It is noteworthy that a couple of Wimbledon also-rans, Jimmy Connors and Ivan Lendl, could stroll down to South Africa with their diminished tennis ratings last weekend and grab off tournament paychecks of $400,000 and $300,000.
Top pay went to Connors, for winning something called the "Sun City Million Dollar Tennis Challenge." There were no losers in the four-man tournament. As consolation for bowing in the final, Lendl was allotted his $300,000. For finishing third, Johan Kriek got $200,000. Kevin Curren won the booby prize, $100,000.
That there is something cockeyed here could be the reasonable view of Wimbledon champion John McEnroe. McEnroe, after making sraight-set mincemeat of Lendl in the semifinals and winning the world's greatest tennis tournament, was honored with a check for a mere $110,000.
South Africa is the new mother lode for professional golf and tennis types. Last year a man won $500,000 playing golf there. Not for a whole year of play, as Tom Watson did when he broke the record for golf winnings, but in a quickie, four-day sojourn in the place called Sun City.
Sun City is 100 miles from Johannesburg, in an unpronounceable African state called Bophuthatswana which, in any spelling contest would run one-two with Gulliver's Brobdingnagia.
And who was the man who made this hurry-up half million? Johnny Miller, one-time boy wonder of American golf, later distinguished for his five-year slump on the tour.
He won the $1 million Sun City invitational, by double measure the richest golf tournament ever staged anywhere. A word later about the generous folks who chose to underwrite such a golf event in a dismal patch of land in Africa with little golf history, whose natives wouldn't know a three-iron from a tire iron and where the paying gallery would be nil.
Last year's Sun City invitation was a built-in joy for the five invited pros--Miller, Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Severiano Ballesteros and Gary Player. By special arrangement with the sponsors, there would be no losers. It was equivalent to shooting golf in a barrel. Player, who finished last, got a check for $100,000 to cover his embarrassment.
The other day when Trevino won the Canadian PGA title for the second time, his payoff was $20,000. In Africa, they do things differently. Trevino carried away $110,000 from there last year, for finishing fourth.
The people who thought up golf's first million-dollar weekend, and this year's first million-dollar tennis tournament are, it turns up, Las Vegas types (who else?). They are the gambling casino operators who have the concession in Bophuthatswana and seem to be striking it rich, if gauged by the money they are strewing around.
Mostly they are getting the high-rollers from nearby South Africa where the economy is flourishing. According to our Johannesburg source, "South Africa set up Bophuthatswana and three other black tribal homelands as allegedly independent nations, racially integrated to take the heat off its own apartheid policies that are under global criticism. These entrepreneurs attract the interest of moneyed South Africans who can travel to those funny little areas and gamble legally and wallow in the fleshpots and take up with all the practices that are not allowed in South Africa."
The golf tournament, he said, was aimed at acquainting more of the world with Sun City--not with its golfing facilities but with its gaming tables "and other attractions." The tournament was televised to some areas.
It's an old gimmick of the casino operators: get the celebrities in for the publicity they generate. Joe DiMaggio and Frank Sinatra were previous visitors.
To underscore Miller's $500,000 payday for winning a single tournament, Ben Hogan never won that much in his life, for all of his eminence as the finest golfer of his time. It was in the 1950s when the Tam O'Shanter officials announced theirs would be a $50,000 tournament that Cary Middlecoff gave a sentence to the language: "Now they've reached my choking price."
It was big news in 1963 when Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer broke the $100,000 barrier in earnings for a year. When Sam Snead's career earnings reached $600,000 in 1974 he had just won his 84th tournament.
When Gene Sarazen won the Masters in 1935, first place money was $700 but because it necessitated a playoff against Craig Wood, they gave him $50 extra.
Jimmy Demaret remembers that when he won the Masters for the second time, in 1947, his check was for $2,500. "Three years later when I won the Masters for the third time, deflation had set in, I guess. My check was for only $2,400."
Even so, those times were better for Demaret than in the 1930s when taking a $100 check away from some tournament was a dream of Texas kids, ex-caddies like Demaret and Hogan. Demaret remembered "a bunch of us would pile into my Model A Ford and go anywhere they were holding a tournament. Gas money was sometimes short, and part of our gear was this thing that would suck gas from a car that looked like it had a promising tank."
Did Demaret mean that in a crisis he used a siphon to replenish his gang's gas tank? He said other people called it a siphon. He called it his Oklahoma credit card.