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.
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.