The Sunshine Tour visited 17 of SA’s Top 100 courses this past summer in 14 tournaments, and the course statistics as usual prove revealing.
We witnessed remarkably low scoring from the tour professionals. The wet weather in the north of the country certainly played a part. The soft conditions promoted target golf, and there were winning 72-hole totals of 25-under at Steyn City, 22-under at Pecanwood, 21-under at Zebula/Elements, 21-under in Bloemfontein, and 21-under at Serengeti.
The lowest total of them all though was 26-under in the tournament co-hosted at Durban Country Club and The Woods at Mount Edgecombe. And there was 23-under at Fancourt for the DiData Pro Am played over the resort’s three courses.
Startling was the way in which Pecanwood, a Jack Nicklaus design ranked No 28, was overwhelmed in the DP World Tour event it hosted in March. The winning score of 266 was about what might be expected at this level, but not the average score of 69.64 over the four rounds. The average the first two days with a full field was 69.31.
Everyone feasted as Pecanwood proved defenceless in perfect weather conditions, yielding 60 eagles and 2119 birdies from 467 rounds. You had to shoot 6-under to make the cut. Wilco Nienaber opened with a 65 and missed the weekend after a 75 the second day.
The most amazing statistic was that only one par 4 played over-par for the week. This is unheard of. The sixth hole averaged 4.01. Every other par 4 had an under-par average. The most difficult holes were the par 3s. The question to be asked of a 25-year-old design: are many of Pecanwood’s fairway bunkers obsolete in today’s game?
Pecanwood, at 7 040 metres, was the fourth longest course played this summer, behind Gary Player CC, Serengeti and Steyn City. But that sort of length doesn’t bother today’s tour pros. What hole do you think troubled them the most? Astonishingly it was the shortest one, the 162-metre third which has water guarding the right side of a narrow green. It played to an average of 3.21.
It’s not uncommon for Par 3s to feature among the highest scoring holes in tournaments. The toughest hole of the Fancourt courses in the DiData Pro Am was Montagu’s 12th, a 190-metre par 3 with a slippery green which averaged 3.34. Two of the trickiest holes at Serengeti in the season-ending Tour Championship were the ninth (210m) at 3.26 and 12th (206m) at 3.27.
The Club at Steyn City, another modern Nicklaus design although not a Signature (ranked No 23) played slightly longer than Pecanwood in its DP World Tour event, and the winning total was three shots lower at 25-under. The average score though was higher at 70.0. Again, there was a plethora of eagles and birdies, 76 and 1945. A 595-metre par 5, the sixth, played to an average of 4.68 with six eagles and 165 birdies.
One older and more vaunted layout that continues to trouble the majority of tour pros even with advanced technology is the iconic Gary Player Country Club. It again hosted the SA Open and the average score was 73.45, almost four shots a round more difficult than Pecanwood. It was the longest course on tour, at 7 153 metres.
The quality of the Sun City field, with only a handful of international visitors, might not have been as strong as those at Pecanwood and Steyn City, yet the course had the measure of our best performers. Not one player was able to break 70 in every round and the cut was at plus three.
This was the second time the GPCC had hosted the SA Open, and again the par-5 ninth with its island green was used as the finishing hole, which was an excellent source of drama. Clayton Mansfield had an albatross 2 there in round two, while at the other end of the scale Darius van Driel racked up a 10. There were just five eagles, none from the leaders.
The Gary Player also hosted the Vodacom Origins Final in January, over 54 holes, and the field there averaged 74.18.
Sun City does have a rival as the tour’s tiger. St Francis Links in the Eastern Cape, the new host of the SA PGA championship, played to an average of 73.23, and it wasn’t a particularly windy week either.
But any sort of wind means that St Francis Links is bound to contain some of the toughest holes of the summer events. One of those was the par-4 ninth which averaged 4.64. It’s only 412 metres from the tips, yet it’s played into the prevailing wind, and its undulating green is awkwardly designed at an angle to the approach, with bunkers and bush ready to catch errant shots. There were only 17 birdies there in four rounds.
St Francis Links provided three of the four toughest par 5s on tour. Most difficult was the 13th, an unusual looking hole for a links because it marries fabulously linksy fairway bunkers with the odd sight of a large dam guarding the left side of the fairway from tee to green. Again it played into the wind to another devilish angled green edging the water. PGA runner-up Pieter Moolman played it better than anyone, 4-under for the week. With an average score of 5.18 it was one of only two par 5s to play over par on tour, the other No 18 at Euphoria during the Limpopo Championship. The third at St Francis Links averaged 4.97 and the 16th was 4.96.
The toughest hole on tour in relation to par was the par-4 second at Randpark Firethorn in the Joburg Open. Normally a par 5 for members, alongside the river, this was shortened to 460 metres, and it averaged 4.67. No other hole on tour came close to matching its 158 scores of bogey or worse from 283 rounds. And this was a tournament shortened to 36 holes.
Another par 5 turned into a par 4 for the pros was No 8 at Dainfern, where you twice have to cross the broad Jukskei River, with your tee shot and approach. It played 472 metres in the Players Championship, and averaged 4.38, which meant it was fractionally more difficult than the 500-metre par-5 18th, at 4.37.
Many more par 5s like these could be turned into par 4s for Sunshine Tour events to avoid the “silly” sub-par totals such as we saw at Durban CC. The 453m third and 474m 14th would make excellent par 4s, and the winning score at DCC would have been a more respectable 18-under instead of 26-under. In fact, DCC could even go a step further and play the 246-metre 18th as a long par 3 in tournaments.
The bushveld experience at Euphoria was another demanding course for the Limpopo Championship, where it has now been played for the last four years. There the average score was 72.59. Euphoria, the same length as Pecanwood, is a testing challenge for elite golfers with its raised greens, plentiful bunkering and strong holes. It had the second longest par 5 on tour, the 605-metre 18th, and the longest par 3, the 222-metre eighth. That proved to be the most troublesome hole, playing at an average of 3.30.
The longest par 5 was the 619-metre third at Serengeti, which averaged 4.93 from a limited field of 37 golfers.