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Gary Player Country Club: From Meadow Muffins to a premier holiday destination

By Michael Vlismas,

SUN CITY, SOUTH AFRICA - Gary Player stared at the pile of cow dung at his feet. Try as he might, he just could not see past it.

The Black Knight kicked at the heap of excrement. "You want to build a golf course here?" he said to his host and entertainment mogul Sol Kerzner on a day way back in 1978 when Kerzner explained to him his vision of creating the Las Vegas of Africa and hosting the world's richest golf tournament.

Player was the man Kerzner would task with the job of building a world-class golf course in the crater of an extinct volcano, tucked away in a dusty, arid corner of South Africa.

But for the first time in his life, Player was dangerously close to declaring it impossible.

"We flew out to the site in a helicopter, and landed where the present 18th green is," Player recalls. "There were just the farmers' cattle and barbed wire and manure all over the place. Sol said to me, 'Look, I want to tell you what my plans are. I want to have the best hotel in the world. I want to have Frank Sinatra and Shirley Bassey sing here. I want to hold the heavyweight boxing championships.' I want to do this I want to do that, and he rattled through all of these things. And then he said, 'I want to have the richest golf tournament in the world, and I want you to give me an idea of what we can do.'

"I just looked at him and said, 'Wait a minute. Do you have water here?'

That's the first thing I ask whenever I design a golf course. Sol said, 'No, but I'll get it here'. There was a big piece of cow crap at my feet. I picked it up and flung it over his head and said, 'Sol, in America they call that a meadow muffin. That's all you've got here - meadow muffins. How wrong I was."

Today, Sun City rises like an oasis from the bushveld around it, and the fairways of the Gary Player Country Club annually play host to the Nedbank Golf Challenge, the world's richest golf tournament that offers the top 12 available golfers on the planet the chance to compete for a first prize of $2-million.

Most of the greatest names in the game have walked these fairways since the tournament's inception in 1981, with a list of past champions including inaugural winner Johnny Miller, Seve Ballesteros, Bernhard Langer, Ian Woosnam, David Frost, Nick Price, Nick Faldo, Colin Montgomerie, Ernie Els and recently Sergio Garcia.

As a resort, Sun City, located in South Africa's North West Province and roughly a two-hour drive from Johannesburg, has given rise to an entire empire that takes its pleasure very seriously, with a reputation as a premier holiday destination with an international reach.

It emerged as Kerzner's answer to the ban on gambling in the Apartheid-ruled South Africa. In 1978, the North West Province existed as the black homeland of Bophutatswana, which was independent of South Africa before unification in 1994.

So the heart of the resort has always been the Entertainment Centre, which rocks with the rhythms of one-arm bandits in various casinos.

World-class hotels, sprawling gardens, theatres and cinemas, cascading waterfalls and a plethora of restaurants and entertainment activities characterise Sun City. But, for the golfer, the greatest attraction is a chance to play the Gary Player Country Club.

This par-72 layout has often been rated the best in South Africa, and is arguably one of the most demanding tests of a golfers' all round game to be found anywhere.

At 6 938 metres and played off the back tees with the harsh African sun beating down on you, this course tests your sheer physical endurance as much as your golfing skill.

The fairways are kikuyu grass, and were described by 1996 US Open champion Steve Jones as the best he'd ever played on. The rough and semi-rough are also kikuyu, with the rough resembling US Open standards.

Just ask Phil Mickelson, who in 1997 took a few swings with a wedge before he managed to get his ball out of the greenside rough.

The greens are lightning quick and kidney-shaped, allowing for various pin positions to be tucked away in difficult corners, while cunningly placed water hazards and increased bunkering over the past few years makes this truly a thinking man's golf course.

"There's a lot of strategy involved when you play this course," says Nick Price, the man recognised as the master of this layout following his three Golf Challenge victories, a play-off victory over world number one Tiger Woods for his 1998 title, and once the holder of the tournament record of 24-under par 264 in 1993. That record was surpassed by Ernie Els in 1999, when he won with a total of 25-under par 263.

"You've got to be patient. It's important to play the key holes well. All the par-threes are vital. Of the par-fours, holes three and eight in particular are really tough holes. You've also got to birdie the par-fives, and then take the rest as it comes."

The par-four eighth, in particular, has come up for some criticism in the past. Many professionals dislike the semi-blind tee shot, and also feel the clover-leafed green makes a second shot, ranging from a four-iron to a seven-iron depending on the wind, incredibly difficult.

The signature hole would have to be the 545-metre par-five ninth, described by Player as a "truly heroic par-five". The tee shot should favour the fast-running right side of the fairway, but the real test comes in the combination of power and finesse to find the island green. It's a gambler's hole, based on a decision to lay up or go for the green which, depending on where the tees are placed, can take anything from an eight-iron to a three-wood to reach in two.

As a perfect balance of risk and reward, the ninth must rate amongst one of the best par-fives in the world. As a precursor to the back nine, this is the hole where a swing of two or three shots can make things really interesting coming down the home straight.

As Player pointed out, the biggest challenge in designing the course was water. The crater of an extinct volcano is, after all, hardly an area associated with water.

Kerzner solved the problem in the only way he knows how - on a grandiose scale. He built a massive lake that also accommodates various water sports such as jet skiing, boating and parasailing.

Player began work on the course in 1978, and it was finally completed in 1981, the first year of the Nedbank Golf Challenge.

"It was a very difficult golf course to build," Player recalls. "We had a lot of sheer rock underneath. We had to move rocks that were as big as ten feet. We opened the golf course and a few of us played it before it was really ready. I'll never forget, on that day we had a tremendous thunderstorm. I went out that afternoon with a shovel and stood there for an hour shoveling sand out of the bunker and back on the faces.

"Before the first Golf Challenge, I said to Sol Kerzner, 'Why don't we invite the major championship winners of the world. There's no tournament where you have all the major championship winners competing just against each other'. Sol liked the idea. I called in a few favors and we got Nicklaus, Palmer, Trevino, Miller and so on. That was a coup in those days. South Africa was in trouble politically. But they came and played. Trevino suggested we make the first prize $1-million in those days. And so it gradually built up and has grown into the championship that it is today."

Famous personalities from across the spectrum and around the globe were invited to Sun City for the inaugural Golf Challenge. Celebrities such as Sean Connery, Telly Savalas, Johnny Mathis, James Hunt, Glenn Campbell and Joe di Maggio.

Sun City's popular Superbowl has also hosted some of the world's greatest musicians such as Sting, Queen and Shirley Bassey, as well as playing several Miss World and Miss South Africa beauty pageants and world title boxing fights.

All have dazzled and been dazzled by Sun City. As Nick Faldo said when he won a cheque for one million dollars in the 1994 Golf Challenge, "Sun City, I've been waiting to say this for a very long time. Thanks a million."

Sun City food and accommodations

Sun City boasts four hotels. The Cabanas are the cheapest and largely a family option due to their location near the lake and children's activities.

Outside of the peak season, which is December through to February, the rates per room per night only range from $107 for a standard twin room with no lake view to $153 for a family room lake facing. In season, room rates range from $129 to $183. An English breakfast will cost you around $7. There are a total of 380 Cabanas available.

The 340-room Sun City Hotel's rates range from $161 for a standard twin room to $804 for the Presidential Suite, out of season and per room per night only. In season, expect to pay from $194 to $965. An English breakfast here will cost $9.

The Cascades remains one of the most sought-after hotels at Sun City, primarily for the romantics who cannot resist the waterfalls and lush tropical gardens that frame it. Room rates, per room per night only, range from $181 for a standard twin room to $1106 for a King Suite, out of season. In season, expect to pay from $217 to $1328, with $9 for an English breakfast. The Cascades has 243 rooms available.

But for the ultimate in luxury and splendor, you cannot beat the Palace of the Lost City, a member of the Leading Hotels of the World. Per room per night only, you can pay from $297 for a standard twin room to $3014 for the King and African Suites. In season, prices range from $357 to $3617. There are 338 rooms in total. An English breakfast will cost you $13; while a Continental Breakfast will set you back $9.

The Sun City resort offers various five-star restaurants as well as take-away outlets. The neighboring Pilanesberg Game Reserve provides the true nature lover with the ultimate African experience, and game drives can be booked from Sun City.

If you fly into Johannesburg International Airport, you can either book yourself a hire car for around $20 a day or take one of the shuttles which run to Sun City. For more information on the shuttles, contact Sun International on +27 11 780 7444. The Gary Player Country Club can be contacted on +27 1455 71000. A round of 18 holes will cost you $26 as a guest at one of the hotels or $31. No carts are used on the course, with a minimum caddie fee of $8.

Michael Vlismas is a freelance golf writer and has covered the game for Reuters, several international newspapers and publications such as the Daily Telegraph, Golf Digest and Golf Weekly, as well as having done radio work for the BBC World Service and other stations worldwide.

Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.