Business out of bounds

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 November, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 November, 2007, 12:00am

Built on 260 hectares of former rice paddy on the outskirts of Yangon in Myanmar is a golf course like few in the world, according to its designer, Gary Player. 'Of the many golf courses I have seen in the world, Pun Hlaing has to be in the top five,' the South African great said when it opened in 2002. 'It reminds me of Augusta, Georgia.'

Player was not exaggerating when he said he had seen a lot of courses. He has been a professional for 54 years, winning nine majors along the way, and, like many top pros, has enjoyed a lucrative second career as a course designer. He has been involved in the construction of hundreds of courses around the world, including two in Hong Kong, at Kau Sai Chau Island in Sai Kung.

But the Pun Hlaing course is different, not just because of its beauty. It is the recreational playground of the generals of Burma's repressive military junta; the place where they are said to gather to discuss business deals.

The course was designed and built by the 72-year-old Player's company, Black Knight International, landing him in controversy.

Another famous South African, retired archbishop and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Desmond Tutu, who is also a patron of the country's Free Burma Campaign, was furious when he learned about the course during the regime's crackdown on pro-democracy protests in September.

Player said his involvement with the design of the golf course occurred in 2002 when 'the world's relations towards the regime in Burma had thawed; Aung San Suu Kyi had been released from house arrest and it seemed as though real political change was in the air'.

'I am very disappointed that my integrity and support for human rights has been brought into question,' Player said. 'The company's involvement has been taken entirely out of context.'

That cut no ice with Archbishop Tutu. Incensed that a compatriot of Player's stature was doing business with the junta, Archbishop Tutu called for an international boycott of Player's company for being involved in 'a playground of the ruling junta in the murderous dictatorship'.

The uproar prompted the Nelson Mandela Children's Fund to withdraw from an annual charity tournament co-hosted by Player scheduled to start on Thursday. The fund said that its prime concern was to protect Mr Mandela's name.

Proceeds from the charity event have been shared 50-50 between the Nelson Mandela Children's Fund and the Gary Player Foundation, which for many years has helped educate black children.

Therein lies the paradox of South Africa's greatest sportsman. The Player of the post-apartheid years can rightly be very proud of the humanitarian contributions he has made in South Africa and elsewhere. But this present controversy has given his critics an excuse to rake up aspects of his past he might not be so proud of.

After Mr Mandela's African National Congress took power in 1994, many South Africans were surprised to see Player becoming such a good friend of the new government.

They pointed to his friendship with John Vorster, a golfing buddy and prime minister who later became South Africa's president during the apartheid era. Vorster, who had been interned during the second world war as a draft dodger and Nazi sympathiser, was the architect of many draconian laws, including detention without trial.

They could also point to the fact that Player was given a place on the board of directors of the pro-apartheid newspaper The Citizen. The newspaper was launched in 1976 and secretly funded by the government.

Anyone in any doubt about Player's support for apartheid only has to read the second edition of Grand Slam Golf, published in 1966, in which he made his views clear.

He writes: 'I must say now, and clearly, that I am of the South Africa of Verwoerd and apartheid ... a nation which is the result of an African graft on European stock and which is the product of its instinct and ability to maintain civilised values and standards amongst the alien barbarians ... The African may well believe in witchcraft and primitive magic, practise ritual murder and polygamy; his wealth is in cattle.

'More money and he will have no sense of parental or individual responsibility, no understanding of reverence for life or the human soul which is the basis of Christian and other civilised societies ... A good deal of nonsense is talked of, and indeed thought about 'segregation'. Segregation of one kind or another is practised everywhere in the world.'

The unpalatable truth is that Player was a kind of global ambassador for the apartheid government.

In 1975 he got involved with the Committee for Fairness in Sport, which was established by the government to try to overcome the global sporting boycott. For his troubles, in 1981 he was put on the United Nations' blacklist of sports people breaking the boycott.

But perhaps the best example of Player's outlook came after his British Open win in 1959, when he said South Africa's sporting achievements were excellent considering '... we have only three million people', as if the country's tens of millions of black people did not exist.

As Player says, that was then. And he could argue that many of his white compatriots thought the same way.

Player often refers to a decision to invite black American golf professional Lee Elder and Taiwan's Lu Liang-huan to play in the South African PGA tournament in Johannesburg in 1971. Player says he persuaded Vorster to allow this. In May this year, he said: 'Lee Elder came to South Africa to help me put a wheel in the spoke of apartheid sport and that was the start of the breakdown of apartheid in sport. Lee came under great duress and stress and pressure from people in South Africa not to do it and I had people in those days telling me not to do it.

'My prime minister, who was a staunch believer in apartheid, agreed to let us do this because I played golf with him and therefore had an open door to him.'

The 1971 PGA, deemed the first 'international' event, still had restrictions. Dale Hayes, a former top player and now TV commentator, played in the tournament and recalls that 'non-white' players weren't allowed to use the same toilets as the whites.

Christopher Nicholson, a South African human rights lawyer and later a judge, said events like the one Elder played in were 'a charade'.

'This kind of thing was nothing but an attempt to put a positive face on apartheid. Gary Player was part of that,' he said.

In 1993, Player explained his past this way: 'I had been brainwashed as a child in South Africa into believing that apartheid was 'separate but equal'. But then as a young pro, as I began to travel the world, I began to realise that things were not equal. At that point, I stopped supporting apartheid, but it is impossible for one man to change a country's policy overnight.'

Player was not alone in supporting apartheid. He was feted everywhere he went in South Africa and was seen by many whites as a patriot for standing up against worldwide condemnation.

It is telling to contrast his career with that of Papwa Sewgolum, a South African of Indian extraction.

In 1963, at the age of 34, Sewgolum, an illiterate, impoverished caddie who had grown up in a tin shed not far from the Durban Country Club, was finally given permission to compete in the Natal Open, a tournament that had previously refused his presence because of the colour of his skin. When he won it, what happened next became known as 'the prize-giving that shook the world' and remains one of the sport's most shameful moments.

Because Sewgolum was a 'non-white', he was barred from the whites-only clubhouse. The champion was hurriedly handed the trophy outside as the rain poured down while the white players sipped their beers inside.

Sewgolum would win a few more tournaments but he would remain a second-class citizen in his homeland and he died at the age of 49, a bitter and broken man.

During those years, Player was a regular target for protests.

On the US PGA tour, anti-apartheid demonstrators vented their anger by throwing ice at him. There were also death threats 'every week', he says.

'In America, Australia, Europe, for about two years. It was not easy. At the PGA Championship in 1969, in Dayton, Ohio, they threw ice in my eyes. They threw telephone books at my back. They charged me on the green. They threw balls between my legs as I was about to putt. You know, it's hard to comprehend. And I lost the PGA by one shot. And I had it everywhere I went. Everywhere.'