South Africa’s collection of bushveld courses are usually associated with remote settings and wildlife roaming the fairways. But one of our most attractive bushveld layouts is in the middle of a large city. Mbombela Golf Club in Mpumalanga is a few kilometres from the city centre, and it’s a largely unknown gem.
It’s one of the bigger climbers in the Top 100 rankings this year,
going up 13 places to No 60 from its previous position of 73.
In the golfing world they talk about “True Links” to distinguish between genuine links courses and those which have links characteristics but don’t quite fit the bill. The same process applies to bushveld layouts in Africa. Mbombela is a “true” bushveld design from the first hole to the last, as befitting the rugged countryside of the Lowveld region .
Tall indigenous trees, a large variety of different species, frame the fairways and create a special feel to the surrounding Aesthetics. The course is overlooked by craggy koppies and rock faces amidst thick vegetation. The course was built on sloping ground above the city, and the only flat holes on the property are two of the short par 3s, Nos 5 and 17. The clubhouse has tremendous views of both the course and surrounding countryside from its outside deck.
The opening par 4 hole at Mbombela is not only one of the toughest in South Africa on which to make a par, it oozes unconventionality by incorporating striking bushveld features. Big trees with spreading branches and massive rocks in the middle of the fairway which only become apparent when you walk down the hill towards your tee shot. Before playing your second shot your brain is trying to work out how is it possible to get the ball anywhere near the green.
There’s a few buck on the course today, but when in the year 1939 original course designer Bob Grimsdell first visited Nelspruit GC – its name until a few years ago – golfers occasionally spotted lion and leopards in the area. It took until 1963 for 18 holes to be completed. The course was renovated by Peter Matkovich in the late 1990s. He did a good job in modernising the greens – which boast magnificent putting surfaces – and retaining all the best features of the layout.
HOUGHTON MAKES STRONG MOVE
Another significant climb among today’s announcement of Top 100 courses – those ranked from No 60 to No 41 – comes from Houghton in Johannesburg, up 14 places from No 56 to 42. Older golfers will fondly remember the old Houghton layout, which hosted so many of South Africa’s great championships from the 1950s through to the new millennium. In the first Golf Digest rankings in 1998 it was No 10 in the country.
Then Jack Nicklaus came along some 12 years ago and designed a totally new layout using the same footprint, but often reversing the direction of play. Where there was previously a green, Nicklaus put the tee boxes and made you play the hole backwards. The new Houghton, opened in 2010, initially struggled for acceptance with Gauteng golfers, notably due to some severe undulations on the greens which resulted in a course where you couldn’t avoid three- or four-putting. Golfers didn’t take kindly to that. It was ranked a lowly No 62 when it first appeared in the rankings in 2014.
Raters have come to appreciate the beauty, variety and testing nature of Houghton in recent years. The greens have been softened, although they still remain challenging, and it is a magnificent looking layout to the eye, with several fabulous holes. The undulating nature of the terrain also lends the course character and a certain grandeur. Standing in front of the strikingly modern clubhouse you just want to get out there and play it.
Wingate Park in Pretoria is another Gauteng course on the move upwards, this year to No 52, up 7 places. A decade ago it was No 82, so it has been quite a revival since then for this old parkland classic, which has a fine design pedigree by the Englishman Charles Hugh Alison, creator of both Glendower and Bryanston. Wingate Park has become one of the most popular courses with visitors in Gauteng. It’s busy every day of the week.
It’s an attractive and easy walk in a country setting, far from the noise of traffic, and the course’s width gives golfers plenty of freedom to unwind their shoulders without fear of losing a golf ball. The big attraction at Wingate Park though is its exceptionally good and consistent conditioning. It scored 8/10 for Greens, putting it among the top 20 in the country in that category.
GOING IN THE WRONG DIRECTION
For every course that improves there has to be those that move in the opposite direction, and among those experiencing that this year was Maccauvlei, down 15 places to No 51. The historic Vaal River layout, on the Free State banks of the river, still boasts good quality greens, but has suffered in general conditioning.
Ebotse Links in Benoni went down 8 places to 46, for the only reason that it was unfortunate to have two golf holes out of play last year. Firstly the 17th had to be shortened to a par 3 due to a pipeline being laid, then disaster struck the estate when there was a slope failure above the par-5 12th hole which threatened a few homes. That too had to be reduced to a par 3 – still currently in play – while the slope was repaired. Plus it involves golfers having to take a lengthy detour after finishing the 11th hole. All the construction on the course didn’t help Ebotse’s cause in the rankings, but 2021 should see it return to normal.
Two KZN courses, Cotswold Downs and Beachwood, went substantially backwards, along with two Ernie Els designs, the Els Club Copperleaf in Gauteng and Oubaai in the Garden Route, and Gary Player’s Lost City design which had to endure a lengthy closure in 2020 during a protracted lockdown of the Sun City resort in the North West.