The new millennium has seen a remarkable increase in the number of new courses opened for play in South Africa, a grand total of 53. As many as 43 which now have 18 holes, plus ten 9-holers. Nearly all opened in the boom years between 2000 and 2010, and the golf course design and construction industry has been comparatively inactive since then.
Yet there has also been an equivalent loss of courses in the same period, more 9-holers than those with 18. Some belonged to the mining industry, while remote locations proved problematic for costly-to-maintain 18-holers. Several city courses also shut their gates, selling up for development reasons, or bankruptcy.
Two of those 53 new courses, Legend (resort in Limpopo) and Bushman Sands (residential estate in Eastern Cape), were among the casualties. Their remote localities proved a liability, as it did for Fish River (Eastern Cape resort) and Leopard Park (residential estate in the North West). Two other remote estate courses were built and never opened for play due to the downturn in the economy after 2008. These were Nondela in Northern KwaZulu-Natal (Ernie Els design) and Tsitsikamma at Storms River in the Garden Route (Golf Data).
Speak to old-timers and they will provide you with a lengthy list of course closures over the last half-century, but the last 25 years have probably seen more than usual. An average of one a year when it comes to 18-holers.
They include some cherished standout layouts such as Kensington, King David, Fish River, Crown Mines and Hans Merensky. Fortunately the latter is likely to be revived under new ownership, which is welcome news.
Even with the addition of all these new courses, a census by SA Top 100 courses has revealed that currently 414 golf courses have affiliation to GolfRSA, a breakdown of 195 with 18 holes, and 219 with 9 holes. That includes a unique 13-hole course at Ladysmith in KwaZulu-Natal. The 9-holers include the extra nines at two 27-hole facilities, Hermanus and Paarl.
Not included among the 414 courses is the 18-hole Whistling Thorn Par 3 Course at Serengeti Estates in Gauteng.
There are additional courses which have no affiliation to GolfRSA, among them two 9-holers in Mpumalanga and Limpopo, another 18-hole Par 3 Course at Hazendal wine estate in the Western Cape, the 9-hole Sedge Links in the Garden Route, with a mix of par 3s and short par 4s, and 9-hole Penn Valley on the KZN South Coast.
We remain a small golfing nation in a big country, with 129 118 affiliated men and women – and that’s after the Covid boost to golf, which saw affiliation jump by 5 329 from the 2020 total of 123 789. Disappointing though remains the number of women golfers, just 14 228, which is 1 500 down from 2017. The decline has been most severe in two of the biggest unions, Western Province and Central Gauteng.
Central Gauteng, once having the biggest membership of the 14 provincial unions, has seen its affiliated numbers plummet to 21 000, a drop of 12.5% over the past five years. It is now a distant No 2 behind KZN, which has 26 086. However, this is a misleading figure. The true number of golfers who reside in KZN is considerably fewer.
Two remote KZN clubs, Port Shepstone (5560 members) and Cathedral Peak (4675), have cornered the “virtual membership” market by offering cheap deals snapped up by locals countrywide and foreigners. Between them they have 10 235 members, some 8% of the total SA affiliation numbers!
In addition, two other minor KZN clubs, Drakensberg Gardens and Umfolozi, again far from any metropole, have 2 442 members. This is slightly less than the combined membership of Mount Edgecombe (948), Durban Country Club (660), Umhlali (560) and Simbithi (560), among the busiest clubs in the province.
Outside the main metropolitan areas courses are few and far between. The Eastern Cape is more than twice the size of Scotland, yet has 46 courses compared to Scotland’s 550. The Northern Cape is more than twice the size of the Eastern Cape, and has 27 courses with 1 545 members. Ulco GC near Kimberley might have the smallest membership of any in SA with a course, a mere 10.
By contrast, in the greater Gauteng region, golfers have a choice of 65 18-hole courses within a 100-kilometre radius of Observatory GC, the closest course to the Johannesburg CBD. That is one-third of the total 18-holers in South Africa.
CHANGING THE LANDSCAPE
Those 53 new courses since 2000 substantially altered the landscape of the original Golf Digest Top 100 rankings. Nine of the new 18-holers have never made the Top 100 – that list includes Millvale, an exclusive private club in the North West with no wish to be ranked – but the majority of the other 34 have pushed out many respected courses that featured prominently. Plus a “9-holer” with 12 greens, Gowrie Farm, which made it into the Top 50. It is now 18, although the new holes are still growing in.
Other modern courses which began as 9-holers and added an extra 9 are Goose Valley, St Francis Bay, Seasons, Vulintaba and Millvale. Three new 18-holers, Clarens, Parys and Robertson (all estates), were built on the sites of original 9-holers without using the old holes.
Our census indicates that 50 courses are no longer with us from those counted in 2000. The split is 23 of 18 holes, and 27 of 9 holes. We lost eight Bob Grimsdell designs, four by Gary Player, and one by Peter Matkovich. One of the 18-holers to close was considered SA’s absolute worst course, with sand and oil greens, in the Northern Cape near Upington, but it had one of the best names, Eureka!
There is a possibility Legend and Hans Merensky will re-open, as happened with Huddle Park in Johannesburg, where the Blue Course was restored on property which once boasted 54 holes, and Emfuleni (now back in the Top 100) and Vaal de Grace (shut during Covid).
Incidentally, three of those 50 courses lost have been rebuilt as entirely new designs – Hermanus, Houghton and Wedgewood.
We are seeing a recent trend of 18-hole courses being reduced to 9 for a variety of reasons, mostly financial. These are Durban’s Beachwood (earmarked for development), Sakabula in the KZN Midlands (development again on the back nine), the Free State’s Sand River and Ladybrand, Walmer CC (Eastern Cape) and Zwartkop (Gauteng North). Walmer in Port Elizabeth did close as a club, yet 14 holes remain open in poor condition, with a container as a clubhouse.
18-HOLE COURSES OPENED SINCE 2000
Central Gauteng (6): Eagle Canyon, Eye of Africa, Houghton, Jackal Creek, Soweto, Steyn City.
Eastern Cape (6): Bushman Sands, Katberg, Olivewood, St Francis Links,
The Belmont, Wedgewood
Garden Route (6): Kingswood, Oubaai, Pezula, Pinnacle Point, Simola,
The Links at Fancourt
Limpopo (5): Elements, Euphoria, Koro Creek, Legend, Zebula
Free State (4): Clarens, Heron Banks, Parys, Vaal de Grace
Gauteng North (4): Blair Atholl, Blue Valley, Els Club Copperleaf, Pebble Rock
KZN (4): Cotswold Downs, Gowrie Farm*, Simbithi, Vulintaba*
Western Cape (4): Atlantic Beach, Hermanus (27 holes), Pearl Valley, Robertson
Ekurhuleni (2): Ebotse Links, Serengeti
North West: Millvale*
Mpumalanga: Highland Gate
*Originally opened as a 9-holer
18-HOLE COURSES CLOSED SINCE 2000
Gauteng (7): Crown Mines, Houghton*, Huddle Park (2), Leeuwkop, Ohenimuri, Randfontein
Eastern Cape (6): Alexander, Bushman Sands, Fish River, Grahamstown,
King William’s Town, Wedgewood*
Western Cape (3): Bramble Hill, King David, Hermanus*
North West (3): Blyvooruitzicht, Leopard Park, Stilfontein
Limpopo (2): Hans Merensky, Legend
Mpumalanga (1): Tweefontein
Northern Cape (1): Eureka
*New course built on old site