‘NEW’ EAST RISES
Royal J&K upgrade is a fabulous success
The 2018 Golf Digest course rankings mark 20 years of their existence in this issue, and after two decades of intensive golf course development in South Africa we have entered a new phase which continues to make the Top 100 as interesting and dynamic as ever.
Today, it’s all about existing clubs stepping up their game. Our best courses, both classic and modern, continue to receive expensive facelifts, as they strive to create better experiences for golfers. Royal Johannesburg & Kensington relaunched their iconic East Course in January to much acclaim, and Leopard Creek is currently closed until May as it is reconstructed in an entirely di erent way.
However much we have come to regard Leopard Creek as one of the country’s showpieces, an annual treat for TV viewers, Johann Rupert realised that not only did the course need updating, but it had to be more eco-friendly considering its sensitive location next to the Kruger National Park. A new indigenous grass on the fairways will reduce water consumption.
Leopard Creek was not part of the inaugural rankings in 1998 – too new to be eligible – and it unfortunately misses this ranking too in a case of bad timing (see box story on Page 49).The absence of a former No 1, however, has a silver lining in that it does open up a Top 10 spot for another course.
While there is always considerable movement in the Top 100 rankings, a country’s best courses never really change their positions much, whether they are in Scotland,
Australia or South Africa.The courses we considered great back in 1998 are still regarded with the same reverence today. Five of the original Top 10 – Gary Player CC, Durban CC, Fancourt Montagu, Glendower and East London – occupy berths in our latest Top 10.
Glendower jumps two places, from No 4 to No 2, making it the first course since Pearl Valley in 2011 to break the Top 3 monopoly of Fancourt Links, Leopard Creek and GPCC. Its profile lifted by hosting five consecutive SA Opens, Glendower has climbed speedily upwards from No 12 in our 2014 ranking.
Our No 1 course for a third consecutive ranking period, The Links at Fancourt, was but a concept in the head of Fancourt owner Hasso Plattner and course designer Gary Player back then. It was one of the new millennium creations, and is one of 30 courses built since 2000 that now feature in the Top 100.
This year we welcome The Club at Steyn City into the Top 100 for the first time. It is now four years since this exclusive Gauteng estate layout, by Nicklaus Design, was opened for play. New golf course construction has slowed down appreciably since 2009-10, when Houghton, Serengeti and Eye of Africa were opened. Since then we have only had Highland Gate, Wedgewood and Steyn City as additions to the Top 100.And Wedgewood is a remake of a course that existed before on the same Port Elizabeth site. A promising new Eastern Cape layout, Olivewood, near East London, will become eligible in 2020.
Not all new courses are guaranteed a place in the Top 100.The Belmont, the Grahamstown GC’s threeyear-old, failed to make it. Unique in not being an estate course, it has some charming holes in a scenic rural setting, but some aspects of playability still have to be addressed, notably Tyrone Yates’ greens complexes.
In this current decade South Africa has notably lacked the kind of revolutionary and eyecatching projects seen in other parts of the world – Cabot Cliffs in Nova Scotia, Tara Iti in New Zealand, Cape Wickham in Tasmania, Castle Stuart in Scotland – that create a global buzz among golfers wishing to play them. Peter Matkovich did create that in 2006 with his remarkable work at Pinnacle Point on the Indian Ocean, and in Highland Gate in Mpumalanga we have another special destination.
Highland Gate, by Ernie Els, entered our 2016 rankings at No 21, and has moved up a further six places – suspect bunker quality much improved last year – suggesting a bid for the Top 10 in 2020.
Matkovich was always to the forefront as a local designer with fresh exciting ideas, however, he has had to leave the country to find work. Through the noughties he was opening the likes of Elements, Ebotse, Hermanus, Cotswold Downs and Simbithi, yet nothing new in the last 10 years. Most of his time now is spent in Mauritius, where his portfolio of courses is proliferating. Mont Choisy has received excellent reviews.And South African golfers have missed out on the Namibian desert charms of Omeya, outside Windhoek.
THE EAST COURSE
Golf Data is the hottest company in local golf course architecture and construction. With their excellent reputation for outstanding work, they have cornered all the best contracts during the tough times faced by the industry over the last 10 years. The Club at Steyn City through their association with Nicklaus Design, revamps at Glendower, the two courses at Randpark, and Bosch Hoek, plus new lower
budget courses at Katberg and Wedgewood. In the last six months Golf Data have been busy with two of the most prestige contracts to have come their way, Royal Johannesburg & Kensington, and Leopard Creek.
Golf Data CEO Robbie Marshall oversaw the project on the East Course at Royal. This was a joint collaboration of ideas between Marshall, Royal CEO Chris Bentley, and Royal’s course superintendent Shaun Brits, with input from senior club o ce bearers Alan Field and Gordon Odgers.
Those expecting to see radical changes to the East Course when it was reopened in January may have been disappointed. Traditionalists will be relieved that Bob Grimsdell’s design masterpiece has not been messed around with.All changes are subtle ones. Instead, what we see with this upgrade is an entirely new vision of Royal East. It’s the attention to detail and many attractive “little things” that have transformed the layout.
Who would have thought that pruning the many large trees on the parkland
property would have made such a di erence in opening up the beautiful undulating vistas around the East Course. Bentley pointed out to me that playing the ninth hole you can now see the bell tower on the roof of the clubhouse. There is a constant theme and thread throughout which unites it into a seamless golf course, and gives the East strong marks in our Memorability category.
Golf Data have always been brilliant with their bunkering design, yet the quality of the new bunkers – moved further away from the tees to catch the long hitters – is exceptional even by their standards.The bunkering on the East Course had been criticised in recent years, golfers citing poor sand quality, so the bunkers were a priority on this project. Expensive construction techniques were paid for to improve drainage, reduce contamination, and retain the colour of the sand. The new bunkers were tested during the construction phase when a storm struck,
ooding the course in hours with 90mm. Bentley had been expecting a lengthy delay, but the bunkers drained overnight, proving that the system worked and had been worth the added costs.
The presentation of the experience at Royal J&K has been raised several notches, and it will be raised further in 2018 when a similar upgrade is completed on the West Course, working on an altogether di erent theme to that of the East.
I have visited some of the world’s best courses with Golf Digest, and unhesitatingly I would say that the new-look Royal is now up there with the best of them.The club exudes class on and o its courses, from the entrance walkway to the locker rooms to its entertainment areas. It’s the kind of class you only experience at proper golf clubs.The clubhouse is still a clubhouse, not a boutique hotel. First impressions are everything, and Bentley – one of the youngest club chief o cers in the game – has put down an immediate marker with the new hall of fame walkway sloping down from the car park to the club entrance.The idea may have come from the Sun City walkway around the ninth green at the Gary Player CC, where the names of the NGC champions are inscribed.At Royal there are plaques to honour all their professional champions, whether it be the SA Open or Joburg Open.
OUR NO 1
The Fancourt Links has reigned supreme as South Africa’s No 1 course since the 2014 rankings, and this year it
was a clear winner of the title. Playing the Links is always a special experience for me, remaining so for two decades. The feeling of excitement, anticipation and, yes, anxiety, on the first tee is there every time I get the opportunity. That’s a good thing to have. It is a course that takes time to appreciate, because its challenges can scramble your brain in the beginning.
Many raters had issues with the course’s playability for a long time, but the more you play it you realise there is a comfortable route for most capable golfers, as long as you remain patient, focused and don’t let bad bounces or breaks rattle you. On my last round there I noticed that the fairway cutting height had been raised, so there was more grass under the ball. That helped enormously with longer shots into greens.
In some ways it’s a shame that the Fancourt Links is an exclusive and expensive preserve – visiting golfers can only book a tee time if they spend two nights at the resort, pay a hefty green fee, and take a caddie – because this is a monumental work of creative design by Gary Player. It would be more celebrated worldwide had it a bigger audience.
Golf Digest USA ranked the Links No 38 in its latest ranking of the world’s 100 greatest courses, and in many ways it fits the rare ideal of a golf course containing 18 truly distinctive holes.
Some scoff at the fact that this is an artificial links, created by bulldozers, rather than nature, but who cares what purists may think. Walk around the Fancourt Links and the word artificial will never enter your head. It is an environmental marvel, filled with wetlands, grasses and bush. Seeing a golf cart on the course is a rare event. It comes in at No 1 in the Aesthetics category of our ranking criteria.You will have to seek far and wide to experience anything similar elsewhere in the world.
Variety has always been the essence of the South African rankings.As Golf Digest Architecture Editor Ron Whitten noted ,“Golf would be an intolerable endeavour should every course be stamped upon the landscape with the same template.”
Over the years we have included some different and unusual courses in our Top 100. Simbithi, an executive par-60 18-holer measuring just 4 000 metres, with 13 pars 3s, and Gowrie Farm, which could be described as a “hybrid,” having 18 holes but just 12 greens. Shortish “mountain” courses such as
Katberg, and quirky throwbacks like Royal Port Alfred. In our latest ranking, for the rst time we include a 9-hole course, Bosch Hoek, in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands. It enters at No 90. Bosch Hoek’s inclusion provoked considerable comment among our raters when the question was raised. There are those who believe the Top 100 should only include 18-hole courses – even Gowrie Farm’s credentials are questioned – but why should that be the case? South Africa has so few golf courses that we cannot a ord to be fussy about how many holes constitute a Top 100 experience. Fifty percent of our courses are 9-holers, and among them are some excellent layouts. Bosch Hoek is the best of them since its extensive upgrade by Golf Data nearly ve years ago. Golf Data designer Sean Quinn transformed a 1960s Bob Grimsdell parkland beauty, strengthening it with two excellent par 5s, and bringing the estate lake into play on two holes.And Bosch Hoek now has excellent bent grass greens. When considering courses for the Top 100, we look at their attractiveness as golf destinations, and Bosch Hoek now ts the bill in that respect too, having recently built luxury golf lodges close to the clubhouse. It has gone from being a private domain – the property includes one of South Africa’s most sought-after estate homes, built away from the course – to one where gol ng groups can base themselves on a getaway. The breakthrough by Bosch Hoek means that Golf Digest policy on 9-hole courses has changed.All are now eligible for the Top 100.Whether others can make it – the DesignVariety category is not strong because there are only 9 holes – is problematic. But two other standout 9-holers, Mooinooi (near Rustenburg in North West) and Kambaku (at Komatipoort on the Mozambique border), are included among the Next 50.
EAST LONDON IN TOP 10
For the rst time in several years, the Top 10 includes as many as ve courses which were being played by golfers before the outbreak of the Second World War. Thanks to the absence of Leopard Creek, the East London GC returns to the Top 10 for the rst time since 2001, when it was ranked No 8. East London has always been one of South Africa’s classic coastal layouts, magni cently situated in big dunes overlooking the Indian Ocean. It would be no exaggeration to describe this property as the best gol ng site in the country. It is close to the city, between the Bu alo and Nahoon Rivers, yet exists in a space apart that has been thankfully undisturbed by development. It occupies such a big area of land that another nine holes could easily be accommodated nearer the ocean. The sad fact about East London, though, is that it is unfortunately not seen as
EASTERN PROMISE ▶ The par-4 seventh hole on the East Course at Royal Johannesburg & Kensington, showing the new fairway bunker, and the pruned trees on the left.
LAGOON VIEW ▶ The par-3 17th alongside the Bot River Lagoon at the Arabella resort.
RUMPLED FAIRWAY ▶ The comfort of the Fancourt Links clubhouse awaits behind the green of the par-5 18th.
CLASSY TOUCHES ▶ The presentation and attention to detail at Royal Johannesburg & Kensington is first class.