All eyes on Rors
The week a genuine superstar came to town – and ripped it at altitude.
When Rory McIlroy stepped on to the 10th tee at 07:10 for his first round draw with defending South African Open champion Brandon Stone and George Coetzee, 4 000 fans had already passed through the gates at Glendower Golf Club. The fact that he ultimately lost a sudden-death playoff to Englishman Graeme Storm on Sunday afternoon almost proved inconsequential considering the impact he made on so many South African sports fans on his first visit back to our country since 2009.
Such was the pulling power of the World No 2, and four-time major champion, that a total of 28 000 fans attended the 106th BMW SA Open over the four days. Last year it had been just 8 000.
Only Humewood Golf Club has seen more fans at a Sunshine Tour event in recent decades, when 41 000 descended on the Port Elizabeth links in December 2006 to watch Ernie Els win with what was a record 72-hole score. Els was then as big a
The gallery on the 14th. drawcard in PE as McIlroy is today in Gauteng.
McIlroy’s presence in any tournament boosts global television ratings and interest, but there was added anticipation at Glendower which brought huge fanfare to what is normally a low-key European Tour event. Social media was abuzz with speculation as to what new equipment the Northern Irishman would be using in his first start of 2017 – following Nike’s withdrawal from the club and ball market — and then came his controversial comments about golf at the Olympics.
In an interview with Dublin’s Sunday Independent newspaper (which emerged at Glendower), McIlroy talked about how his agonising dilemma of choosing between representing Ireland or Great Britain had soured the Olympic experience for him, suggesting it’s unlikely he’ll be at Tokyo for the Games in 2020.
South African fans came to see Rory smash it off the tee – and they weren’t disappointed. The 27-year-old ripped driver as much as possible, averaging 290 metres for the week with his new Callaway Epic.
We were also very fortunate that he played all four rounds. We learnt afterwards that he was close to withdrawing from the Open after the second round because of a balky back which had ailed him on the Friday afternoon.
Thankfully for the fans, the Sunshine and European tours, and promoters, he played through the weekend, albeit in some discomfort, and gave us a final round to remember. McIlroy was due to play in Abu Dhabi the following week, but on arrival in the United Arab Emirates a scan revealed he had sustained a rib injury which would result in his having to rest up for some considerable time.
South Africa hasn’t seen such fanfare for a foreign golfer since Tiger Woods’ two visits to South Africa (1998 Nedbank Golf Challenge and 2003 Presidents Cup), and McIlroy delighted locals with his affable demeanour towards many fans who were clearly attending a golf tournament for the first time. That’s what marquee players do. McIlroy’s reputation and celebrity status attracts new people to golf.
And he was gracious in defeat too. Following Storm’s dramatic victory, where it seemed that only his caddie, Thama ‘Jeffrey’ Nkonyane was pulling for him (see page 30), McIlroy was acutely aware of the career lifeline the victory meant for Storm. Last October, the 38-year-old fell €100 short of automatically retaining his European Tour playing privileges, but he subsequently moved up one crucial spot on the money-list when American Patrick Reed failed to play the minimum number of events.
“What a story it is for Graeme. He thought he had lost his card and there he is now standing with a trophy in his hands after the first event of 2017. I’m delighted for him,” said McIlroy. “I wish I could have done a little more but it’s not a bad way to start the season.”
Tournament host Ernie Els brought McIlroy to South Africa after Els had played in the 2014 Irish Open, extracting a promise that the Irishman would reciprocate. But how does the five-time SA Open champion follow up his coup for the 2018 Open? Els followed the action on the back nine at Glendower on Sunday from a cart and would have been immensely proud of the masses that lined the fairways, reminiscing perhaps of the days in his prime when he drew the same audience.
Could Els lure Jordan Spieth or Rickie Fowler to Johannesburg for a week? Maybe tempt Dustin Johnson or Bubba Watson with the thrill of power hitting at altitude? The prospect of a game-viewing holiday beforehand could perhaps clinch such a deal. Before the Open, McIlroy spent time with his fiancée Erica Stoll at the private Londolozi Game Reserve, bordering the Kruger National Park, and something similar could serve as an incentive for American visitors.
Let’s hope that Els can also convince our big three of Louis Oosthuizen, Charl Schwartzel and Branden Grace to play in their national open again – none of them have yet won the trophy. All were notably absent this year. Grace opted to play on the PGA Tour in Hawaii, but major champions Oosthuizen and Schwartzel were in the country the week Rory came to town.
McIlroy on the par-3 17th tee at Glendower. The BMW i8 hybrid sports car was won by Jaco van Zyl with an ace in the second round.
Ernie Els commiserates with McIlroy after the playoff. McIlroy’s American fiancée Erica Stoll.