Outlined against a make-believe palace in a phony lost city featuring a pretend volcano guarded by a knockoff sphinx near a simulated ocean crashing against a man-made beach in a former puppet republic, Corey Pavin tapped his dimpled golf ball into a plastic cup on Sunday for a simple par faux and made himself a pile of cash.
It was the winner-take-most Million Dollar Challenge at the Gary Player Golf Course in Sun City, South Africa, the tournament that used to prove that golf has no conscience and now, depending on your stance on giant rhinestone monkeys in silk coconut trees, just proves it has no taste. (Not that plaid was having much problem.)
All Pavin had to do was hang a final-round six-under 66 on 11 of the world's best golfers, good enough for a framed embossed patch, a small crystal trophy and one million bananas. Nick Price, tied with Pavin for the lead with 18 holes to play, needed five more strokes, and they cost him $150,000 each, as second paid $750,000 less.
Money motivated six of the top seven and 12 of the top 24 Sony-ranked golfers to play Sun City. Of course, for enough money, golfers will play in the Mussolini Open. They proved that in the first 14 years in Sun City, when it was part of the "homeland" of Bophuthatswana, a stooge republic that was created by the South African government, conveniently independent from the big country and its racist apartheid system. However, no United Nations members recognized its independence, and most athletes shunned the place. But not golfers. Despite the international athletic boycott against South Africa and despite letters of warning from the U.S. State Department, they all came—Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Ray Floyd. One big name refused all those years—Tom Watson—though Craig Stadler signed a pledge not to return after having played there twice.
Arthur Ashe used to call huge South African sports purses a "guilt premium," but it was actually an American golfer who put the guilted edge on the Challenge. In 1979 Trevino suggested to South African hotel czar Sol Kerzner that if he put up a million and "let 'em play for it," his nothing little tournament would be big time. Apartheid in South Africa finally fell four years ago, followed shortly by the trick republics, but the eye-goggling money is still here—the Purse That Apartheid Built. Now that freedom reigns, the only reason to stay away from Sun City is a distaste for 14-hour flights or an allergy to giant illuminated tusks.
"Let's face it," Pavin said Saturday, "we're here for the money. If this event was giving out $400,000, they wouldn't have this field."
Not that there's nothing to look at. Sun City is the Pamela Anderson of resorts—you know it's all phony, but you can't help admiring the effort. Ninety miles from Johannesburg, sitting in the middle of miles of African brush, it is Las Vegas on steroids. There are 10 mammoth stone elephants flanking each side of the Bridge of Time, which shakes exactly two millimeters every hour on the hour with the fake volcano's eruption, which you can hear inside the huge Hall of Treasures (slot machines), which features Africa's largest and, come to think of it, only fiber-optic Milky Way ceiling, which is not far from the Valley of Waves, which is where the world's most sophisticated wave-making machine produces six-footers, which wash up on the shores of a vast beach made of crushed marble, which is just below the 57-foot Slide of Courage, which is so steep you cannot see most of it from the top, which is why Pavin took two years to get up the courage to try it. "The lady at the top kept wanting to push me," he says.
Steve Wynn should dream this big. There are massive man-made waterfalls, perilous (phony) hanging bridges, faked "ancient" amphitheaters with actual "toppled" columns and even a giant penned-in game preserve with trucked-in rhinos for your viewing pleasure. There is the Temple of Creation and the Gong of the Sun Lion and the Sacred Monkey Plaza, and after three days you are very Sick of This.
It is not just over the top. It is a toll call from the top. Gary Player, for instance, calls the 13th hole at Lost City, the resort's other golf course—which, like the main one, he designed—"even more spectacular than the 16th at Cypress Point." Just for the record, the hole he's talking about is a downhill par-3 featuring a green shaped like Africa surrounded by bunkers with three colors of sand and a pit with 38 live crocodiles. You sure this isn't an Alistair Mackenzie design? Once, an American walked into the clubhouse and announced to the golf pro that he had saved par out of the crocodile hazard.
"Are you crazy?" the pro said. "There are crocs in there!"