A GOLF­ING OA­SIS IN WIT­BANK

Home to the Highveld Clas­sic for many years, the 107-year- old Wit­bank Golf Club has re­cently “re­launched” it­self with a fresh new look.

Golf Digest (South Africa) - - The Gallery -

Wit­bank Golf Club is some­thing of an “oa­sis” in the Mpumalanga coal-min­ing town whose mu­nic­i­pal­ity ap­pears to have given up the ghost in terms of main­tain­ing any ves­tiges of a first-world ap­pear­ance. The golf course, once a reg­u­lar stop on the Sun­shine Tour, is a pleas­ant con­trast to its less salu­bri­ous sur­round­ings.

I en­tered Wit­bank, or eMalahleni (place of coal) as it is of­fi­cially known to­day, on Wal­ter Sisulu Drive, which bor­ders the golf course. The grand name is not lived up to. It ap­peared the best route to the golf club, but the chaotic road­works and gen­eral seed­i­ness of the area would have had most tourists mak­ing a speedy U-turn back to the more com­fort­ing lanes of the N4.

Like any in­trepid ex­plorer, though, I pressed on to the club­house, and was re­warded with a pleas­ant af­ter­noon’s golf on a sur­pris­ingly good park­land de­sign which is well worth tak­ing the time to play. Wit­bank is no Top 100 course, but given more at­trac­tive cir­cum­stances it could be. Once I had got past the dust and diesel fumes drift­ing over the third tee box from Wal­ter Sisulu Drive, my day got steadily bet­ter.

I’m not sure if Sun­shine Tour play­ers miss their trips to Wit­bank for the old Highveld Clas­sic, but the golf club would love to have them back. The tour­na­ment was an in­sti­tu­tion for 28 years, from its early days as purely a pro-am, through the Win­ter Tour years, up to the fi­nal Sun­shine Tour event in 2007. The spon­sors, Bear­ing Man Group, now have an event at Glen­dower.

Great cham­pi­ons come from hum­ble begin­nings in the pro game. Retief Goosen won the Highveld Clas­sic as a 23-year-old in 1992, and that year com­pleted the “Plat­te­land Grand Slam” of Spoor­net Clas­sic, Bushveld Clas­sic and Highveld Clas­sic!

Wit­bank is a shot-maker’s course, with its nu­mer­ous tree-lined doglegs, and ap­pealed to the tour pros as a venue where they could feast on birdies. It’s rel­a­tively short by highveld stan­dards, and the greens are pure. Leonard Loxton carded a 12-un­der 60 in 2002 with three ea­gles and seven birdies! That was not in the Clas­sic though. Ty­rol Auret had 11 birdies in a 62 in the 2002 Highveld Clas­sic (he played the back nine in 29), which was matched by Marc Cayeux when he won in 2007.

Golf has been played on this site since 1907, which makes Wit­bank one of the

old­est clubs in the coun­try which can claim such con­tin­u­ance. Yet it only be­came an 18-holer in 1959 after course ar­chi­tect Arthur Tomsett had weaved some de­sign magic on the place.

“Tommy,” who worked on more fa­mous cour­ses such as Glen­dower, Kyalami, Win­gate Park and Mod­der­fontein in the pre- and post-war years, wouldn’t have been happy when eight years later a new high­way be­tween Pre­to­ria and Nel­spruit sheared through the course he had built. To­day, six holes on the back nine, the 11th to 16th, are sep­a­rately en­closed on the other side of the N4. A long tun­nel con­nects the two parts. This at­trac­tively wooded sec­tion has some of the best holes at Wit­bank, and the back nine is a good chal­lenge.

I played with three mem­bers, in­clud­ing club vicechair­man Philip Dunn, a left-han­der who skill­fully pow­ered a mas­sive slice around a course where he was joust­ing on vir­tu­ally ev­ery hole with the tall trees which frame the fair­ways. Theo Uys, who is off to Dubai in De­cem­ber with his Wit­bank part­ner for the world fi­nal of the Audi quat­tro Cup, told me that the par-4 sixth had been one of the most dif­fi­cult fair­ways to hit, “un­til Jeff Hawkes, our for­mer golf di­rec­tor in 2011, had a strate­gic tree cut down due to com­plaints. It ru­ined our best hole.”

The two fin­ish­ing par 4 holes on each nine are ex­cel­lent, but I must say the greens are rather close to the club­house for com­fort. The vice-chair­man over­did his ap­proach on 18, and was for­tu­nate to see his ball ping back off a build­ing close enough to the pin to sal­vage a par.

It was heart­en­ing to see how busy the club was on the Wed­nes­day I played. Not just mem­bers and vis­i­tors, but a large group of young kids from lo­cal schools. Wit­bank doesn’t have a big mem­ber­ship, but the club is thriv­ing, even though there is no longer any sub­sidy from Highveld Steel, which did so much for the club for many years. Wit­bank has had bent grass greens since 1987, and in the last 12 months the club has re­planted all 18 greens. Club pro Re­nier de Beer dou­bles as the green­keeper.

The 18th green and club­house at Wit­bank.

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