This year is the 25th anniversary of what many believe to have been the greatest Nedbank Golf Challenge of them all. In 1998 the Sun City tournament was regarded as one of the best events in golf outside the major championships, carrying a purse of $2.5-million to be split between 12 players.
It had the strongest field in terms of world ranking players, and the galleries and huge TV audience were treated to a five-hole playoff for the title between Tiger Woods and Nick Price. This was the only time Tiger competed at Sun City. There was a record crowd of 52 000 over the four days, nearly 30 000 on the weekend.
Sun International, the tournament organisers, lobbied hard each year to attract the world’s best golfers to their end-of-year 12-man showdown which was then still called the Nedbank Million Dollar Challenge. Held in the first week of December, a holiday mood prevailed among the galleries and corporate guests. The week was one long party, as much for some of the players as it was the fans. The resort hotels were overflowing, with entertainment every night.
Attracting Tiger Woods for his first appearance in South Africa was a significant coup. He was 22, and winner of just one major, the 1997 Masters, but already the No 1 golfer in the world. The excitement around his visit rivalled that of rock stars who had performed at Sun City.
But he wasn’t the only big gun. Sun City had signed an unprecedented seven of the Top 10 on the World Golf Ranking. There was No 2 Mark O’Meara, who had won the Masters and Open in 1998, No 3 David Duval, and No 5 Ernie Els. Joining them were Colin Montgomerie, Lee Westwood and Price, ranked between No 6 and 8. The supporting cast comprised Jim Furyk, Jesper Parnevik, Justin Leonard, Tom Watson (a late replacement for world No 4 Davis Love) and Bernhard Langer, the lowest-ranked at No 29.
The 1990s and turn of the millennium were buoyant years for the Million Dollar. The prize fund eclipsed those at PGA Tour events, so persuading Americans to travel all this way at that time of year was relatively easy. Six of them were playing in 1998. The tournament had been boosted by the fact that in local heroes Price and Els we had two of the greatest golfers in our time performing at their best together. These were heady days for SA golf fans. Between 1992 and 2002 Price and Els each won three Million Dollar titles, and David Frost had completed his hat-trick in 1992.
KING OF SUN CITY
Price summed it up when he said the “Million Dollar was my only opportunity during the year to compete against a quality field in my backyard.” He was the King of Sun City during the 1990s. Between 1993, his first victory with a record score of 24-under 264 (he won by 12 shots), and 1998 he never finished worse than third. And in that stretch he also won two Dimension Data Pro-Ams at Sun City.
At the 1998 Million Dollar the three-time major champion was eight weeks shy of his 42nd birthday. He set the pace on day one with a 67, and a 68 on day two gave him a one-shot lead over O’Meara, with Westwood and Leonard two back on 137. Woods had opened with a 72, then shot 68. The Saturday round saw Price falter with a 72, and 25-year-old Westwood moved into the lead on 13-under after back-to-back rounds of 65-66. He was two ahead of Leonard, and four ahead of Price and Woods, who were drawn together in the penultimate Sunday pairing.
And what a pairing that turned out to be as they went head-to-head for the title. Westwood struggled, and it was a three-way contest between Price, Woods and Leonard. One shot separated them at the finish. Price, trailing Woods early on, made a scarcely believable six birdies in a row from the par-5 ninth to the par-5 14th and had his supporters whooping in delight as he moved into a three-shot lead. However, a poor drive on 15 resulted in a bogey, and Woods scented blood. A birdie by him on 17 left him one back. The 18th could not have produced a more dramatic finish, a chip-in birdie from Woods that preceded his more memorable hole-outs at the Masters.
Price had his own Tiger with him, Tiger Lekhulene, his caddie in each of his Sun City victories. Tiger recently recalled that final round in 1998. “I remember people going crazy that year. The fans had t-shirts with Nick and Tiger’s name on them. It was funny because every time the fans called ‘Tiger’ I also looked around.
“We were one shot ahead on the last hole. Tiger was just off the green with his second. Nick tapped me with his putter and said, ‘Watch, Tiger will hole that chip.’ And he did.” Price and Woods had both shot 66 in the final round, and tied on 15-under 273.
The sudden-death playoff began at the par-3 16th, and both men played a series of incredible recovery shots to maintain the suspense for another hour. Tiger had a makeable birdie putt on 18 to seal the win, and when he missed it the crowd couldn’t control their elation. Back they went to the 16th. Price was close with his tee shot, and was visibly annoyed when he missed the putt. The par-4 17th still had the old green inland from the main dam, and was a relatively short par 4 for the pros. Price didn’t hit a great approach, but holed a tricky birdie putt with the cool detachment of an executioner. He remained the oldest winner until 42-year-old Thomas Bjorn triumphed in 2013.
“Nick was so happy and relieved to beat Tiger,” said Lekhulene. “I remember his words to me: ‘Nobody will beat this kid going forward.’”
END OF AN ERA
The 1998 Nedbank Million Dollar was the end of an era in some ways at Sun City, even though there were fabulous tournaments still to come. The following year saw the introduction of three World Golf Championship events on the PGA Tour, worth $15 million in prize money for the best golfers. Alastair Roper, who succeeded as tournament director in 1999, struggled from that year on to recruit Americans. He pursued US Open champion Payne Stewart late into the year, going to the Alfred Dunhill Cup at St Andrews to try and sign him, but Stewart declined. Tragically he died a few weeks later in a plane crash and we never saw him at Sun City.
Tiger Woods launched his World Challenge in Arizona in January 2000, with an identical format to the Million Dollar, and moved the second one to a December date in California which clashed with Sun City. The top Americans no longer had any need to fly all the way to Africa to play for a $1 million first prize.
The tournament also lost its World Ranking points from 2000 onwards. From January that year these were only awarded to official tour events.