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South Africa

Your world in one place

Text: Simon Hill. Article from the December 2014 issue of Compleat Golfer Magazine.

What do you get when you combine a mining town with a whole bunch of people and even more trees?

Apart from the largest man-made forest in the world and really bad traffic, you also get a city with the country’s best golf courses, as our boy, Simon Hill will tell you…

Gary Player grew up working at Killarney Golf Club, another of Joburg's fine parkland layouts. Two spectacular layouts at Country Club Johannesburg make it one of the more popular facilities in town. Two spectacular layouts at Country Club Johannesburg make it one of the more popular facilities in town.

Joburg is a frenetic place. it’s a city of well over seven million people if you include the City of Ekurhuleni, which is basically all the chinas out on the East Rand. Don’t confuse that with the Chinese out on the East Rand hey, because then you’re looking at a lot more.

And you’re looking at way, way, way more if you start counting the chinas in places like Midrand, because if you include those chinas, you have to include the chinas from Centurion because that’s basically Midrand, and if you include the chinas from Centurion you have to include the Dutchies from Pretoria because that’s flippen close to Centurion. This means you’re probably looking at a total population of around 40 million, which is a lot considering that we only have, like, 60 million people in South Africa of which five million live in Cape Town. So you have to be very careful. But you get the point: it’s big. Like six-lane-highway big.

It’s a big place because as locals will tell you (‘local’ defined as anyone who’s lived there longer than six months), it’s hectic, boet.

When ouens aren’t striking, it’s the moolah-making machine of Mzansi. Fo’ sho. One time. Things are bigger, faster, and more aggro than anywhere else in the country – just watch the news if you don’t believe me. And it’s for that very reason that Joburgers (when they’re not making cash) dig to chill.

And they do that in various ways, but research shows that the top four ways to relax in Johannesburg are:

1) Shopping

2) Shopping

3) Eating and drinking (followed by shopping)

4) Golf

And while I am a fan of the first three, it’s that last point that I am particularly keen to elaborate on because the city has some seriously tit golf courses. Like proper.

Pic 1

To put it into some kind of context for you: out of the top 100 courses in South Africa in 2012,17 is located in the city. Of that, five are inside the top 30 including Gary Player’s Blair Atholl at six, Royal East at eight, Glendower at 12, River Club at 13, and CCJ’s Woodmead – home of the Telkom PGA – at 23. But we’re not only talking about seriously good golf courses here. We’re talking about seriously good golf courses that are linked to the development of the city itself and steeped in some pretty awesome history.

Take CCJ for example. Today the golf part of the operation is located in Woodmead, which is basically Midrand but okes (estate agents) claim it as Sandton. However, if you had arrived in Johannesburg in the early part of the 1900s you would not only be really old, you’d also have teed it up in Auckland Park where part of the club remains today. When it was founded in 1906 the club was a mere 20-minute ride on horseback from the centre of town and considered the spot to hang out. The Star newspaper wrote that the opening was “the most interesting social event in years”.

Today, depending on where in the city you are and how mal the traffic, is it might take you a bit longer than 20 minutes to get to CCJ but it’s well worth it because both Woodmead (23) and Rocklands (53) are great layouts. Perhaps the expropriation of the Auckland Parkland in 1966 by the then Minister of Education, Arts and Science Jan de Klerk for the purposes of building “a university for the Afrikaans-speaking community of the Witwatersrand” (RAU and later on UJ) was a blessing in disguise because today we have two of Joburg’s finest tracks – Woodmead in particular – on prime land originally purchased for the princely sum of R627 650 terug in die dae. Today you wouldn’t even be able to buy a second-hand M3 for that, china.

Back down the M1 towards town you get the larney areas of Joburg. Like, literally. Where do you think Killarney comes from? There’s also lllovo and Houghton and the ‘Parks’, which are home to craft-beer-drinking hipsters, skinny jeans, Yorkies in handbags and some of the city’s prettiest golf courses.

Courses like Houghton, which was originally located on a bluegum-tree plantation owned by the mines. Today many of those bluegums remain, waiting to catch a skeef shot, but the course is nothing like it was back in 1923 when the land was purchased from Barney Barnato’s Johannesburg Consolidated Investment Company (JCI).

Recent renovations to Houghton Golf Club by Jack Nicklaus have made the course a significantly tougher challenge.

Members these days talk of ‘old’ and ‘new’ Houghton where ‘old’ means anything before June 2007 when the course was closed for a complete overhaul. ‘New’ refers to anything after 13 August 2011 when Jack Nicklaus officially opened the layout he re-designed along with a clubhouse you feel you have to take your shoes off in.

Joburg has a few Nicklaus designs including Serengeti, which is actually more towards Kempton Park (Ernie’s neck of the woods), and Steyn Golf Club, which is in Fourways, which is close to Dainfern, which is close to nothing. The course will open early next year and ouens are dik excited about it.

Anyway, back to Houghton. Like many of the older courses, this place is full of history. The legendary Sid Brews – winner of eight SA Open titles – was the pro here and in 1938 he went over to the USA to buy grass.

Now I know what you’re thinking: why go all that way to buy grass when he could have bought it 2km up the road on Louis Botha Avenue? ‘Cos he didn’t go to America to buy that kind of grass, china. He went over there to play some golf and buy grass to plant on the course: a varietal he ended up calling Brewsia, a forerunner of the bent cultivars used today. The grass wasn’t a great success but it did mean that Houghton became the first Highveld course with evergreen, nap-free greens, which back then was reason to throw a moerse party.

Brews was big on course development and design (anyone who goes all the way to America to buy some seeds must be) and under him, Houghton became the first SA course with fairways under irrigation. As a course designer, he was also pretty damn successful, designing tracks like Beachwood and Umdoni in Durbs and Glenvista in the south of Johannesburg. He was a proper boytjie, china, and today ‘new’ Houghton is a must to visit and play golf when you’re in Joburg.

Just down the road past Madiba’s pad and over the highway you’ll find the home of Sid’s brother, Jock Brews. When he wasn’t dominating the local golf scene with his boet, Jock was the resident pro at Killarney Golf Club dispensing advice to members of the Transvaal Automobile Club who founded the place. In fact, Jock was Killarney’s first professional. Gary Player also worked there during his younger days, which is a pretty kif claim to make if you’re a club. But back to the Transvaal Automobile dudes because hey, let’s face it, it’s not every day you get an automobile club founding a golf course.

But it happened here and it’s quite ironic that a club founded by a bunch of chinas in an automobile association would have to relocate so they could build a highway. But again, it happened herein 1970 when the M1 (officially known as the De Villiers Graaff motorway) was commissioned, and the club lost most of the land it was on and had to be completely redesigned, which must have been a bit swak. Fortunately, Robert Trent Jones just happened to be in town at the time and gave them a few tips including trying out bent-grass greens, which they did, becoming the first club in the country to do so.

Today the course runs adjacent to the highway and is a great test of golf. It’s narrow and undulating and you really get the feeling that you’ve escaped the hectic pace of city life as you wander through one of Joburg’s nicest layouts while ouens race up and down just a flick-wedge away.

Down the road, maybe a driver and a 3-wood away is a club renowned for not being shy of a good time. No, I’m not talking about Teazers although technically you wouldn’t be wrong if you had guessed that.

Wanderers Golf Club can be found in the heart of Joburg and is home to many a character.

Wanderers Golf Club is like the naughty uncle of Johannesburg golf: you can’t help but dig him, but you also know you’re going to get into serious trouble while in his company. If you’re not sure what I am talking about: a few years ago this magazine rated Wanderers’ 19th hole as the best in the country. And with chinas like Hugh Bladen, Steven Jack, and Thomas Aiken as your members it’s not hard to understand how it earned that awesome accolade.

The club opened in March 1939 and was completed in 1940. At the time it formed part of The Wanderers Club, which at one stage was the largest sporting club in the southern hemisphere. It was flippen huge, china, with literally thousands of members across the various sporting codes. The relationship ended in 2004 but unlike so many terminated relationships in Jozi, these parties still talk to each other.

The year 2014 marks 75 years of this Johannesburg institution’s existence. During this period – 23 years to be precise – it hosted the Lexington PGA, won by the likes of Hale Irwin, Tom Weiskopf, and Dale Hayes, who won it three years in a row, each time staving off a fierce challenge from Gary Player. Legend has it, however, that Dale didn’t fare too well in the Lexington sit-up competition, which used to follow directly after.

The course itself is a proper test of golf. It’s even more challenging when there’s a game of cricket on and you’re jolting down the 10th fairway. Fortunately the Gauteng Cricket Board – very unselfishly – ensured that not too many games are played there anymore, so you don’t have to worry too much about that. It’s also a great place to go if you really dig trees, with over 350 varieties located on the course. If you’re wayward off the tee you’ll probably see most of them.

Up Corlett Drive over Oxford Road and down Jan Smuts Avenue and you find yourself in the leafy ‘Parks’ of the city.

This is proper Old Johannesburg and Parkview is a proper old Joburg club. The club opened in 1916 on an undeveloped veld 10km north of what was then a young city. Designed by LB Waters – who also won the inaugural SA Open in 1903 – Parkview has grown into one of the most beautiful courses around town with rolling fairways and plenty of trees. Its members are very proud of it, so much so that they take great delight in calling it ‘The Home of Golf’, especially when a visitor is in earshot.

It’s quite apt that an oke with a surname of Waters should design Parkview because that’s one thing there is plenty of on this golf course. You get some long tracks up here on the Highveld – Kyalami, Copperleaf, and Blair Atholl – but Parkview is definitely not one of them. However, the Braamfontein Spruit that runs through the course makes up for any lack of distance.

Mention Parkview to most people and the name Bobby Locke invariably crops up. And it’s true: Old Muffin Face joined in 1936 and played there until his passing in 1987. Today this great club hosts the annual Bobby Locke Festival of Golf in his honour.

But it isn’t the only one to claim ownership of the great man. Observatory Golf Club also has bragging rights and if you walk into the club you’ll check a shrine in the foyer dedicated to one of the best golfers the world has ever known. And you can understand why they did that, considering he used to play there every Thursday and lived just up the road in Yeoville.

Observatory (or ‘Observe a tree’) Golf Club is another Joburg club with a story to tell. Founded in 1914 on the William Light Park in an area of town set aside for a government meteorological department, ‘Obs’ is probably the narrowest course in the city. It’s also one of the best-draining courses according to greenkeeper Llewellyn Thomas, thanks to the sub-surface ash found in the area.

And China, that’s not the only thing you’ll find around there. According to Thomas, his team still digs up artillery from the Boer War on the course, thanks to a British camp located on what is today the 15th hole.

Apart from Locke, the club can also claim Nic and Harold Henning, and if you pop in there during the week you might see rules guru Theo Manyama enjoying a coffee on the revamped veranda.

The year 2014 marks its centenary and thanks to its relationship with MoreGolf, the club has never been stronger with a membership of just under 4 000.

Not too far away from Obs on the other side of Linksfield Ridge is the great-grandaddy of Johannesburg golf.  And China, I’m not referring to Denis Hutchinson, although he does play there. Royal Johannesburg and Kensington boast two seriously tit layouts with the East Course playing host to the Joburg Open every year.

But the courses you check there now are a far cry from what it was when the club started out in town as Johannesburg Golf Club. The place has come a long way. Literally. It moved four times before settling where it is now. The last spot it occupied was where KES [King Edward VII School] is today.

I mentioned Denis Hutchinson because not only was he around in 1890 when the club was founded, but he was also the pro at Kensington Golf Club, which was a separate course in Bedfordview. According to legendary journo Dan Retief, the amalgamation of Kensington and Royal in 1998 was dik instrumental in saving both clubs – Royal got an injection of funds and younger members while Kensington was able to avoid the squeeze being put on it by property developers and the Bedfordview council for the tight package of land where the course was near Eastgate Shopping Centre.

There is very little about these two layouts that haven’t been said a thousand times before. They are icons on the South African golf landscape and you have to play them when you’re there. It’s, like, not even negotiable.

Across the highway in the suburb of Dowerglen, which is basically Edenvale, which is basically Bedfordview, is one of the most highly regarded courses, not only in the city of Joburg but the country as well.

Bryanston Country Club has been around for just over half a century and remains a popular choice for all Joburgers. Known as one of the more testing parkland layouts in the region, Glendower has hosted the SA Open Championship a number of times. The large, modern clubhouse at Randpark offers more than enough facilities for the masses of golfers and visitors alike.

Glendower was founded in 1937 after 10 businessmen purchased the farm with the same name with the intention of forming a country club. As at Houghton, there were lots of trees that had to be cleared but after only two years the course hosted the Transvaal Open Championship, which Bobby Locke won in a world-record score of 265. The oke won everything back then, including an exhibition match against Slammin’Sam Snead at the club in 1947 where he shot 63 in the morning round. The card is on display in the clubhouse.

Over the years the course has been redesigned numerous times and played host to various tournaments including the SA Open, which is still there next month. You’d better bring your A-game if you want to shoot low on it because it’s a flippen stern test of golf.

The courses I’ve listed thus far aren’t even scraping the surface of what Johannesburg has to offer. I mean, I haven’t even mentioned Randpark – one of the largest clubs in the city with two golf courses called Bushwillow (the old Windsor Park) and Firethorn. Founded in 1940 in the midst of the Second World War, the going was initially lank tough for those at Windsor Park, as it was then known, and the club almost closed down due to a lack of funds, membership, and inadequate clubhouse facilities. There was also a bit of argy-bargy between the English and the Afrikaans members, which threatened to make life a bit uncomfortable for everyone. Fortunately, the okes realised what they had in the place and sanity prevailed, which is a rare thing here in Joburg.

Today you’ll find one of the most welcoming atmospheres in the city along with facilities that tend to attract members rather than repel them. The two courses are both comfortably inside the top 100 and you can expect Bushwillow to shoot up the ranking once the redesigns are finished. Their conference facilities are legendary and it even has a place called The Brewery that does an orgasmic burger and craft beer special, which in my books is reason enough to pop in.

The emerald-green fairways and large bunkers with ]agged edges are features of the modem Jack Nicklaus design at Serengeti. Royal Johannesburg & Kensington is one of the grand old ladies of Joburg, with its two championship layouts.

Down Malibongwe Drive, over onto William Nicol, and down Main Road we get to another course that’s been making big renovations and changes recently. Bryanston Country Club was founded in 1952 with Sir (nogal) Ernest Oppenheimer of De Beers notoriety as its first president. The joy of forming a new club was short-lived though because a year later in 1953 the flippen clubhouse burnt down, which must have been a serious mood killer.

Anyway, they rebuilt and today you’ll see that Bryanston’s logo is the phoenix rising from the ashes. Now you know why. Major renovations to the clubhouse have just been completed. This time they were planned and let me tell you something for nothing: it is looking seriously swanky. There have been rumours that redesigns could be on the cards. If that’s the case you better play it now before it closes. Or play it anyway because it’s another great Jozi layout.

Another great one is The River Club, which is not too far away from Bryanston in an area called River Club, which is basically Morningside, which is basically Sandton. The only difference is that if River Club had to carry out any renovations or redesigns we probably wouldn’t hear about it. That’s because River Club is like the Augusta of Joburg: we know it’s there, we can see it but we have no cookin’ clue about what goes on beyond its fence. There’s a lot of mystique surrounding it, which is the main reason why okes want to play there.

And that’s the tricky part because you can’t play there without a member. No cash ever changes hands on the premises unless, of course, you lose a bet. Or perhaps to pay a caddie, which is a compulsory expense. Members get a bill at the end of the year and that’s that. Pay up! Punch Barlow – of Barloworld fame – established the course in 1967 and Bob Grimsdel designed it. The Braamfontein Spruit (the same one that runs through just about every hole at Parkview) also features here and the last four holes are super tough. Or so we hear. Bottom line, china: if you get the opportunity to play here, grab it with both hands.

These courses are just the tip of the iceberg. I haven’t mentioned newcomers like the Eye of Africa, Serengeti, and Jackal Creek. The tracks written about here are all in the city. Then there are towns such as Benoni in the east, Krugersdorp in the west, and Vereeniging in the south where courses like Maccauvlei are situated and Charl Schwartzel occasionally rocks up in his helicopter for a game.

The options are almost endless just like the specials that most of these clubs offer, especially during the middle of the week where you’ll often get golf, breakfast, and a cart for under R250. And no, I’m not pulling your leg.  It’s proper value for money. Throw Gauteng’s great climate into the mix and you know as well as I do that when it comes to Joburg and golf, china, it’s a gold mine.

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