Houghton and Hermanus are two clubs at opposite ends of the country which made bold decisions early in the new millennium to “bulldoze” their existing courses and construct new ones on the same site. Houghton enlisted Jack Nicklaus to design their new layout and Hermanus commissioned Peter Matkovich.
Changing much-loved old courses in such a radical fashion as to make them almost unrecognisable is always risky from a public perception. The old Houghton was one of South Africa’s leading championship layouts, No 10 in the first Golf Digest rankings published in 1998, a year when it hosted the Alfred Dunhill PGA on the European Tour. Hermanus was No 40 in those rankings and a popular holiday course.
Financial considerations were paramount in both those decisions. Houghton was on a big property and had been steadily selling off land over the years to keep afloat. They bought into a 5-star development which included luxury high-rise apartments and a hotel; Hermanus similarly with an upmarket residential estate bordering a 27-hole facility.
Nicklaus and his design team brought modernity to the new Houghton which meant challenging greens and enormous bunker complexes with steep faces and jagged edges when it opened in 2010. The reaction of members and visitors wasn’t entirely favourable. They loved the new clubhouse but not so much aspects of the course they deemed unplayable. In 2014 it was again ranked in the Golf Digest Top 100 and there was shock when it came in at No 62.
Every other Nicklaus Signature design in South Africa had begun on a high debut note in the rankings. Pecanwood at No 5 in 2001; Pearl Valley at No 8 in 2006; Simola at No 12 in 2008; St Francis Links at No 9 in 2010; Serengeti at No 21 in 2014. Was Houghton that bad or was everyone mourning the loss of the old course? In the 2016 rankings it fell to No 63 as if to confirm that it was not what everyone had wished for.
The turnaround started soon after that. Over a number of years holes were altered (the par-3 seventh and par-4 12th), greens were softened, a bunker renovation programme took place. Nicklaus did not agree to these changes when consulted, and Houghton lost their Nicklaus Signature status.
But Houghton became popular again as golfers slowly appreciated the many good holes on what has always been magnificent golfing terrain. The scenic, well-treed layout has constant changes in elevation and direction. Nicklaus had picked out a perfect site for the 18th below the clubhouse, and an excellent innovation was to have the 17th tee close to the 18th green, so that the two finishing par 4s are side by side and visible.
Houghton went on an upward swing in the rankings, from 56 in 2018 to 42 in 2021, then 36 a year ago and now No 32. From being the least favoured Nicklaus course of the six in South Africa it is now fourth, ahead of Pecanwood and Serengeti. The club hosted the Joburg Open on the DP World Tour in November last year, and that was a great success.
The original Hermanus course was a Bob Grimsdell design from the 1950s, linksy and treeless among the fynbos, fun and flattering to play. Hermanus itself was then a sleepy seaside fishing village with holiday shacks, not the big wealthy town it is today, a retirement haven for the upper classes.
The building of a new course and adjoining residential estate was timed to coincide with the golf club’s centenary in 2007. The 27 holes opened a year before that event. Matkovich constructed three superbly crafted nines, strong in Memorability and Consistency. There is a continuity about the holes such that you can play any of the nines without feeling you have strayed into a different dimension.
The East Course is the championship 18, yet holes 19-27 are by no means weaker or easier to play. The two strongest par 5s on the property are on that nine. Any combination of 18 would be a good test. The starting holes on each nine are conveniently close to each other, and Matkovich did another clever thing in having each of the nines finish with a par 3, par 4 and par 5.
The golf club today is bulging with members, and the 27 holes are crazy busy over the holiday season in December-January.
Hermanus entered the rankings at No 52 in 2010, and was into the Top 50 in 2011. It remained in the 40s until now, when it has taken a leap to No 39, its highest ever position. Over the past couple of years the presentation of the layout and quality of the conditioning has improved to a new level, while a bunker renovation project by Golf Data’s Grant Bland has been transformational.
COURSES GOING UP
- Houghton 4 to 32
- Hermanus 4 to 39
- CCJ Woodmead 3 to 22
- Pretoria CC 3 to 28
- De Zalze 3 to 34
- Victoria 3 to 38
COURSES GOING DOWN
- Pecanwood 7 to 35
- Durban CC 5 to 24
- Kyalami 5 to 26
- Parkview 4 to 37
- Highland Gate 3 to 21
- Fancourt Outeniqua 3 to 23