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.

Golf Digest (South Africa) - - Contents - By Stu­art McLean

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.

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