Week two of my Road Trip had worrying overtones. Travelling from one town to the next at a time when South Africans are being increasingly cautious about the coronavirus crisis does seem a trifle risky. A Johannesburg friend called to say he couldn’t see me as he and his wife were self-isolating. While handshakes were freely given a week ago, now virtually everyone is declining. Fist-bumps are in, but are they safe? In Gauteng, golf clubs are actually debating whether two golfers should still share a golf cart.
And then came a severe double blow for me personally: first, news that Leopard Creek is closing this week for the “foreseeable future,” with the advice that I should visit “later in the year.” Second, postponement of a tournament I was planning to attend in East London in April.
My itinerary and route had been planned with precision to ensure I reached East London on a certain date. The postponement is unfortunate, yet now I have greater flexibility and can arrive in East London in my own time. That is if I’m not locked down somewhere before then by the authorities, and golf courses close. I now fear that each week could be my last. The traffic police in Limpopo or Mpumalanga might stop my CA vehicle and tell me to either voetsak back home or hunker down locally until the powers-that-be tell me I can move again.
To make the week even more depressing was the cancellation of the Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass, one of my favourite PGA Tour events. I had booked in at the right accommodation to ensure I watched both the Players and Masters. Now neither tournament is likely to happen this year. Who could have foreseen that?
Week two was a rainy one in the Free State. My first shower came on the hot drive from Kathu to Kimberley, where I experienced a weird phenomenon with the temperature reading inside the car. It fell from 33C to 19C in a few minutes, and once the rain had passed climbed rapidly back to over 30C.
The Free State is green and lush wherever you go. Both Bloemfontein courses were having a tough time managing their rough, which was thick around many greens. The conditioning at Bloemfontein GC was excellent otherwise. Club championships were being played at many clubs in the Free State and Gauteng on the weekend of March 14-15, and BGC had just 50 entries for theirs. In contrast I learned that Country Club Johannesburg had a record 342 entries playing over their two courses. Golf clubs outside the major centres are experiencing lean times in terms of membership and rounds.
Parys, like Bloemfontein, has two 18-holers close to each other. Both are uniquely built on large islands within the broad Vaal River, which is currently in full spate. The town itself remains an attractive one, with a surprising amount of touristy places to visit, restaurants, pubs and interesting shops. It was pleasing to see in a province where several towns are but a broken shadow of their former selves. Parys is popular over weekends when the two courses, Parys and Vaal de Grace, receive most of their rounds.
Nick Price was profligate with his bunkers when he designed Vaal de Grace. With wide fairways there are almost 80 of them, and some are enormous. Price also curiously created one of the largest greens in Africa on the par-3 sixth, not only wide but 50 metres from front to back. It would have been ideal for a double green with another hole. Since last year the estate has had a Zimbabwean golf director, Mike Baylis, to go with its Zimbabwean designer. Mike spent several years in that capacity at Royal Harare. Load shedding in SA didn’t phase him in the least. “Often in Harare we had no power during daylight hours, it only came on at 10pm,” he said. Baylis, a former tour pro, had the misfortune of recently losing the top half of his right middle finger in a workshop accident.
At Parys I met up with the rarest person in the golf industry, a female greenkeeper, Crystal Cooper. The only one at a Top 100 course. She’s a slip of a girl and just 25, but Crystal has quite the golfing pedigree. Her father Pieter is not only the course superintendent at Wingate Park in Pretoria, but also one of the top-ranked senior amateurs in South Africa. What a moment there was in January when Pieter won the Free State Senior Open in a playoff at his daughter’s golf course.
Crystal is a good golfer herself, starting out at 13, and has already won 9 club championships (Wingate Park, Mooinooi and Rustenburg) and played for provincial teams. She’s the first female to receive a degree from the African Turf Academy at Silver Lakes, and is passionate about greenkeeping. She did get practical experience with her brother JP at Rustenburg GC in 2015 while studying, but Parys is her first proper assignment. She started in October 2018, and has gained the admiration of her staff for the way she pitches in by working with them, wielding a bushcutter, raking bunkers and filling divots.
“I’m an outdoor girl and this is my passion. I love every day here,” she says. As a teenager she worked at the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in Scotland, mowing fairways at Kingsbarns. This summer she’s had to battle with an abundance of rain in Parys, and it was appropriate that it was again raining during our chat in the clubhouse. “We hardly saw any sun in December and had 300mm that month,” she said.
From Parys it’s a relatively short drive over some beautiful hills to Goldfields West near Carletonville. The course is in the heart of gold mining country, and you wander through the mine roads to reach it. Goldfields is like Sishen in being a special golfing venue, a hidden oasis, and they share Bob Grimsdell as course designer. It’s another bushveld layout, yet at Goldfields the only residents are large herds of buck, a variety of species, and vulnerable to poaching. The only building is the clubhouse, which has been smartly upgraded by course owner Hans Vierra, a club member who rescued it from the brink of closure in 2017.
Hans has invested time and money in the property, brought in new staff, including greenkeeper Renier de Beer, who was once the club manager at Parys, and there has been a wonderful upliftment in the look and feel of the course. You stand on every tee box and pleasingly it looked transformed from my previous visit. The cynodon greens were not at their best – a wrong application of chemicals by the former greenkeeper – and once they fully recover this will be a fabulous place to play, an hour’s drive from Johannesburg.
Goldfields is a good example of what courses were like to play 30 years and more ago, before modernisation and improved manicuring changed the face of golf in South Africa. It has a charm of its own, and great value.
My discovery of the week was the 9-hole course at Kuruman, 50 kilometres north of Kathu. The town is a busy one, thankfully the country club is tucked away in a tranquil bushveld setting far from the main road. The clubhouse was the typically large ugly edifice you see in many rural towns – an attractive smaller building which reflects the landscape would be so much more sensible and aesthetically pleasing – but the golf course has been shaped through magnificent bushveld terrain, holes framed by a fair number of big trees. It’s raw and yet I was instantly encouraged to play a few holes. Certainly not easy, as I gathered from the scores posted in the 36-hole club championships, played on a Saturday. Four loops in the heat must have been tiring.