GLENDOWER ROCKETS UP TO NO 4 IN OUR RANKINGS. THAT’S JUST THE START OF THE CHANGES.
Glendower rockets up to No 4 in our rankings. That’s just the start of the changes.
It has stayed in the shadows of its rivals for far too long, but a celebrated golf course nally gets its just reward in Golf Digest’s biennial survey of South Africa’s 100 Greatest Golf Courses. That course is Glendower, which not only returns to the top 10 of the rankings, but leaps right in at No 4.
In our previous ranking, in 2014, this old Johannesburg golf club, almost an octogenarian, was only considered the third best course in Gauteng, but three consecutive years hosting the SA Open at this classic championship layout from late 2013 to early 2016 has turned the minds of many of the raters who contributed to our latest survey. It is now sitting right behind the Big 3 of South African golf – Fancourt Links, Leopard Creek and the Gary Player Country Club.
Glendower, a Charles Alison design from the late 1930s, has long had a reputation as one of the more challenging parkland tests in the country, and one that visually intimidates the golfer on virtually every hole. However, its virtues of late always seemed to be second best to that of a relatively close neighbour, the esteemed East course at Royal Johannesburg & Kensington. Now, though, Glendower sits six places above the East course, annual host to the Joburg Open on the European Tour, which took the nal spot in the top 10.
Our 2016 rankings are full of other surprises too. Durban Country Club returns to the top 5 for the rst time since 2009, while there are as many as nine newcomers; fresh faces are always welcome. Among those nine are two new courses – Highland Gate in Mpumalanga and Wedgewood in the Eastern Cape – which means that some familiar names of old return to the top 100 after absences of some length. Another course making its very rst appearance, after
years of trying, is Eagle Canyon, which has struggled for recognition for various reasons since being opened in 2005.
If you are wondering what has happened to Steyn City, the expansive new high-pro le Nicklaus Design in Gauteng, the answer is that it is not yet eligible. A course must be open for play for at least three years before it can be considered for inclusion.
For the rst time, the Fancourt Links retains its title as the country’s No 1 course, albeit by a narrow margin. The Links and Leopard Creek have been dueling closely for the title the past ve years. Leop- ard Creek was No 1 in 2010 and 2012, while the Links was rated best in 2011 and 2014. Being two very different golf courses, created just four years apart, it has always been dif cult for Golf Digest’s course evaluation raters to separate them. Their exclusivity as private clubs adds to the aura of playing the courses, but that does not distinguish one from the other. For many golfers it comes down to personal preference in choosing between opposites.
Leopard Creek is about the warmth of the African bushveld, a truly unique South African golfing adventure;
The Links reminds us of the game’s origins in Scotland, being challenged by the elements and the vagaries of the landscape. Its adherence to walking and having a caddie for each player is a refreshing policy at a time when cart golf, common for instance at Leopard Creek, is ubiquitous. It’s remarkable that Gary Player designed both courses.
One thing they have in common, though, and the reason why they have solidified the top two places on our list, is that they are masterpieces of modern design in breathtakingly aesthetic surroundings. The Links cannot rest on its laurels though. Leopard Creek owner Johann Rupert is constantly taking his property to grander levels; a new practice facility built last year is said by some to be even better than the one at Augusta National. That shouldn’t strictly have a bearing on our course rankings, but in such a close vote the overall experience can sway those on the fence.
The rankings say farewell for the last time to King David, the Cape Town course having closed at the end of 2015. This unique Bob Grimsdell layout will be missed, not only for its retro looks and stand-out holes, but by Western Cape golfers who now have fewer courses on which to get a
game. Many of the “affordable” member courses in the Cape were already doing a high number of rounds in 2015. The King David members have moved to Mowbray, and weekend tee times are subsequently at a premium at the new King David Mowbray.
Another ne layout to have left the Top 100, a course which was in the top 30 just eight years ago, is Hans Merensky, bordering the Kruger National Park at Phalaborwa. It has sadly been neglected so badly by its current owners that it is hardly worth playing without feeling a sense of regret. Also a Grimsdell design, and one that was the rst in South Africa to capture the
golf and wildlife experience together. Its road to ruin began when a housing estate among the holes was rst allowed to blight what should always have been looked upon as a walk in a nature reserve.
The courses which have departed the top 100 this time around will probably be talked about even more than those who have taken their places.
Another high ier from earlier days no longer considered good enough is Selborne Park, on the KZN South Coast, which in 2002 was ranked at No 28. Selborne was the rst estate course in the late 1980s, and such was the rarity of new courses in that era that it was greeted with oohs and aahs at the time. The course is on a beautiful estate, but no longer do we look at it through rose-tinted glasses. Losing the pristine quality that was the hallmark of the reign of former owner Denis Barker, its aging, sagging features are all too apparent to the critical modern eye. What were once quirky design features are now seen as aws, including one of Selborne’s weakest holes, the short par-4 18th. Too many approach shots are played to elevated greens. That’s the nature of the hilly South Coast terrain – Umdoni Park next door has many similar up-anddown holes. But at Umdoni, which remains in the Top 100, the natural beauty of the holes among indigenous forest makes them somehow more acceptable.
Any number of good golf courses have also been opened for play since Selborne’s early years, and about 50 of them now grace the Top 100. So it’s easy to see why our favourites of yesteryear have been superseded. Interestingly, 32 of the current Top 100 courses didn’t exist in 1997, when Golf Digest rst began the rankings.
Traditional old courses have regained favour among the Golf Digest rating panel, who this year sat down in discussion groups to discuss the merits of each course in the Top 100, using the Golf Digest rating criteria as a guideline. Back in favour are Bloemfontein Golf Club and Port Elizabeth Golf Club, both with plenty of championship history, plus State Mines, Reading, ERPM and Riviera in Gauteng.
Among those ousted are estate courses where the overpowering proximity of housing has reduced the appeal of playing them for golfers who like to escape to more natural surroundings. Selborne is one, and others are Blue Valley, Centurion and Langebaan.
Two of South Africa’s four Royal clubs are no longer in the Top 100, Durban and Port Alfred falling by the wayside for the rst time since the Top 100 was inaugurated.
When Golf Digest started ranking courses in 1997, Glendower was considered the premier course in Gauteng, at No 6 in the country. It had hosted a highly successful SA Open that year, the rst one to be part of the European Tour. The East course at Royal Johannesburg (this was before the club’s merger with Kensington) was only the fourth best course in Gauteng, also trailing the River Club and the old Houghton layout.
Glendower remained a top 10 course, and stayed ahead of Royal East, right up until 2008, when it was given a major upgrade by Golf Data, a company which has been so successful in this area of course construction. That upgrade included an entirely new fth hole, and this par 4, while no pushover in terms of challenge or length – at 460 metres from the tips it was the hardest hole in terms of scoring average at the recent SA Open – still hasn’t found universal favour with our rating panel. Glendower has so many terriffic holes, and this one does not quite have the same distinction. It will grow on us.
The “new look” Glendower also su ered from bad timing in terms of the rankings. Elements and St Francis Links burst into the top 10 at that time (2009-10), and Glendower unexpectedly found itself on the outside looking in at No 12. In many ways the upgrade at Glendower mirrored the even more substantial one, in both magnitude and cost, to the Montagu course at Fancourt by David McLay Kidd in 2004. The old Gary Player-designed Montagu hit No 1 on the rankings at the turn of the millennium, but following the much hyped makeover by McLay Kidd it had fallen to No 10 by 2008. Today it has recovered to No 6, and it is de nitely a better course than the original.
The respective merits of Glendower and Royal East came under closer observation the last three years when they both began hosting European Tour events. Similar in their parkland cloaks, they nevertheless have di erent design attributes which clearly distinguish them. Glendower more
often punishes wayward or careless shots, and in the SA Open has shown itself to be almost a shot tougher than the East when you compare the weekend scoring average of the tour professionals.
Glendower also trumps the East when it comes to the consistency of its conditioning. Course superintendent Mike Burnard not only gets the course in great shape for the Open, but maintains that quality most of the year. The East course, meanwhile, often seems to be inferior in conditioning to its sibling, the West course. And the West has accordingly gone up in the rankings, while the East has fallen.
Several South African courses have featured prominently in recent world top 100 rankings, and many gol ng purists will be pleased to see that Durban Country Club, highly respected by international raters who are frequent visitors, is back in our top ve at No 5. The curious thing is that South Africans don’t seem to love Country Club as much as those visitors to our shores. Why are we so dismissive of our older courses? Just three courses built before the Second World War grace our top 10, and DCC is the oldest of them. It is not far o its centenary, and we should applaud its continued eminence in the greater gol ng world.
Durban CC was ranked as high as No 4 in 2009, but then fell from there to 6 to 9 to 11, before recovering to No 10 in our 2014 ranking. The course struggled for several years with the erratic conditioning and slowness of its paspalum greens, before in 2010 the decision was made to replace them with another warm season grass, mini verde, never previously tried in South Africa. This was done in the months preceding the club’s hosting of the 100th SA Open, and Golf Data took the opportunity at the same time to renovate the greens complexes.
The mini verde greens took longer than expected to settle, but a decision to involve local turf expert Mark Wallington at the
club paid dividends. With his knowledge and input the grass has developed into a superb putting surface, additionally bringing the much needed extra pace to the greens which they had promised.
Country Club also embarked on a long-term plan to open up as many of the holes as possible. By removing as much of the invasive tropical vegetation and trees as they could, they have opened up new vistas and started to replicate the more links-like look of the course from years gone by.You only have to stand on the tee of the par-5 third, one of DCC’s signature holes, to appreciate the clean lines of de nition all the way to the green, particularly around the second fairway bunker nearer the green.
Another old classic, Humewood, which is also revered by international visitors, didn’t quite make the top 10 this time, but its renaissance continues. It has risen to No 11 in the rankings, having been No 20 in 2011. The 2009 upgrade to the greens by Golf Data’s Sean Quinn has done wonders to our one and only natural links course. Humewood so impressed Australian Darius Oliver, an authoritative voice in golf course design who spent ve years studying 1 200 courses in 45 countries, that he included it at No 94 in his Planet Golf ranking of the world’s top 100 courses. It is the only South African course on his current list.
Ernie Els has a passion for golf course design, and his new entry into the Top 100, Highland Gate, at No 21, is a course that is thrilling those golfers who have visited this remote gem in the mountainous region of Mpumalanga. Els now has three courses in the best 50 – the others being Oubaai and Copperleaf. Of modern designers, Peter Matkovich has nine entries in the best 50, Gary Player eight, and Jack Nicklaus ve.
Highland Gate, near the getaway destination of Dullstroom, was originally a Mat- kovich project in the boom days of golf estates earlier in the millennium. It’s regarded as the premier flyfishing area in the country, and a golf estate seemed a natural t. (Highland Gate is referred to as a golf and trout estate.) However, it went through nancial setbacks before being revived with Els as the course designer. He rst visited the site in 2005. Even when the course was completed almost ve years ago, it couldn’t be opened to the public for play until Century Property Developments had performed a rescue act in terms of investment, which included tarring the access road.
Highland Gate, with its bracing mountain air and scenic countryside, is a magical place for golf. It’s an expansive and creative design, with continuous changes in elevation, providing a rich variety of holes to enjoy. The topography means it is di cult to walk, and a golf cart is the sensible option, but that does not detract from the experience. Els and his design team always keep the average golfer in mind, and Highland Gate o ers generous width and playability, with one exception, the par-5 14th hole, situated in a river valley. This is hopefully still a work in progress, as it is a jarring note in an otherwise superb layout.
Golf Data have transformed the fortunes of many a golf course in South Africa since Robbie Marshall’s company rst started out some 25 years ago doing minor upgrades. By giving a modern facelift to plain old greens and outmoded bunkers, Marshall and designer Mark Muller specialised in turning hitherto dowdy layouts into beauty contestants. They progressed from lesser tracks to famous ones, and building courses in South Africa for Nicklaus and Els.
Two of our biggest golf clubs, Country Club Johannesburg and Randpark, have entrusted Golf Data with the complete renovation of their 36-hole facilities. The Firethorn course at Randpark, completed a year ago, was perhaps the ultimate in their
renovation work. Marshall’s current designer, Sean Quinn, who took over from Muller, turned the routing around in places and built seven new holes. A big improvement on the old layout.
Golf Data have not just confined themselves to remodelling work, but also designed and built their own courses from scratch. One of the rst, by Muller, was Atlantic Beach in the Cape. In 2014 Quinn’s Katberg design entered the Top 100, and this year it is the turn of another new Eastern Cape layout he did, Wedgewood, at No 88.
Wedgewood is the reincarnation of a Bob Grimsdell course that previously existed outside the Port Elizabeth city limits, built on pretty much the same interesting site. It has been an enormous success with local golfers, because it o ers pay-and-play golf on a fun and shortish course at a very reasonable price. That’s a good formula to employ in this day and age if you want to grow rounds. Golf Data own the course, which is part of a golf estate that is in the early stages of development.
Wedgewood also possesses greens which must rank among the nest in golf. A combination of A1/A4 bent grass, they are so pure, and of a perfect rm texture, that good putters start salivating at the prospect of playing there.
SA OPEN VENUE The par-4 11th hole at Glendower, which has hosted the last
three SA Opens.
George Golf Club returns to the top 20, not surprising with views like this from the green of the par-5 second hole.
The Jack Nicklaus design of Simola, at Knysna, offers golfers sensational views, including this one on the
par-3 sixth hole.
The 1st hole at Humewood.