Westwood aiming for Nedbank Challenge title

Lee Westwood during the Nedbank Challenge pro-am.

Lee Westwood during the Nedbank Challenge pro-am.

SUN CITY, South Africa – It was the first golf tournament ever to offer prize money of $1 million, with half of that going to the winner.

Nearly three decades after American Johnny Miller walked away with that winner’s check in 1981, the Sun City casino resort in South Africa’s North West province continues to attract the stars of world golf – and offer one of the sport’s biggest prizes.

It was the Sun City Million Dollar Challenge when Miller won the inaugural event. Now the Nedbank Golf Challenge, the 30th edition of the invitational tournament has drawn top-ranked Lee Westwood among the 12 players competing for the hefty $1.25 million first prize. Only The Players Championship, the majors and the World Golf Championships have a bigger top paycheck.

photo

Retief Goosen

The total purse up for grabs at Gary Player Country Club is $5 million, and even the man who finishes last will take home a handy $250,000.

It is “Africa’s major” and enjoys huge popularity with South African golf fans.

“I’d love to win here. It’s somewhere I’ve always enjoyed coming to,” Westwood said Wednesday. “It’s a great tournament. I think ‘98 was my first year, I enjoyed it then and I enjoy it now. ... I missed it last year when I didn’t play.”

Westwood, who came close to winning in Sun City when he lost a playoff to Ernie Els in 2000, leads a Europe-heavy cast that includes Padraig Harrington, Miguel Angel Jimenez, Ross Fisher and Edoardo Molinari – all Ryder Cup winners – and South African-born Englishman Justin Rose.

Westwood will be the focus, however, and he’s quickly adjusted to his new leading role after ending Tiger Woods’ record 281-week stay at the top of the world rankings.

“There’s no pressure, really,” said the 37-year-old Englishman, smiling. “Being No. 1 in the world comes as a consequence of playing well. So if you think playing well is going to create more pressure, then you are probably doing the wrong job.

“That’s why I go out and practice on the range at home when it’s freezing cold and you could stay inside. That’s why I work hard and have done for the last 17 years.”

While Westwood chases his first win in Sun City, and a first tournament victory since assuming the top ranking, home fans will cheer for four South Africans – three of them major champions – when the tournament tees off Thursday.

Three-time Nedbank Challenge winner Els, 2004 champion Retief Goosen, British Open champ Louis Oosthuizen, and Tim Clark carry home hopes. Oosthuizen is making his long-awaited debut at the Nedbank.

“I’ve been watching it probably since I was 11,” Oosthuizen said. “You always picture yourself one day there but you never think you are going to make it. ... It’s something special, just playing this week, and I’d like to put on a good show. I’m looking forward to it.”

While Oosthuizen makes his first appearance, Els is playing for the 17th time at Sun City.

“The Big Easy” has made more than $7.9 million from the Nedbank alone, and is easily the tournament’s most successful player. Having enjoyed a quiet time recently, he said a new putter and a familiar old event, where he last appeared in 2007, could help complete a return to form that began with victory at the Grand Slam of Golf.

“I’ve really missed the place so I hope to play well,” Els said. “My game’s there. My game’s really not that far off. I just want to get all the pieces together.

“I feel like I’m on the right track, it’s just a matter of time.”

Els, Nick Price and David Frost have all won the tournament three times. No one has ever won it four times.

Completing the lineup in the event sanctioned by South Africa’s Sunshine Tour are Australia’s Robert Allenby, the defending champion, and Denmark’s Anders Hansen, who won the Sunshine Tour Order of Merit last season.

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