My 61-day Road Trip visiting 70 courses in all 9 provinces from October to December was an uplifting experience. Golf continues on the upswing, and the conditioning of most courses remains exceptional following a disruptive year.
This doesn’t only apply to Top 100 courses, but also rural layouts and 9-holers. They too I found mostly flourishing. I stopped at Mooi River Country Club in the KZN Midlands out of curiosity, having been told it may have closed, and found an attractively manicured 9-holer with good greens, and a clubhouse and 19th hole geared up for regular visitors. Closed down? They haven’t been this busy for years.
The only region that has suffered is Limpopo, which didn’t see the increase in rounds experienced elsewhere, mainly because the Waterberg courses are reliant on Gauteng visitors, who were barred from travelling there until recently.
I drove 6500 kilometres, my route from Cape Town taking me through the Garden Route, Eastern Cape, KZN, Mpumalanga, Gauteng, Free State, Limpopo, North West and the Northern Cape. My last round was at Sishen, my second visit to this remote outpost in 2020, before the final 1000km leg home through Upington and the Karoo. My final course inspection was at Calvinia, where I putted on the oil and sand greens. If it hadn’t been 1pm and blisteringly hot I would have played a few holes, but I couldn’t raise any enthusiasm.
THE EARLY YEARS AT CASINO BEACH
Three weeks in KwaZulu-Natal was a highlight, beginning at the Wild Coast Sun where long-serving club professional Fred Beaver – he has been there for 38 years – showed me scrapbooks of the course’s early years. Opened in 1982 the course cost just R2-million to build, including the fee paid to American designer Robert Trent Jones Junior.
Trent Jones Junior unexpectedly returned to the Wild Coast in 2019 to see how his course had turned out, and may have struggled to recognise it. Old photos show a barren layout with barely any vegetation. Today the front nine particularly has a tropical look to it with all the trees. It was originally known as Casino Beach, and there was an uproar among golfers at the time over its outrageous high season green fee. All of R20! That was almost double the price of a round at Sun City, where the green fee was R12.
Casino Beach was wildly popular though, and Beaver recalled that during the late 1980s it reached its peak in terms of rounds, 34 000 in one year. “We had 50 caddies in those days, many of whom used to carry golf bags on their heads, but we were also the first course in the country to acquire a fleet of golf carts, 20 from E-Z-GO in 1983. You had the option of walking or driving then.” There was a funicular which carried golfers and caddies up the hill from the 12th green to 13th tee. It’s still there, but disabled for many years.
Seve Ballesteros was a frequent visitor in the 1980s, starting in 1984 when he was third behind Mark McNulty and Harold Henning in a Sunshine Tour event. “Short course, long walk,” was his comment afterwards.
FACES FROM THE PAST
Hang around with Fred in his pro shop and you’re bound to meet familiar old faces. Bobby Verwey, brother-in-law to Gary Player, living in Margate, popped in seeking breakfast in the clubhouse – “I haven’t played golf for years, because of my wrist, and I don’t miss it,” he said. Former Sunshine Tour star John Fourie, though, now in his 80s, can’t do without his regular golfing fix, despite being afflicted by a stroke recently.
I met up with McNulty at San Lameer, where he has his home, and Derek James in his pro shop at Southbroom, where in a back room he showed me some of the clubs that were the tools of his trade as a top amateur and tour pro in the 1980s, Toney Penna persimmon drivers and Acushnet putters. He and McNulty were two of the country’s best putters with those small-headed blades.
Still going strong at age 86 is Trevor Wilkes, playing regularly at Umdoni Park further up the South Coast. He has been a pro for 70 years. As a 21-year old, Wilkes won the Daks tournament at Wentworth in England by 9 strokes. “Gary (Player) and I travelled together to Britain in 1956, staying in B&Bs, getting around by train or taxi. That week at Wentworth we walked to the course each day with our golf bags over our shoulders.” Wilkes went back to being a club pro after that, and still continues to teach select pupils.
MOUNT EDGECOMBE CHAMPIONS
A more recent Sunshine Tour pro, Kevin Stone, father of Brandon, met me at Mount Edgecombe where he has become the golf director. Kevin is still a fine golfer – he shot 61 at CCJ Rocklands last March to win a senior tournament – but has a passion for improving golf courses. Working closely with the maintenance staff on the two courses at Mount Edgecombe he has helped champion the look and conditioning of The Woods and The Lakes. “I’m an early riser so I’m here when the course staff arrive, and have given them a sense of how I would like the courses to look.”
The Woods, formerly the No 1, had experienced a remarkable transformation since my last visit. Stone wants every hole perfectly defined from tee to green, and the result is startlingly attractive presentation. Overseeding the paspalum greens with bent grass has also produced the best-looking greens in Durban.
Mount Edgecombe held their club champs in November, and the men’s A division was won for the first time by 70-year-old Hennie Heyns with a 36-hole score of level par 144 around the two courses. He’s not the oldest club champion in South Africa; Terry Long won at Humewood in 1999 at age 77, in a 36-hole matchplay final against a much younger opponent.
WINDSOR PARK AND BEACHWOOD
Two of my favourite courses in Durban were built in the 1930s, when there was little development on the northern bank of the Umgeni River. Today, both could be said to be in peril. Windsor Park has always been a municipal course, and it’s sad to see that this beautiful layout remains neglected. Situated opposite Durban CC, it was once the busiest and most popular course in the province and regularly hosted the SA Junior Champs. It still attracts golfers, and has a family-owned pro shop run by Alasdair and Judy McLeod where I purchased a classic Callaway Big Bertha 5-wood which I’ve added to my bag.
Yet Windsor Park has potential to be so much better than it currently is. Enjoying a beautiful setting on the Umgeni, it has hundreds of magnificent trees framing the holes, and the routing of this flat layout is excellent. At 6 111 metres from the back (97 metres shorter than DCC) it’s fun to play, for the variety of holes and the way they are shaped. Even with its current conditioning it’s worth a round for anyone who likes something different.
Beachwood in Durban North has happily been given a stay of execution, after being earmarked to close by the end of 2020. Now separated from Durban CC (they already have their own flag), the new owners of the property have no immediate plans to develop it, so the course should hopefully stay open for a few more years.
The clubhouse has become a pub and entertainment venue called Blues. Beachwood possesses some of the best holes in Durban, augmented by classic greens built by Gary Player 25 years ago. How good would DCC be if they had a few of them to offset their weaker holes. I love the old-fashioned hand stonework around several of the tees on the course.
DIVOTS GOLF SOCIETY
I enjoyed a happy afternoon at DCC in the esteemed company of the Divots Golf Society, which celebrated their 50th anniversary in 2019. Many golf clubs today have their “schools” of like-minded golfers who get together every week, but the Divots are a highly organised group, along the lines of the Senior Golfers Society but without the jacket and tie. Being restricted to 40 full members they are more like a large extended family.
Several older members are entering their sixth decade with the Divots, yet there has been an infusion of younger members in recent years.
Traditions set down in 1969 are still respected today, including the “throwing of dice” after the round which usually proves a spirited occasion. They play at DCC every Thursday afternoon, meeting beforehand in the clubhouse to do the draw for playing partners. I was a guest of John Terry-Lloyd.
The Divots have their own committee and captains, annual championships, both on the golf course (singles and foursomes) and the practice putting green, and an AGM. They go on official tours every year, and have become ambassadors for the country club.
I’m surprised that no other societies of this special kind exist in South Africa.