With record purses, a setting often described as brash and its inception in 1981 during some of the most repressive years of the apartheid era, the early stagings of the Sun City Million Dollar Challenge in South Africa attracted plenty of headlines.
With purses on the rise across the world and the absence in recent years of world number one Tiger Woods from the elite invitational event, its profile has waned somewhat since the 1980s when it was one of the most talked about events in the world for a variety of reasons, not all of them positive.
The Sun City luxury casino resort is situated in the north west of South Africa, about a two-hour drive from Johannesburg. When it opened in 1979 it was located in an area known as Bophuthatswana, which at the time was one of several “black” independent states declared by the apartheid-era white government of South Africa. The independence of these states was not recognised by the international community, but from a domestic point of view the status given to Bophuthatswana meant that the new resort was able to provide “Las Vegas”-style entertainment such as gambling and shows featuring scatily clad dancers for its visitors – activities that were banned by the South African government in their regulated territories. This did not stop the white government from seizing a considerable slice of any revenue generated by the resort, despite its public disapproval of Sun City’s attractions.
As a result of the relaxed laws, Sun City became a popular holiday destination for South Africans and international tourists, and when the impressively-designed Gary Player Country Club Course opened to universal acclaim from the golfing community, the administrators of the resort quickly began planning the staging of an elite tournament.
In 1981, with South Africa still unable to host “official” international sporting events and controversy surrounding the much-criticised “rebel” cricket tours, the organisers realised that any event would need to be arranged during the break at the end of the golf season. The initial “Million Dollar Challenge” was therefore pencilled in for mid-November 1981 and attracted five of the biggest names in golf. They were to compete for a share of a $1 million prize fund, with a massive $500,000 going to the winner ? the first prize was more than 10 times the average for individual events on either the European or US tours.
Jack Nicklaus, Johnny Miller, Severiano Ballesteros and Lee Trevino joined course designer Gary Player at the inaugural event. For the record, Miller defeated Ballesteros in a play-off after each man finished tied on 277 at the end of four rounds. Player, despite the advantage of knowing the course, finished last of the five but still pocketed $100,000.
The following year all five men returned and were joined by five more players. The increased field meant the massive first prize was reduced to $300,000, but the event became much more competitive ? meaning that the amount of column inches devoted to it all around the world increased significantly. By the mid-1980s, however, these column inches contained as much about the issue of players indirectly supporting the apartheid regime of hardline South African President P W Botha as they did about the golf itself. Botha’s government had been vociferiously denounced by the UN and its member countries, who voted to impose sanctions on South Africa.
Sensing that the already flimsy public acceptance of the controversial event was beginning to wane further still, the administrators decided to revamp the tournament dramatically in 1987. The million-dollar total purse remained, but the decision was taken to give the entire amount to the winner of that year’s event ? generating enormous amounts of debate and publicity across the world. The fact that Nick Faldo earned around $130,000 for winning 1987’s Open Championship at Muirfield illustrates just how much money the Sun City organisers were throwing at their flagship tournament, won that year by Ian Woosnam.
The following year the event retained the $1 million first prize, but also offered $500,000 between the other seven finishers. By 1989 South Africa had a new president, the visionary F W De Klerk. He immediately began to denounce apartheid and, amid historic celebrations in 1990, he released former ANC leader Nelson Mandela from prison. This chain of events relieved much of the pressure on those golfers who were perennial visitors to Sun City each November.
In 1998, on what to date is his only appearance in the event, Tiger Woods became the first black player to appear at Sun City and was defeated in a play-off by Nick Price. Vijay Singh is the only other black player to have appeared, but like Woods he has thus far only competed once ? he finished third in 2003. It is interesting that the three most successful players in the history of the event are all from Africa. Ernie Els (RSA), David Frost (RSA) and Nick Price (Zim) have each won the tournament three times. Els has earned more than $7 million from his appearances in this tournament alone ? more than the vast majority of professional golfers earn in their lifetimes. Between 2000 and 2002 the first prize in the event rose to $2 million ? the biggest winning cheques ever issued in professional golf.
So, as the 12 players for this year’s renewal tee off today, it is important to remember the history of this troubled, controversial and headline-making event. It may not generate the amount of coverage in the press as it once did, but there was a time in the mid-1980s when it was almost as talked about as the four annual Major championships. Its story proves that golf, as with most sports at one time or another, has not always been immune to political issues.