They are the men who have had a front-row seat to the greatest moments in Nedbank Golf Challenge history as the caddies who have carried the bags and helped call the clubs for Major winners, world number ones and icons of ‘Africa’s Major’. For two South African caddies, their memories will last a lifetime. For another, Gary Player changed his life through this event.
The three South African caddies Simon Masilo, Tiger Lekhulene and Zack Rasego each have unique memories and perspectives on the Nedbank Golf Challenge, which this year will be played for the 41st time at the Gary Player Country Club from November 9-12 with a 66-man field including defending champion Tommy Fleetwood and fellow Ryder Cup stars Justin Thomas and Justin Rose.
Masilo was the caddie for Ernie Els during his three Nedbank Golf Challenge triumphs, while Lekhulene was the man on the bag for Nick Price and his hat-trick of Nedbank Golf Challenge titles.
In particular, both men share a unique place in the history of this event as having been the caddies for Els and Price when they set the tournament scoring records in this tournament that still stand to this day.
Lekhulene, now 63 years old, remembers fondly the year Price did so first in 1993, when he won the Nedbank Golf Challenge by a staggering 12 strokes on 24 under par 264. “On the first hole in the final round, Nick holed his second shot. He played beautifully that whole week. Nick was the best ball striker in the world at that time.”
But his favourite memory of his time with Price at Sun City was the year they beat Tiger Woods for the Zimbabwean’s third Nedbank Golf Challenge victory.
“That was the playoff in 1998. We were one shot ahead of Tiger when we reached the last hole on the Sunday. Tiger was just off the green with his second on 18. Nick tapped me with his putter and said, ‘Watch. Tiger will hole that chip’. And he did to force the playoff. Then we won the playoff. I just 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. Nick was so happy to beat Tiger that year because he said to me afterwards, ‘You watch. Nobody will beat this kid going forward’. And of course, that’s what happened. Tiger won everything.”
Like a changing of the guard, Els then took the mantle from Price as the dominant Southern African in this event. He did so in emphatic fashion, winning his first Nedbank Golf Challenge in 1999 with a new tournament record of 25 under par 263.
“Ernie played fantastic golf. He holed everything he looked at. Even when he made a mistake, it was a good mistake. It just all came together. I remember the seven iron he hit on the 15th that year in the third round – he almost holed it and I knew then we were in for something special with that record. We shot 65 in the pro-am that year, which was also a sign.
“I don’t see anybody shooting 25 under on that golf course again. You have to be so good, and Ernie was. On the morning of the final round, Ernie said to me, ‘I think it’s time for a new record. Let’s go for it’,” said the 65-year-old Masilo.
“Coming up 18 with Ernie leading in that event and 25 000 people cheering, it’s the greatest feeling ever. I really enjoyed it. For me, it’s still our best tournament in South Africa.”
Then in 2017, caddie Zack Rasego completed a fairytale journey that started as a young boy living in poverty outside Rustenburg and culminated in his victory with Branden Grace in the Nedbank Golf Challenge that year.
It was shortly after building the Gary Player Country Club course and preparing for the first Nedbank Golf Challenge in 1981 that Gary Player initiated a caddie programme at Sun City. Rasego was one of the young intakes and quickly caught Player’s eye. The Grand Slam champion hired him to be his personal caddie and they won the 1988 Senior Open together.
It began a journey that saw Rasego become one of the best tour caddies in the game as he went on to win the 2010 Open Championship with Louis Oosthuizen and then the 2017 Nedbank Golf Challenge with Grace amongst several other triumphs in the game.
For 40 years now, the Nedbank Golf Challenge has provided some of the greatest moments in golf.
These three men were there to see many of them first-hand. – Michael Vlismas