‘NEW’ EAST RISES

Royal J&K up­grade is a fab­u­lous suc­cess

Golf Digest (South Africa) - - Contents - By Stu­art McLean Pho­tog­ra­phy by Grant Lev­er­sha & Jamie Thom

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.

BOSCH HOEK

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.

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