When the idea of a Top 100 Courses digital site took shape last year I knew that when all the work was done, the content researched and written, the next step would be to travel around the country visiting the courses.
What I hadn’t envisaged was one lengthy road trip lasting 10 weeks and 7500 kilometres of driving. It sounded insane and exhausting, living out of a suitcase and covering so much distance. But looking at the alternatives – booking flights and hire cars to and from a variety of regions – the road trip made sense in every way.
The golf clubs would lie in the back seat, and everything else necessary for the expedition was in the boot.
And this trip would connect me to large tracts of our vast country, not just fly over most of it. I committed myself to travelling roads I had never seen before, and seek detours, particularly unscheduled visits to any golf club I happened to pass along the way.
That’s how I happened to meet Benny Arendse at Victoria West in the Karoo in my first week of the road trip, which began on Monday, March 2 when I left Cape Town.
My road trip is progressing in a clockwise direction, heading north, and then gradually making my way to the east coast. But the first day I did travel east along the N2 to Mossel Bay and George. This is still the height of the Garden Route tourist season, and Pinnacle Point, Mossel Bay, George and Kingswood were busy. Fancourt was hosting the BMW World Finals on the Montagu and Outeniqua courses, and 200 competitors from 30-odd nations had the place to themselves. Not a golf cart in sight. Every competitor with their own caddie. It was like stepping back in time.
Pinnacle Point was misty, Mossel Bay shrouded even more thickly – although that did not deter anyone from playing – but the sun was out later in the day at Oubaai. Teeing off at 4pm I had the course to myself, and it surprises me so few golfers take advantage of late-afternoon summer rounds. The light is softer and you can play until after 7. The locker room has two framed mementos of Ernie Els’ US Open victories at Oakmont and Congressional with signatures from every competitor.
I stayed at the Oubaai Hotel, smart and comfortable venue with spacious rooms seemingly the size of greens on the course. The third-floor views inland and over the coast are stupendous.
Early Friday I departed George over the Outeniqua Pass to Oudtshoorn. My car was the first at the golf club, the staff get there by other means. There’s no club manager, the barman is in charge. Sprinklers were giving the greens an early-morning soak, and I went for a walk. I’d played Oudtshoorn many moons ago, and on close inspection it’s an attractive Bob Grimsdell design that merits a round (R200). The fairways are patchy, but the greens are in good shape, and the arid surrounds stand out in contrast to the lush and manicured Garden Route venues.
This is Karoo bushveld golf, and numerous trees make for a pleasurable walk, although I would recommend an early start in summer to avoid the heat that’s coming. A course I would describe as a hidden gem in an era when there are fewer of them to find. There were plans to build a golf estate here, and thank goodness that didn’t happen. Much of Oudtshoorn’s charm could have vanished. Plenty of strong holes, and interesting shorter ones. Bobby Locke played here as a 62-year-old in 1980 and shot 76. The scorecard and photo is in the clubhouse.
The N12 from Oudtshoorn to Beaufort West winds through the magnificent Meiringspoort rock formations. This day would see me travel 1 000 kilometres to Kathu in the Northern Cape. With my stops I was on the road for 12 hours. The N12 ends at Beaufort West and resumes again at Three Sisters on its way to Kimberley. Three hours after leaving Oudtshoorn I was at Victoria West GC, on a hot and arid plain. No golf course had ever looked less enticing.
This is where I met Benny Arendse in his blue overalls as I was leaning over the fence by the clubhouse looking at the 18th “brown,” an oily circle on flat ground. Benny was enthusiastic seeing another person – again mine was the only car there – and ushered me through two locked gates into the course. He would have shown me all 18 holes, but I balked at the first tee on going any further. The only grass I could see was the lawn in front of the clubhouse. The fairways are sandy areas between scrubland, and golfers here play their shots from mats. Hardly a tree to be seen.
An old tractor perched on the edge of the ninth “brown” and it’s used to drag the putting surfaces to keep them smooth. Benny explained they weren’t as good as they should be, but he was waiting for the Victoria West Classic in May. It has been going many decades and still attracts hundreds of golfers for what I’m told is a festive occasion. “We mix river sand with old engine oil collected from garages around the region,” explained Benny. “The greens are swept clean, and we spread this mixture out. We employ extra staff to do that.”
Kathu is not an easy place to reach from Victoria West. The direct roads are roughly gravelled. If I’d had a bakkie I would have gone from Hopetown to Douglas (near the confluence of the Vaal and Orange rivers) and then to Postmasburg. It was 101 kilometres further via Kimberley, but no loss of time on tarmac. Mind you, the R31 from Kimberley is a busy road, laden with mine trucks, unpleasant after the delightful N12.