Tackling Sun City’s golf courses

25 November 2010

The Gary Player and Lost City golf courses at Sun City may offer top-quality challenges for serious golfers, but do they also offer an enjoyable challenge for those with high handicaps? We set off to find out – and to answer a few other nagging questions about a casino resort with apartheid-era origins.

Sun City occupies an ambiguous place in the minds of many South Africans.

On the one hand, it symbolises glitz, glamour and family fun, while the architectural excesses of the Lost City complex represent hotel magnate Sol Kerzner’s entrepreneurial daring.

On the other hand, located in the former black homeland of Bophuthatswana, Sun City has its origins in apartheid’s Bantustan system. In recent years – as other casino complexes have sprung up around the country – it has been unable to escape the tawdriness often associated with gambling venues.

The golf courses at Sun City evoke similarly two-sided responses.

During South Africa’s sporting isolation, the Million Dollar Challenge at the Gary Player Country Club was one of few events able to lure famous sportsmen to the country. Post-apartheid, the tournament, in its later incarnation as the Nedbank Golf Challenge, flourished, as audiences delighted in watching local heroes Ernie Els, Retief Goosen and company take on the world’s best on home turf.

The Lost City course was added in 1993, boasting crocodile-filled water hazards and Africa-shaped greens.

Yet nagging questions remain. Should Seve Ballesteros, Bernard Langer, Ian Woosnam and company have come to the country with the apartheid regime still firmly in place? Where do we place South African golfers such as David Frost and Fulton Allem, who won in the late 1980s and early 1990s?

Was the Lost City layout conceived as a top quality course or a gimmick to attract tourists daunted by the championship Gary Player Country Club course? Will the Nedbank Golf Challenge struggle, as it has done in recent years, to attract the world’s top professional golfers?

With the likes of Robert Allenby, Anders Hansen, Eduardo Molinari, Padraig Harrington, Miguel Angel Jimenez, Justin Rose, Lee Westwood and local favourites Louis Oosthuizen, Tim Clark, Ernie Els, and Retief Goosen travelling to Sun City in December for the 30th edition of the tournament, the last question doesn’t seem to need an answer.

Million-dollar course

For most amateurs, serious golfers and weekend hackers alike, there is another important question: will I get my money’s worth? After all, the cost of playing at either course is substantial. Both have more or less maintained their places in Golf Digest magazine’s rankings over the years – the Gary Player is a regular second, the Lost City fluctuates between the ‘teens and twenties – and with this status comes high expectations.

I was unsure what to expect when I joined a party of 12 guys driving west out of Johannesburg for a golfing weekend (unsure about the golf, that is; I took it for granted that there would be plenty of banter, braaivleis and probably also some bad luck at the blackjack tables). We were a group of 30-somethings, of the generation who grew up listening to the theme song of the Million Dollar Challenge as the soundtrack to a first week of school holidays spent glued to the television:

“It’s the million-dollar shot
So give it all you’ve got
And you could be the hero of the day!
It’s the million-dollar shot
And if you play it hot
You could have a million dollars coming your way…”

As a result, the Gary Player course had become sacred terrain to us – our adolescent golfing heroes walked on its fairways, its bunkers and water hazards and greens were their epic battle grounds. We had spent years imagining what it would be like to play its iconic holes: the par-five ninth with the island green, the equally lengthy 14th with the enormous bunker and its deadly love grass, the 18th with its dog-leg to the left over the lake and fountain.

In real life, the course did not disappoint. It was in fine but unforgiving condition; the kikuyu grass rough, which had been kept fairly short for the 2009 Nedbank Golf Challenge, had grown syrupy-thick by the time we visited some months later.

Never mind the bushveld – what really makes a round at the Gary Player so tough is the wide fringe of unmowed kikuyu around the regulation terrain. Miss the narrow fairways by more than a couple of metres and your ball can be plugged or even disappear.

At under 6 000m off the club tees, it isn’t a long course, although the championship tees add another 500m, and that is doubled off the pro tees. But the Black Knight, as Player is known, has designed a course requiring accuracy.

While the ninth, 14th and 18th may lend themselves to impressive television camera angles, amateur golfers find unexpected challenges at the par-three fourth, where their shots fly downhill over water, a limited view of the fairway from the 11th tee, and bunkers in the line of a decent drive on the 17th, as well as the watersports lake skirting the approach to the green.

Our caddies, who knew the course backwards, kept us entertained with light-hearted quips when they realised that we weren’t scratch golfers.

Tranquil setting

The Lost City golfing experience is markedly different in some respects – carts are compulsory, for instance – but the service is similarly polished. After struggling through the first eight holes under the baking Pilansberg sun, there’s a certain comfort in being asked to place your halfway house order before you walk onto the ninth tee.

The view from the Lost City clubhouse, over the lake that divides the ninth and 18th fairways, is picturesque. One can’t necessarily say the same thing of the view towards the clubhouse, which is built of the same artificial orange-brown rocks as the Valley of the Waves and other structures in the vicinity.

But if you’re willing to suspend your disbelief, the sight of the Palace of the Lost City’s turrets rising above thorn tree scrub is pretty impressive. There are vistas aplenty over the bush, koppies and savannah plains that surround and sometimes form part of the course, especially from the elevated tees of numerous holes on the back nine (11 and 13 to 16).

The pleasure of playing the Lost City course is, in fact, partly attributable to distractions from golf: the birdlife is abundant, it isn’t unusual to see some variety of buck or a metre-long monitor lizard crossing the cart path, and even the odd elephant can be spotted brooding behind the out-of-bounds fence. It goes without saying that the inhabitants of the crocodile pit at the signature 13th hole are a drawcard, to overseas golfers in particular.

Nonetheless, while it is a less punishing layout than the Gary Player, this is one of those courses about which the most mundane advice remains applicable: take a lot of balls.

The description of the Lost City as a desert course – and when you’re standing in the larger bunkers, it can feel like the Kalahari – shouldn’t be taken as an indication of wide open space. There is plenty of thick stuff lining the fairways, and precision driving is a challenge if you’re playing off the back tees, in which case the course measures an intimidating 6 900m in length.

So, back to some of those tricky questions. Can the twin Sun City courses be both top-quality challenges for serious golfers and “fun” for those with high handicaps? Undoubtedly. Have they left behind the taint of apartheid in the 1980s? Happily. And will they continue to offer excellent value for the locals and international visitor? If the experience of twelve high-handicapping, admittedly nostalgic, yet not easily impressed golfers on tour is the benchmark, then the answer is a resounding yes.

First published by MediaClubSouthAfrica.com – get free high-resolution photos and professional feature articles from Brand South Africa’s media service.