All eyes on Rors

The week a gen­uine su­per­star came to town – and ripped it at al­ti­tude.

Golf Digest (South Africa) - - Life - by barry havenga

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.

PHOTO BY WAR­REN LIT­TLE /GETTY IM­AGES

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.

PHO­TOS BY BARRY HAVENGA

Ernie Els com­mis­er­ates with McIl­roy af­ter the play­off. McIl­roy’s Amer­i­can fi­ancée Erica Stoll.

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