Blair Atholl is an exciting new addition as host of the South African Open from December 1 to 4.
The exclusive Gauteng estate course, designed by Gary Player among the beautiful rolling hills of his old country homestead, is relatively unknown to golfers both here and globally. Since opening for play in 2007 this rural destination has had a limited number of visitors, most being guests of members at what is a private club.
Many of the spectators at the Open will never have been there before, so that should be added motivation to attend.
Blair Atholl, which has been ranked as high as No 4 in the South African Top 100 (2014) and currently stands at No 9, is a remarkable golf course in both the grandeur of the setting and the stupendous overall distance of its holes. With all 18 holes being shown on the TV coverage it promises to be a terrific visual spectacle. More TV cabling than usual is required to cope with the bigger property.
Gary Player always wanted to build a testing championship layout for the new millennium that could keep pace with modern technology and the surge in driving distance, and Blair Atholl, measuring 7 527 metres from the tips, does that magnificently well.
It will become the longest course in SA Open history (Sun City was 7 163 metres for the 2021 Open), and also the longest in the history of the DP World Tour (European Tour) if the championship is played anywhere close to that distance over the four rounds.
Everything about Blair Atholl is big with a capital B, from the length of the holes, the size of the greens and the bunkers, and the generous width of the fairways. If you walk in a straight line from the first tee to the pin on the first green, and then repeat that on every hole, you will have walked 13.3 kilometres when you reach the pin on 18. And at no stage do you return to the clubhouse.
A feature of the course is that it has only one starting tee, the par-5 first. The halfway house is a long distance from the clubhouse, beautifully situated on the banks of the Crocodile River which flows through the property. For the SA Open, which has a two-tee start on the first two days, players will be shuttled to the tenth tee, another par 5.
The tour pros will have to walk the course – there might be occasional lifts in a cart on longer distances between a green and the next tee – but members generally use carts. They also engage the service of caddies, dressed in immaculate white overalls similar to those at Augusta National.
Blair Atholl has a close connection with Augusta, Georgia. The members have an annual match (home one year, away the next) with Champions Retreat, a 27-hole facility founded in 1999 25 kilometres from Augusta National which uniquely has each of the three nines designed by the members of golf’s Big 3, Player, Palmer and Nicklaus. Champions Retreat hosts the first two rounds of the Augusta National Women’s Amateur which began in 2019.
Player himself, who celebrates his 87th birthday on November 1, will attend the SA Open as a guest of the club where he is revered. When Blair Atholl first opened, replicas of all four of his major trophies were displayed in the clubhouse. A 13-time champion, this will be the fourth course he has designed that will host an Open, the others being Erinvale (2003-04), Fancourt Links (2005), and the Gary Player Country Club at Sun City (2020-21).
Golfers approaching the 14th tee will notice a sign welcoming them to The Blair Mile. This heralds the longest stretch of three consecutive par 4 holes of any course in South Africa, possibly the world. No 14 is the shortest of the trio at 479 metres, and is followed by the downhill 518-metre 15th, and then a hole that most golfers would treat as a par 5, the uphill 512-metre 16th.
When the club hosted a low-key Sunshine Tour event in October 2021, as a forerunner to staging the SA Open, one of the local pros, Louis Albertse, birdied each of these Blair Mile holes, including No 16 three days running. It shows how prescient Player was by insisting that Blair Atholl needed to be extra long to challenge golfers who today routinely strike 300-metre long drives.
It will be interesting to see how Blair Atholl stands up in terms of how far under par the tour pros can go. Enormous distance can be overcome. Hopefully there is not much rain prior to the tournament, and that the greens will be firm.
When another exceptionally long modern course, the Els Club Copperleaf (relatively close as the crow flies to Blair Atholl) hosted the Tshwane Open on the European Tour in 2013 and 2014, the respective winning totals were 21-under by Dawie van der Walt on a course measuring 7 360 metres and 20-under by Ross Fisher at 7 281 metres.
Steyn City was 7 054 metres for their DP World Tour event in March and the winning score was 25-under.
SA OPEN TRIVIA
Blair Atholl is the 23rd different course to host the SA Open in its 112-year history, and the 11th to have hosted as a European Tour event, beginning with Glendower in 1997.
Other courses to have hosted the Open for the first time in the new millennium: Erinvale (2), Fancourt Links (1), Pearl Valley (3), Serengeti (2) and Gary Player CC (2).
Eight Gauteng courses will have hosted the SA Open, the others being Royal Johannesburg, Parkview, Houghton, Zwartkop, Glendower, Randpark and Serengeti. The Western Cape have had six host courses, Eastern Cape 4, KZN 2, Free State 2, North West 1.
Durban Country Club has had the most SA Opens: 17
The lowest winning scores to par have been 25-under at Durban CC (2010) and 24-under at Humewood (2006). The lowest in Gauteng have been 21-under at Randpark (2020) and Glendower (2018).