Sun City welcomes golf's exciting future but cannot escape its troubling past

Tom Kershaw
The Independent
Sun City will welcome some of golf's biggest names once again: Getty
Sun City will welcome some of golf's biggest names once again: Getty

South African property mogul Sol Kerzner leapt through the loopholes of apartheid law to build a hedonist’s utopia in the 1970s. The most extravagant resort on the continent, situated in the heart of segregated South Africa, Sun City enticed the rich, divided the residuum, and attracted the world’s greatest golfers all the while.

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On the 125 mile drive from Johannesburg’s O.R Tambo Airport to Sun City in South Africa’s North West Province, the scenery is perpetual. Women and children walk barefooted alongside the blistering tarmac precariously balancing baskets of fruit, offering a wave to the rare whiff of luxury passing by in the form of 4x4s.

To the left, townships dominated by corrugated huts clamour around lonely wells, one or two red-bricked bungalows curiously integrated amongst them. To the right, a serene landscape of scorched bushveld where the white thorns of the wild acacias glint in the low African sun.

Only once casino adverts jut into the horizon overhead do you know you have reached the resort which, at first glance, appears more like a military compound with a thick green wire fence and uniformed guards with holstered pistols.

Lucas Mangope (right) watches West Ham vs Leicester at Upton Park in 1971 (Getty)
Lucas Mangope (right) watches West Ham vs Leicester at Upton Park in 1971 (Getty)

Yet the gaudy billboards overhead provide a suitable stretch towards Sun City. A seamy oasis of splendour envisioned as a gambling mecca to rival Macau to the West and Vegas to the East. An adulterous Disneyland of an incarnation, inadvertently enabled by South Africa’s apartheid government, when Sol Kerzner saw an opportunity to become Cruella de Vil amongst the division.

John Vorster, the country’s president and architect of apartheid advancement, continued to allow portions of the country to be chopped up into Bantustans - autonomous states designed to segregate the black population.

It is alleged that Kerzner cut a deal with the Bophuthatswana Bantustans hollow-hearted president Lucas Mangope that meant despite the atrocity and corrupt bile behind the region’s ruling, he could capitalise on the area's autonomy to circumvent the country’s gambling prohibition.

Rushed through before any righteous mind could intervene, four hotels, a giant ‘Entertainment Centre’ complete with 400 slot machines, casinos, pornographic cinemas and a championship golf course - designed by South Africa’s greatest sportsman Gary Player - were built within sixteen months. And thus Sun City was opened in 1979, quickly denoted as a “pleasure palace” where a morality-free deluge could descend.

And so they did. Within the first year of opening, 300,000 people travelled to the resort in spite of the UN's boycott of South Africa - more visitors than everywhere else in the country combined. Impecunious local men serviced the resorts casinos while women performed in topless revues or turned to illicit prostitution.

And on New Year's Eve in 1981, two years after opening, the inaugural Million Dollar Golf Challenge was held. In a country barred from hosting international sporting events, the tournament garnered as many headlines as any of golf's four majors - not least because of its obscene prize fund.

Described as an ‘unofficial money event’, the winning prize - $500,000 - was ten times greater than that of the Open Championship. And so despite being a patent propaganda snare and a blatant accost towards anti-apartheid protesters, the lurid prize pot enticed the world's five most famous golfers to the resort: Jack Nicklaus, Seve Ballesteros, Johnny Miller, Lee Trevino and, of course, Gary Player.

Gary Player and Thomas Bjorn at the gala dinner prior to this year's tournament (Getty)
Gary Player and Thomas Bjorn at the gala dinner prior to this year's tournament (Getty)

To put into context quite how nauseous this was in today's terms, it would be as though Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, Justin Rose, Jordan Spieth and Tommy Fleetwood visited Damascus’ 5* Ebla Cham Palace Hotel to take part in an absurdly lucrative event at the behest of the Assads.

Heck, if the world’s most famous sports stars were to conglomerate in, say, Qatar in spite of incessant Human Rights exploitation we will still watch won’t we?

Consistent outcry over the tournament was ignored. Arthur Ashe’s pleas for Nicklaus to forgo the event falling on deaf ears and criticism by the English press dismissed by Player as “socialist rubbish”. Instead, it “would show the world what this country is like”, he said.

The event was broadcast everywhere from America to Australia, and in Britain too courtesy of ITV's Thames Television. The players were treated like royalty, Miller defeated Ballesteros in a playoff to claim the grand prize, and off they went in a glory of self-inflicted ignorance as though the taxes on their winnings hadn't lined pro-apartheid pockets.

Seve Ballesteros and Nick Price on the range in Sun City in 1997 (Getty)
Seve Ballesteros and Nick Price on the range in Sun City in 1997 (Getty)

It wasn’t just the golfers who Kerzner snared to Sun City either. The Entertainment Centre’s 6,000 seat arena was opened by Frank Sinatra. Queen, Diana Ross, Elton John and The Beach Boys would all follow, retorting to the UN that they weren’t visiting South Africa but a separate country entirely - the ‘homeland’ designed to strip black South Africans of their citizenship, no matter.

By the time the tournament reached its ten-year anniversary in 1991, the winner’s prize had been raised to $1m and the circled stench of cigarettes, beer and boerewors that was John Daly best summed up the nature of this sordid city.

It was the same year Daly had risen to fame by winning the US PGA Championship as a late-replacement. A precocious partygoer, he was sighted in Sun City swaying shirtless alongside Steve Elkington and Ian Woosnam as the trio blared a raspy rendition of the American’s unofficial theme tune, The Trogg's Wild Thing, before being escorted out of the bar at 2 am unable to stand.

On the eve of the competition’s final 18, Daly spent the entire evening at one of Sun City’s many casinos where he played blackjack. After going $30,000 down, he returned to his hotel room and sleeping fiancée at dawn with $40,000 in cash stuffed into his pockets.

And as Daly shot 78 in the final round, skipped practice shots, played some one-handed, and proceeded to blame his six-over par score on being jetlagged, his soon-to-be wife went off in search of a bank.

John Daly's antics at Sun City in 1991 are well written into lore (Getty)
John Daly's antics at Sun City in 1991 are well written into lore (Getty)

Eventually, the quasi-glitz of Sun City soon wore away. A vizard lifted to reveal the seamy cesspit the resort truly was. And as the apartheid ended three years later in 1994, and gambling was legalised in South Africa, it was forced to undergo a dramatic attempt to reshape its reputation into one of divine pseudo-opulence rather than a sleazeball's playground.

Kerzner spent a further $300 million to construct The Palace Hotel - a gauche and guiltless parody of an ancient African kingdom furnished by very real luxury: a behemoth bespoke crystal chandelier, tribal tapestries, a 1000-piece mosaic and animal-skinned thrones all before one reaches a room.

The hotel resuscitated the resort and over the near quarter-century since, its reputation has in many respects successfully been redefined. The huge waterpark is open to locals who visit on the weekends, the entertainment centre is a pantheon of outdated arcade games rather than pornography and peep shows and the casino presence, although still at the forefront, is less overbearing.

The Million Dollar Challenge, now renamed the Nedbank Golf Challenge, has become a fully-righted European Tour event. The field features 64 players, almost all of whom will stay in The Palace’s suites as they compete over a $7m prize purse.

And it's important to note that it’s no slight against the golfers who compete in the tournament today. To them, this is a sanctioned event worthy of ranking points and prize money which influences their lives and careers. And outside of Rory McIlroy, Sergio Garcia and veteran South African major champions here like Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel, it’s very much a field of emerging talent for whom winnings are often outweighed by travel expenses.

The Gary Player Golf Course has consistently been voted as one of world's greatest (Getty)
The Gary Player Golf Course has consistently been voted as one of world's greatest (Getty)

Sun City has slowly ebbed away from the tyrannical history which orchestrated its creation and barred it from any matter of redemption. And that’s not just the truth of this resort, but a reality of South Africa - a country still unmistakably wrought by racial indifference.

It’s simply the unsavoury history of a place founded with fleeced moral fortitude and has for a near half-century been happily gridlocked into its own law. Which, despite slowly being furnished with much-needed morality, in feel and regard, is still very much an independent state within South Africa.

A resort founded and famed by egregious wealth, surrounded by stricken poverty, which thrives purely by hypnotising visitors into forgetting the truth which lies beyond.

And, of course, 37 years on from that first event, all is conveniently forgotten as the tournament is streamed across the world, leaving viewers wide-eyed as the red rears of baboons scamper across the fairways and giraffes and elephants dip into shot by way of the neighbouring safari park. How impossibly paradisal.

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