Work has started on the refurbishment of the West Course greens and bunkers at Royal Johannesburg & Kensington.
And the makeover of one of South Africa’s oldest and most picturesque parkland courses includes an interesting surprise: the nines are being switched around to present a more challenging stretch of finishing holes.
The West greens are being resurfaced with 777 bent grass (USGA spec) and the bunkers reshaped with new drainage, liners and sand. There will be some minor improvements to the layout to suit modern play – bunkers closed, others repositioned, a new fairway bunker on the par-5 second – applying recommendations by consulting course and landscape architect Dino De Abreu.
All the renovated bunkers will be shallower and aesthetically pleasing by having slightly rolled down grass faces. State-of-the-art liners will prevent contamination of the sand. This will help lower maintenance costs.
Temporary greens are currently in play and the new greens (and reversal of nines) will be ready at the end of November 2022.
Royal J&K will be both applauded and criticised for the bold decision to switch nines on a course that has maintained the same routing for more than 80 years. It depends on individual viewpoints. It is about measuring the overall strength of the finishing holes against tradition and history.
The argument for switching the nines is that Nos 7 to 9 are three of the West’s most challenging holes – 450-metre par 4 (currently stroke 1), 214m par 3 with a fabulously creative green, and 507m par 5 – whereas Nos 16 to 18 don’t have the same degree of difficulty. The front nine is 100 metres longer than the back nine, and it can be argued it has more feature holes. And it is not as if the 18th West concludes in front of the clubhouse and has to be retained for that reason. It is some distance away, as is the ninth.
The current finish on the West includes one strong par 4 in the last six holes. That’s the 434-metre 14th. It is followed by a 489m par 5, a short par 3, short par 4, and a 480m par 5. One objection, though, to the change of nines may be that the current 18th is a superior hole to the ninth.
The 18th is the shortest of the course’s par 5s, playing just 440 from the white club tees (61 difference between it and No 9). However, it is a cleverly designed dogleg right requiring a long and precise drive into a narrow gap to open up sight of the green and put it within reach of a second shot. A large stand of trees guards the right hand side of the fairway. Its well-protected green makes this a classic risk-and-reward closing hole because eagles or birdies might be attainable, yet one false shot can result in a bogey or worse.
‘The aim is a more enjoyable and fun West’
The West Course project was due to have taken place in 2018, following a similar renovation of the East Course, but was delayed firstly due to the club’s property developments, and then for the pandemic in 2020.
Original plans to build one or two new holes, which would have notably affected No 6, a dogleg uphill par 4, have been shelved for now. However, the sixth will be redirected at a later stage once clearance on the property deal has been received from the city council.
The course construction is being undertaken by Agrano Turf, owned by former Royal J&K Course Manager Shaun Brits, working with newly appointed Course Manager Jerry Steyn, previously at Irene CC. He was an assistant greenkeeper under Brits at Royal from 2015 to 2018.
The West Course is ranked No 34 in South Africa and No 12 in Gauteng. Golf has been played on its current site since 1910, together with Pretoria Country Club the longest of any club in the region. The West is regarded as the “easier” course at Royal J&K, in contrast to the “difficult” championship East layout, and that clear difference will continue.
“With the renovation of the East Course we had to ensure we enhanced its championship offering and maintained its difficulty for the better golfer,” said Royal J&K CEO Chris Bentley. “In comparison, we are aiming to have the West easier, more enjoyable and fun. This will ensure our facility has a golf course offering for everyone, from the beginner to the professional.”
Bentley emphasised that investing in the courses is obligatory. “It’s about creating more benchmarks and, importantly, member retention. Investing in lifestyle and family centric facilities is about growth and future generations.”
The club upgrades since 2017, part of its long-term sustainability plan, have been predominantly financed by property development on land owned by the club adjoining holes 7 and 12 of the East Course (Brookfield at Royal), and 12-13 on West (Royal View). The first 100 home owners in each development will take occupation in October 2022.
The Old Oak Restaurant and Family centre opened in the clubhouse in May, following the earlier addition of a wellness and fitness club which has seen 130 members join since February.
In terms of energy sustainability in these times of load shedding, the club have taken their irrigation system and pump stations off the grid. “The possibility of not being able to water greens on hot days was the greatest risk our courses could face,” said Bentley.
The club’s range facility is having its putting greens resurfaced and bunkers improved, while several new cart paths are being built to bring golf, practice and lifestyle to a higher level. The plan is to close membership by 2025.