Gauteng is endowed with wonderful golf courses, and they dominate the higher reaches of the course rankings, with 12 of them in the bracket of 20 announced today, between 21 and 40.
Nine of these courses belong at old established golf clubs – four are already in their second century, and another club will celebrate its centenary in 2023 – plus three modern designs which are part of residential estates, The Club at Steyn City (Nicklaus Design), Eye of Africa (Greg Norman) and Serengeti (Jack Nicklaus). The oldest of these is Serengeti, opened for play in 2009.
Gauteng is known for its beautiful parkland courses, and they are much admired over the newcomers, although The Club at Steyn City, opened in 2014, has moved up to its highest ever ranking of No 23. Eye of Africa and Serengeti are further back at Nos 38 and 39 respectively.
Choosing between all these fine courses when it comes to rankings is always a difficult exercise. And the margins between them are extremely close.
Kyalami CC (No 21 which is a Personal Best) on this occasion is ranked top in the 21 to 40 category, yet just three points separates it from Serengeti. Kyalami is one of the most tranquil walks in the region, situated as it is in the countryside far from the hustle and bustle of city roads.
However, Bryanston (No 30), Pretoria CC (31), CCJ Rocklands (32) and Houghton (36) have made the biggest strides up the rankings in the last two years.
When Golf Digest magazine published its final Top 100 four years ago, in 2018, Bryanston was No 39, Pretoria CC No 51, Rocklands No 52 and Houghton No 56. Better appreciation of their design qualities, aesthetics and conditioning has transformed their fortunes.
Rocklands, the newer sibling at Country Club Johannesburg, was long considered an under-rated layout, and its renovation by Golf Data eventually accelerated its climb. To think that 20 years ago it was languishing at No 81. Bryanston today has one of the smartest appearances of any course in Gauteng, in keeping with its status as one of the country’s premier clubs.
Pretoria CC’s credentials as a fine championship layout have not always been appreciated by golfers south of the Jukskei River, and it possesses one of the best back nines when it comes to challenging holes and design variety.
Houghton, which turns 100 next year, was initially unpopular following the redesign of the old course by Nicklaus, mainly due to its severely undulating greens (since softened), yet its striking features and many glorious holes cannot be overlooked. The club lost its Nicklaus Signature status some years ago when they went ahead with unapproved changes to the seventh and 12th holes, and in 2021 the club embarked on a massive bunker project by Timeless Golf which has not only enhanced the visual beauty of the holes, but significantly improved the Playability of the layout. The steep faces on the bunkers have been lowered, work which might not have been permitted by Nicklaus under the Signature agreement.
While this quartet has gone up in the rankings, there was an unfortunate fall of eight places by Randpark Firethorn from No 21 to 29. Its Conditioning mark tumbled from 15.7 out of 20 in early 2021 to 14.5. And the course’s problems with their damaged greens were publicly displayed on television when the club again hosted the Joburg Open in November 2021. Worse still, the tournament could not go the full distance of 72 holes due to heavy rain, and it was called off after 36 holes when our Omicron variant put South Africa on the Covid red list, forcing the foreign golfers in the field to hightail it out of the country.
Most of the Firethorn greens have now fully recovered after intensive repair work, but three (at 7, 12 and 13) have proved stubborn. Large parts of these greens had to be replaced with sods and grass plugs which are kept sanded.
Club president Dr Gerrit Sandrock has subsequently said in a statement to members that there is no definitive indication of what caused the damage. But he has ruled out negligence or malicious intent.
A fungicide sprayed on the greens in the preparatory maintenance work for the Joburg Open was initially thought to be the culprit for the unsightly patches on the greens. However, the blame for the damage has since been largely attributed to the extreme heat and dry weather in the weeks leading up to the tournament, plus difficulties experienced in irrigating the greens. This created a layer of soil below the surface with a high sulphur content which began killing the grass in random places.
One lesson learned is that the ability to irrigate greens and fairways is crucial before any critical maintenance procedures are undertaken.