throughout the nation which sponsor players and conduct tournaments.
"The golf foundations are really good about promoting junior golf and it doesn't a cost a fortune for a junior player to play tournaments," says Rory Sabbatini. "In South Africa you paid the equivalent of about seven dollars to play in a tournament. We have tournaments in all the states so you didn't have to travel a long ways to play competitively. It's not as much of a hierarchal sport in South Africa. Not nearly as expensive or exclusive as the United States. My junior fee at Royal Durban [a local country club] was like $25 a year. There is such an enjoyment of golf in South Africa. The people are just so enthusiastic."

Then you have courses of very high standard to play on, more than 500 courses in all. The Durban Country Club is often ranked among the top 100 courses in the world. Gary Player has designed many of South Africa's best courses, such as Leopard Creek in Kruger National Park (ranked the best in South Africa and the 25th best in the world outside the United States), the Gary Player Country Club at Sun City (54th  outside the United States) and the three courses at Fancourt.
"There are 100 golf courses within a 70-mile radius of Johannesburg," says Player. "There are as good as any on the planet. The standard of golf courses in South Africa is quite high, as high as you are likely to find."

Now add a very good professional tour to the mix. The Sunshine Tour of Southern Africa has long been an excellent starting point not only for young Southern African players, but Europeans looking for a place to play in tolerable weather in the winter months. A player can qualify for the European Tour straight off the top of the Sunshine Tour's Order of Merit, and can also get into World Championship Golf events.
So there you have seminal blend of golfing elements-weather, accessible courses of great quality, junior golf programs, a highly regarded professional tour and a sporting gene in the blood of the country. "We have it all," says Nick Price.

But championship golf needs inspiration, and South Africa has been blessed with that as well, starting with the good general Torrens. Ever hear of Sid Brews?

Long before there was the iconic Gary Player, Sidney Brews-born in England but raised and nurtured in South Africa-became the country's most prominent player in the 1920s and 30s. He won the South African Open eight times. In 1934 he won the African, French and Dutch Opens and finished second to Henry Cotton in the British Open. Brews also became an influential designer of South African courses.

Then came South Africa's first major championship winner, and a man who would influence the game itself. Arthur D'Arcy "Bobby" Locke was one heckuva player who uttered one of golf's most tried and true adages: "You drive for show, but you putt for dough."

Locke won the British Open four times between 1949 and 1957. His victory total is put at 72 worldwide with 11 of those coming on the PGA Tour. In the winter of 1947 Sam Snead went to South Africa to play a series of exhibition matches with Locke, and was so impressed that he persuaded Locke to come to America and try the PGA Tour, much to the chagrin of Snead's fellow American professionals. Locke won six tournaments on the PGA Tour in 1947 and finished second to Jimmy Demaret on the money list. In 1948 he won the Chicago Victory National tournament by 16 shots.

"You know, Bobby Locke is put way down the list and he would have beaten 80 per cent of the players they are rating today," says Player. "He beat Sam Snead like a drum. He beat Ben Hogan, he beat them all. I see players highly rated in magazines that Bobby Locke would have eaten for breakfast.

"The last thing he worried about was hitting the ball a long ways. He said that was the most unimportant thing in golf. He was as good a putter as ever lived. He didn't putt on the greens we have today. He putted on old grainy common Bermuda. I played 100 rounds of golf with him and it was like watching a machine putt. It's unimaginable what he would have done on the greens we have today."

From the time he was a teenager, Gary Player knew what he wanted to be, and, not lacking in confidence, said he would become the best player in the world. The son of a miner of modest means whose mother died of cancer when he was young, Player discovered from his very first slashes at the ball that golf was already built into his soul. He practiced without limits, and became golf's first fitness freak. He was a small man (5' 7", maybe 150 pounds with his spikes on) with an outsized ego and the talent to back it up. Playing in the era of Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, Player forced his way to the pinnacle of the game and became part of The Big Three.

He flew around the world so many times that there were airplane seats that bore his imprint. By his own count he won 164 tournaments on every continent except Antarctica, and by anyone's count, nine of those were major championships. He won three British Opens, three Masters, two PGA Championships and one U.S. Open.

Having done this at the beginning of the television age and in the company of the great Palmer and Nicklaus, Player's accomplishments reverberated across South Africa and launched a generation of major championship winners and highly competitive professionals. Price, Els, Goosen, Immelman followed, and a host of other top players.

"When I started playing competitively Gary Player was still playing and of course he was a huge inspiration to us all," says Clark. "Ernie Els was winning his first U.S. Open [1994] and Nick Price was winning majors. We had great players at home like Hugh Biaocchi, John Bland and Simon Hobday. There was so much you could draw from."

Clark and Sabbatini took a route to the PGA Tour that doesn't exist in South Africa, the one aspect of the game in which the country comes up lacking. Clark and Sabbatini came to America to play college golf, Clark at North Carolina State and Sabbatini at the University of Arizona. Clark lives permanently in Scottsdale, Arizona. While Sabbatini resides in Fort Worth, Texas.

"The one thing we don't have in South Africa is that there is no next step from the junior golf programs," says Clark. "There is nothing like the college golf in the United States. You either turn pro and try to make a living, or you don't and try to do something else. I worked for two years in a pro shop and a friend of mine who had gone to North Carolina State told the coach about me, the coach called and I ended up going there, which was huge."

"U.S. colleges are a great thing for international players," says Sabbatini. "You get great competition and it gives you a chance to mature. Like Tim said, there isn't that next step in South Africa so to be able to play college golf in the U.S. is extremely beneficial if you are thinking about being a pro."

South Africa has several other players entering their prime who could have big impacts on international tours in the years ahead. Schwartzel is a five-time winner on the European Tour. Oosthuizen has won once on the European Tour, several times in South Africa and is a steady performer. Then there is Thomas Aiken, an-up-and coming 26-year-old. After struggling initially to make the European Tour, could he be the next big player, especially taking into account his 46th place finish in the Race to Dubai?

Aiken didn't take the American college route. His father said he needed to make the choice between being a student or being a professional golfer, so Aiken took the pro route. "My father said 'Are you going to go to college or are you going to play golf?' " says Aiken. So I turned pro at 18, and it's a been a journey that's been difficult at times."

But part of that journey started long ago when he met Gary Player on a beach at Plettenbeurg Bay. He was five years old and not yet of an age where he was dreaming of being a golf champion. "I do remember what a kind and generous man he was," says Aiken. "That he was a great champion golfer wouldn't have been so important then. But it would be as I took up the game and began to love it. I have always admired Gary Player, always wanted to be like him."

Now 26, Aiken has a ways to go before he can be considered a champion golfer. He finished tied for eighth at the British Open in 2009 and had a fourth-place finish in the prestigious Alfred Dunhill Championship. But he has seven victories on the Sunshine Tour, and he says he's ready to take the next step up. "I'm pretty ready to win now," he says. "I'm being patient, waiting for the right time, working hard, waiting for the lucky break."

And Aiken does a good job of summing up the South African success story: "The weather has a lot do with it, the courses have a lot to do with it, the junior golf programs have a lot to do with it, Gary Player has a lot to do with it."

But the ultimate summing up must be left to Player himself: "We have it all here, don't we."

Jeff Williams is a Cigar Aficionado contributing editor.