Alex Noren yesterday won the Nedbank Golf Challenge at the Sun City resort, about a half-hour flight from Johannesburg. One is tempted to say that of course he did. He’s now won on four of his last 11 starts. Five months ago he was 110th on the world golf rankings. He’s now in the top-10. (Ninth, to be precise.) He’s also up to third in the Race to Dubai, and next week he has the chance to pass his fellow-Swede, Henrik Stenson, who finished eighth at Sun City, and Danny Willett, who reversed weeks of mediocre golf by shooting 67-69 on the weekend, and take the top prize on offer for being the leading money-winner on the European Tour in 2016.
The 34-year-old trailed Jeunghun Wang of Korea by three shots overnight but birdies on the first three holes soon changed that. Noren, who had just one bogey, ultimately signed for a 63, nine under par, to beat Wang by six. “I don’t think I’ve ever played as good,” he said, “especially on the greens.” Given the golf he’s produced in recent weeks, we have to assume that’s high praise indeed for his own game. But that’s no surprise. His 63 was the best round of yesterday by four shots. He will surely have left South Africa feeling like a million dollars.
Which reference takes us back in time a bit. The prize fund last week was $7 million. In its original format, this tournament was called the Million Dollar Challenge, and when it began in 1981 the prize fund of $1 million was truly stupendous – especially given that it was only split five ways. The tournament got underway on New Year’s Eve and by January 3 Johnny Miller was taking home the first prize of $500,000 by beating Seve Ballesteros in a playoff that lasted nine holes. The three other competitors were Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino and Gary Player, the latter of whom – being South African, of course – had designed the course at the Gary Player Country Club as well as having it named after him. Seve would win the tournament in 1983 and 1984, the first time I attended it.
I also went in 1993 when Nick Price, then the best golfer in the world, as Seve had been nine years previously, romped home by 12 shots. On the 2nd hole of the final round, with victory pretty much already in the bag, Nicky backed off a putt after a marshal yelled at the hordes below the level of the green to stop moving. “It’s OK,” Price told him mildly, “we can’t see them when they’re down there.”
Price hails from neighbouring Zimbabwe. While this year the locals would doubtless have liked to see one of their guys who were in contention on Sunday morning – Louis Oosthuizen, Branden Grace or Jaco Van Zyl – burst through to win, instead they got to enjoy the fireworks from Noren. On Saturday night, Noren had said: “I have got to find some serious magic if I am going to win now.” Guess what?
Robert Green’s ‘Seve: Golf’s Flawed Genius’ is available on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter @robrtgreen