Worldgolf Travel

Shedding Light On the Dark Continent
By Tim O'Connor

After a 16-hour flight from New York to Johannesburg, my mind felt like Jell-o and I swear my pants had become a permanent part of my backside. Then our host informs the group I'm with we've got a two-hour drive to the Sun City resort. Wonderful.

Our driver is a barely twentysomething college kid in a big, big hurry. Soon our top-of-the-line Audi is averaging about 140 kilometres per hour on very dark highways.

Well into our trip, I suddenly became aware that we were bearing down on something big. The kid swerved the car to the right - WHUMP! - then brought the car sharply left back into our lane. "Holy S**t! What the hell was that?"

"A dead donkey," he replied, rather calmly.

"I think we ran over its legs. You got all kinds of things wandering around these roads at night," he said, pushing the pedal back to the floor.

Despite jet lag, I'm sitting bolt upright now, wide awake. I think this is when the reality of the trip sank in. It seemed sort of surreal, but here I was - halfway around the world in South Africa to do something as frivolous as tour some of the country's better golf courses along with some European and American golf writers. This was last February, nine months after the historic election of Nelson Mandela and the dismantling of apartheid. South Africans were in a hurry to show off their golf courses in hopes more people would come to play them.

A rather unpleasant thought - that if college boy didn't see the donkey, the Audi would have done cartwheels in the desert making for my quick return to Canada in a box - made for a restless sleep at the Sun City Cabanas hotel. The next morning the sun is shining, the air is warm but dry. Multimillionaire Sol Kerzner, the brains behind the Sun International empire, followed the Las Vegas formula: Build it in the desert and they will come.

My perception of Sun City as a modern-day Sodom and Gomorra is hammered home by a bedside brochure titled "Sun City - Africa's Kingdom of Pleasure" that includes a picture of 10 topless chorus girls. On my way to breakfast, BMWs and gold Mercedes fly past.

It's just a tad ironic, but the song in my head is "Sun City" by Steve Van Zandt: "I...I...I... ain't gonna play Sun City." To most of the world, Sun City was the most sickening symbol of apartheid - a lavish playground where rich white folk frolicked while the blacks of the surrounding Bophuthatswana homeland lived in misery and oppression.

Even though it's now OK to play Sun City in post-apartheid South Africa, things don't seem much different. The resort workers are all black. The managers and guests are all white. At breakfast, the women servers are very dour; their dead eyes appear to look past me. I quickly became aware my attempts at being nice might be interpreted as patronizing.

Our first game of golf is on the Gary Player Golf Club at Sun City. Designed by you-know-who, it's the site of the annual Million Dollar Golf Challenge, in which only 12 top pros compete for the highest first prize in the world - $1 million.

Except for a few high scenic vistas, it's not a particularly memorable course, mainly because it's set amid gray, dusty hills covered with thorn trees and scrub. But it's a terrific course: solid, strategic, fairly wide open and not too penal. Since there's so little water, Player made the bush play as hazards on a number of holes.

As with almost every course in South Africa, the native grass is kikuyu, which has a broad leaf like bermuda, but it's coarser. It seemed like you had to pound your putts and trying to free a ball from a thicket of kikuyu rough was to risk a wrist injury.

I got my first glimpse of African animals without zoo bars when a troop of gray monkeys and their young 'uns scampered down a path to some trees behind the fourth green.

People don't come to Sun City to see monkeys, though. Mostly, they come to gamble in the casino. In the windowless darkness amid the neon lights, most of the people in front of slot machines seemed transfixed, while the folks playing blackjack and roulette were having a hoot.

The next morning we were off to Sun City's splashy new Lost City Golf Course, also designed by you-know-who. The temperature exceeded 100F, but with the elevation and dry air, it was bearable. Built from enormous (simulated) boulders and slabs of rock, the clubhouse replicates the Zimbabwe Ruins, but since most Canadians have never seen them, imagine a golf clubhouse from the Flintstones.

The contrast between the desolation of the desert and the manicured greenery makes the course seem like a fantasy, especially when the turrets and domes of the Palace hotel rise out of the distance like a mirage.

The front nine at Lost City is like playing in a bowl - the course is set in the crater of a volcano that blew a gazillion years ago - while the back bobs up and down through hills and valleys. The native baobab trees are eerie. They look as though they were planted upside down; the intertwining wiry branches like roots. It's a fun course, but the 13th hole is plain silly. The green is shaped to resemble Africa and surrounded by bunkers each with different colored sand. In front is a pit filled with 40 crocodiles.

The next morning our group toured the aptly named Palace, and we walked around with our chins on our shoe tops. I can't imagine a more opulent hotel anywhere. In the foyer, stone columns that look like palm trees are set in rock elephants' feet and the mosaic floor contains 300,000 pieces of marble and granite depicting African animals. The centrepiece is a bronze bowl filled with water sprayed from the trunks of three-metre high elephants.

After our tour, a bus sent to take us to Pretoria broke down on the way to Sun City. Another bus was sent. It broke down. So our tour organizer, a breezy lawyer named Willem van Drimmelen, who also does TV golf commentary in Afrikaans, commandeered a Sun City trolley bus, whose top speed was about 70 kilometres per hour. I swore we were passed by a moped.

Late in the afternoon we finally pulled into Silver Lakes, a new club just outside Pretoria, the country's capital. As with Johannesburg, it's in beautiful Transvaal province, which is high, warm, dry and mountainous. Surprisingly, with its palm trees and ferns, the vegetation looks similar to Florida's.

My caddie at Silver Lakes was Charles, a quiet, rather sullen father of two who appeared to be in his late 20s. (My caddies at Sun City were vibrant teenagers, but they weren't eager conversationalists.) An electrician by trade, he gestured with his palms skyward, complaining: "I can't find a job. There are no jobs. I can't get out to find a job anyway. I have to come here every day. I have to buy food for my family."

Silver Lakes is a pleasant target-golf course like you'd find in Anywhere, U.S.A., with plenty of water, a smattering of trees on rolling terrain and homes set back on fairways. It was off-putting to hear the Silver Lakes's marketing types proclaim it the first residential golf course community in South Africa.

Our next stop was Johannesburg, or Joburg as they say here, where we took in the inaugural Alfred Dunhill Challenge at the leafy Houghton Golf Club. The Challenge is a Ryder Cup-style competition pitting Australia and Asia against Southern Africa (South Africa and Zimbabwe). With players like Greg Norman, Vijay Singh, Ernie Els and Nick Price, the Dunhill Challenge was a historic event for South Africans who are mad about their sports, and overjoyed to be back on the world's stages now that the boycotts have been dropped. Southern Africa won the event.

From the outlying areas that look down on Johannesburg, it's a strikingly beautiful city that sprawls across giant hills and escarpments. But riding through even its most prosperous areas, it looks like a city at war. Most of the homes are hidden behind high stone walls ringed with barbed wire. Yellow signs warn intruders they will be met by "armed response." Some whites blend security with style, painting the bars on their windows to match the eaves and shutters in an attempt at subtlety.

Even though the transition of power to the new black-majority government was surprisingly peaceful, culturally entrenched feelings of mistrust and racism will take generations to diminish. Most whites we saw treated the blacks with respect, but we squirmed when they addressed an adult caddie as "boy" or grimly ordered waitresses around.

During the Dunhill competition, we were invited to a "braai" - that's a barbecue and pronounced as bry - at the 1,000-acre farm of Southern African team captain Gary Player. The most popular spot in his white Mediterranean mansion was a set of glass trophy cases filled to the rim with more silver than the average Birks store window.

After all, he's one of only four men in history to win all four major championships.

Resplendent in a black tux at 59, the lord of Blair Atholl Farm proudly told us about his non-profit foundation which runs schools for the children of local black farm laborers. "My dream has come true with the dismantling of the rotten system of apartheid. I feel like our country has been cleansed."

From Joburg, we flew to Durban on the southeast coast of the Indian Ocean in the province of KwaZulu/Natal, the most troubled area in the months leading up the elections. Durban is so humid it feels as if there's paste in your pores, but it also has the wonderful Durban Country Club, a grand old course ranked No. 1 in the country. It traverses natural valleys and ravines with plenty of elevated tees that provide wonderful views of the ocean.

The third hole is one of the best par-fives in the world. So say Lee Trevino and Tom Kite in a newspaper clipping in the clubhouse. Set in a U-shaped valley lined with trees, the fairway is narrow with a bunker on the left to catch errant long drives and another bunker up ahead to make the lay-up no cinch. At 510 yards, it's reachable in two, but spray the ball and it's in with the slithery things in the woods.

We concluded our trip at the southern tip of Africa at the Fancourt Hotel and Country Club Estate near George. As the name suggests, Fancourt has a dignified, upper-class British feeling to it, especially with the regal white clubhouse and its long main hallway lined with thick white columns.

The 27-hole course is terrific, a Gary Player design that splays out across rolling terrain at the foot of the Outeniqua Mountains, which are in view from almost everywhere on the course.

A few weeks prior to our visit Ernie Els won a South African Tour event at Fancourt. The course was still in magnificent shape, and my caddie was Bobby, a cheerful lad of about 16 and the best caddie of the trip. "I'm smart," he proclaimed. "I have big plans."

Having Bobby as my caddie and finishing the trip at first-class Fancourt was a great way to end an adventure of a lifetime, but one tempered with many sobering thoughts about the gulf between whites and blacks in South Africa.

I left feeling optimistic that with the guidance of a healthy Nelson Mandela, plenty of black patience and white compromise, South Africa would overcome its troubles.

Courtesy Score Magazine.

Also of Interest: A Golfing Safari to Kenya
Africa - The Dark Continent And Golf