THE FIRST TOP 50
The course rankings celebrate their 20th anniversary, and the first Top 50 from 1998 bears little resemblance to the latest one.
It has been 20 years since Golf Digest published (in the January 1998 issue) the rst comprehensive ranking of South Africa’s premier courses. There had been limited top-10 and top-12 lists before then, showcasing the very best courses in the land, but nothing that went further. Golf Digest brought an entirely new conglomeration of courses into the mix with its ground-breaking ranking of our “50 Greatest Courses.”
Having authored a co eetable book on South Africa’s best courses a few years earlier, one of my rst tasks on appointment as Golf Digest editor in January 1997 was to establish a credible ranking which would try and establish over time which were our leading layouts. Before then, courses had relied mainly on their reputation as tournament venues to project themselves, and were never measured using de ned architectural criteria.
In the 1990s, rankings were still in their infancy outside the United States, where they had been launched in the 1960s. The rest of the world was starting to catch up as the game expanded globally. Golf magazines in the United Kingdom and Australia had instituted course rankings, but nowhere else. There was nothing yet on the newly developing World Wide Web.
Ranking the 50 best courses in South Africa from scratch was a challenge from the outset, because we have a relatively small gol ng community and varied quality from top to bottom. We weren’t just evaluating classic designs, as would purely be the case in the USA or UK, but analysing a diverse assortment of courses in terms of architectural merit. Among them were any number of no-name brands without a known design pedigree.
In 1997, with roughly 180 18-hole courses in the country (our ranking excluded 9-holers), we were also seeking to rate nearly 30% of our courses. The South African course rankings to this day are unique among gol ng nations, because they are more inclusive than anywhere else in the world. Virtually every club with an 18-hole course has had aspirations at some stage of being part of it. An interesting stat: 148 courses have appeared in the Golf Digest Top 100 at one time or another. Six of those are no longer with us – Kensington, King David, Fish River, Crown Mines, Bramble Hill and Blyvooruitzicht. Four no longer resemble the original layout – Milnerton, Hermanus, Wedgewood and Randpark.Two 9-holers were increased to 18 holes – Goose Valley and St Francis Bay.
Bigger countries, by contrast, have a base of
thousands from which to choose their best layouts.There are 15 000 courses in the United States, so when Golf Digest USA rank their Top 200 courses, they are essentially measuring about 500 in total, and ignoring the rest.They only rate the crème de la crème. For our rst ranking, we had to assess more than just the obvious contenders. Twenty years ago we had good courses that were only known to golfers in their immediate regions, and the description “hidden gem” truly meant just that. Our job at Golf Digest was to unearth them and bring them to the attention of the greater gol ng population.
THE RATING PANEL
I had worked as a golf writer on newspapers before joining Golf Digest, yet my brief on dailies had been to report on golf tournaments, not explore the country playing golf. My sports editor would never have indulged that. But on a golf magazine I had free rein to travel and examine for myself which courses deserved to be in that rstTop 50.
There was no possibility of my doing this on my own. It could never be Stuart McLean’s best 50, because that would not be accepted by the gol ng community or the golf clubs.A respected course ranking panel had to be established, and our cumulative knowledge employed to come up with a formative list. In the rst year I enlisted the help of 15 people from di erent areas of the golf industry, who became the rst to study Golf Digest’s seven criteria on how to evaluate courses.
They included well-known personalities such as legendary champion Reg Taylor, multicapped international amateurs David Suddards and Neville Clarke, tour professionals Justin Hobday and Ulrich van den Berg, club pro Derek James, and veteran golfers Stan Johnson and Bill Rice.
Forging his prowess in South Africa at that time was PGA of America professional and golf director Je Clause, who provided an outsider’s perspective, and his views and ratings were taken on board alongside those of golf club manager Roy Yates and Selborne golf estate owner Denis Barker. Administrators Brian Lefson and Carl Lotter signed up, as did two members of the gol ng media, Grant Winter and Larry Gould. Golf course designers were excluded, as they would have had a vested interest in the process.
Today, of those original raters, only Clarke and Suddards have remained part of a panel which at its peak expanded to more than a hundred people, whose ratings created a vast amount of data.The panel today has been reduced to under 40 nationwide, and includes fewer “celebrities” and more “nomadic” golfers who represent the demographics of the average golfer.They are more active in communicating with golf clubs. Unlike restaurant critics, raters seldom visit
incognito. They understand that courses have good and bad days, and don’t pitch up when the greens have been hollowtined. They assess courses when they are supposed to be at their best, not their worst.
What the raters mostly have in common is a desire to play as many courses as possible each year, often in preference to a regular game at their home club. There is also more of a neutral element, as we soon eschewed raters who had a working association with courses.
Our older courses dominated the top 10 of that inaugural ranking in 1998. Six of them had been built between the two world wars, and the only modern design was Gary Player’s Fancourt, then just seven years old. At the start of 1997 the Garden Route resort had just 27 holes.
THE BOOM YEARS
Those who have never previously seen the original Top 50, which we publish in this issue, will be startled at how di erent it looks from the Top 100 of 2018. Not only have several courses from that era fallen out of favour, but there has been an enormous in ux of newcomers in the intervening 20 years. South African golf course design evolved rapidly over the next decade as the game experienced boom times, and developers saw golf estates as the future lifestyle choice. Our rst ranking coincided with the emergence of Tiger Woods, whose impact on the global growth of the game was enormous. Half-a-dozen new courses were being opened annually, and their design signatures included international names such as Jack Nicklaus, Greg Norman, Tom Weiskopf, Annika Sorenstam and Ronald Fream alongside our local talent.
This inaugural Top 50 represented the courses that golfers rated most highly in 1997, a year which now seems a world away. Club golfers were still using persimmon woods and balata balls, and wearing metal spikes on their shoes.You had to pace out the distance to the ag.
These courses were part of the “establishment” of that era, when members clubs with waiting lists held power, and estate courses were still a brash novelty. Our rst panel of raters were mainly traditionalists who had grown up playing golf when the older mature courses were the most revered.
In those early years Golf Digest produced an annual ranking. This was necessary because we were learning to appreciate the architectural criteria set by Golf Digest, and our thoughts on courses were changing as swiftly as the game itself. Establishing a settled ranking was not an overnight project. It dawned on me early on that it was going to take years, and would always be evolving in order to retain public interest.The process was further complicated when we ambitiously moved to a Top 100 ranking in 2002.That introduced a di erent class of golf course altogether, and widened the area the raters had to cover.
THE SLIPPERY SLOPE
Looking back at that first Top 50 today, my biggest surprise is to see that we ranked the championship East Course at Royal Johannesburg (it had not yet merged with Kensington) as low as No 15. The two courses at Royal were considered nowhere near the same quality as they are today. Glendower, having hosted the 1997 SA Open, was the premier Gauteng layout. In fact, the East Course stayed outside the Top 10 until 2007!
In 1998, the East was just two places ahead of the Wanderers, which then still held a formidable reputation as the long-time host of the PGA Championship. Its loss of that prestige tournament may well have played a part in its gradual decline over the years.The East Course is now in the top 10, and Wanderers resides in the lower reaches.
Gone from the Top 100 today is Hans Merensky, ranked No 12 then, and regarded as one of our unique bushveld gems adjoining the Kruger National Park. It was a popular getaway for Gauteng golfers, and stayed in the top 20 through to 2005. Sadly, Hans Merensky is an example of what can happen to a great course when it falls under neglectful ownership. It is soon forgotten. Golf courses need a colossal amount of
love and care, money and refurbishments to endure. Without that it’s a slippery slope down the rankings.
At No 9 that year was The River Club, an exclusive members only preserve in Sandton. Situated on a stunning piece of gol ng property, the attractive Bob Grimsdell design from the 1960s, one of the best conditioned courses in the country, frequented the top 10 in those early years. However, when it fell out of the top 10 the members expressed their displeasure by formally asking for their course to be removed from the rankings. They were not the rst disgruntled golf club to request that, but they were the rst where I complied with their decision.
River Club does not allow visiting golfers unless accompanied by a member, and the Golf Digest Top 100 prides itself on the fact that every course on the list can be accessed by the public, albeit expensively in some cases. River Club last graced the rankings in 2012 at No 13. Its absence is missed, but has freed up a spot for another course. Another private course which refuses to be rated altogether – raters keep out! – is the Investecowned Millvale in the North West. Not being part of the Top 100 does lend a certain mystical aura to an exclusive course, infusing it with a sense of quality which may or may not be deserved.
Others no longer in the Top 100 include Royal Durban, believed to be the country’s oldest course, the more modern Peter Matkovich design of Leopard Park – a remote location at Mmabatho hasn’t helped its cause – and former minesubsidised courses ERPM and Oppenheimer Park. On the other side, there are courses on that list which have improved over the years and enhanced their status, notably Kyalami and the West Course at Royal J&K.
Classic designs by oldschool architects who worked from drawings, not computers, such as Humewood, East London, George and Sishen, have mostly remained within the top 20 despite all the competition, whereas some modern ones have aged unsatisfactorily. Estate layouts that began promisingly on the rankings have often been compromised by housing and lost their initial lustre.
THE SUBJECTIVE ISSUE
What I have learned after 20 years of compiling the rankings is that club golfers are highly protective of the courses to which they belong. They love them as they do their families, forgiving of their failings and blind to their weaknesses. They generally don’t abandon their course when it’s struggling. Many deem it a personal insult when their course is not ranked as high as they believe it should be.
I understand their emotions on this one.The ranking of golf courses will always be a subjective issue. We fall in love with courses through our hearts, not our heads. Shot Values, Resistance to Scoring and Design Variety, the stu that raters are asked to look at, form no part of the average golfer’s judgment of a course’s worth. That roar of tra c, the planes loud overhead, the cyclists infringing on your hallowed ground, these irritations go unnoticed by the loyal club member.
I have unsurprisingly endured much criticism of the rankings – there are at least 50 clubs which seriously believe their course should be in the top 10 – even hostility at times, but the Top 100 has survived, if anything increased in popularity, and is generally accepted as an accurate barometer of our best and most pleasant courses.We now publish it every second year, to heighten the anticipation. It is not a popularity contest though.The favourite courses to play will be found anywhere between No 1 and No 100.
Golf clubs have slowly come to realise that the rankings are essentially a way of promoting the game, increasing rounds, encouraging debate among golfers, and measuring themselves against the best in the country.There is much to be learned from another club’s rise up the table.The Top 100 has also inspired many golfers to play them all, and raise the bat following a memorable journey to a century. I believe it has been a rewarding exercise.
ANIMAL KINGDOM ▶ Hans Merensky GC at Phalaborwa was one of South Africa’s golfing gems back in 1998.
EXCLUSIVE CLUB ▶ The River Club in Sandton was a Top 10 course, but the members voted against their course being ranked.
ISLAND GREEN ▶ Peter Matkovich’s remote Leopard Park layout near the Botswana border no longer graces the Top 100.
CITY VIEWS ▶ Historic Royal Durban has a unique layout within the Greyville racetrack, but lingers on the periphery of the Top 100.