Enter the Bullring
Hidden away in the leafy suburb of Ilovo, Johannesburg Wanderers Golf Course is steeped in history not only as a golf course but its affiliation and proximity to Wanderers club and cricket ground. One need only look at the calibre of its members to understand the allure and popularity of the course. From South Africa’s Cricketer of the 20th Century, Graeme Pollock, and the Springbok World Cup winners of 1995, captain Francois Pienaar and James Small, veteran commentator Hugh Bladen and the silky smooth putting of Mark McNulty, it oozes history and class. Standing the test of time is something very few courses can attest to but this course carries on regardless of some difficult times and the ongoing need to adjust and adapt to financially challenging times.
Although it is located in the middle of suburbia the course really allows for a round away from the hustle and bustle of the city. That is if 20 000 fans aren’t screaming for their favourite cricket team at the Bullring. The holes are packed like sardines into a small piece of land, understandable as it is in the heart of the affluent area of Sandton. Still, the layout does not feel confined and stretched out from the tips its full length reaches 6 548 metres. Previously situates nearer to the Johannesburg CBD it moved to its current location as a 10-hole course in 1939 and then became a fully-fledged 18-hole course in 1942.
Having a good balance of short par fours and long par fours it is unique in only having three par-fives. It’s greens however that elevated it high up on the totem pole of must play courses. Receptive and true, they are undoubtedly some of the best in the country and one of the main reasons this course hosted the prestigious Lexington PGA from 1972 to 1995. Professionals from the world over including Lee Trevino, Hale Irwin, Tom Lehman and the ever entertaining – as a commentator that is – David Feherty enjoyed the challenging layout. Winners of the event include Harold Henning, Dale Hayes, John Bland, Gary Player, Hugh Baiocchi, David Frost, McNulty and Ernie Els, which is pretty much the whose who of South African golf.
A little known fact about Wanderers is its very unique variety of trees on the property, some indigenous and others from further afield. The fairways are defined by a great variation from White Stinkwoods and Black Karee, indigenous to England, as well as Pin Oak and Chestnuts. It is also these trees that dictate the need for accuracy off most of the tee boxes. Many a time the driver can be left in the bag, which may not be a bad idea especially on the par fives as it is only the real big hitters who will be able to reach them in two.
The opening hole is a perfect example of why accuracy is so important on this undulating parkland layout. Not necessarily off the tee but whether laying up or going for the narrow green you simply can’t miss the target on this 492-metre par five. The ever-tightening fairway makes for a tough landing area as it approaches the raised green. Elongated from front to back and bunkers left and right it shocks you into rechecking your yardage. The second hole is a pretty innocuous par four with its main protection coming from five greenside bunkers. The third with a fairly narrow sloping fairway makes for a difficult landing area and has four bunkers protecting the elevated green.
Another par four awaits from the fourth tee box and although not long at 351 metres it is a superb example of a visually intimidating design. From the tee the chute of trees draws your eye down the fairway which slides from left to right. Missing the fairway leaves the tough task of finding the green with a bunker both left and right. This is a perfect example of leave the driver in the bag hole.
Having just played the stroke five you turn back on yourself for another par four with a stroke index three. It is at this stage you start to wonder if the Bullring name came from the cricket stadium or course itself. Large fairways bunkers on either side of the fairway await a mishit drive. A gradual dogleg left requires a very tight line off the tee or a drawing ball flight (For the right hander) to stay on the short stuff. Once again a slightly elevated green with a bunker left needs to be found to secure an elusive par.
The only par three on the front nine is next with its large sloping two-tiered green its stroke 11 should not be misinterpreted for easy. Three nasty little bunkers protect it and if the flag is on the top right tier, the middle of the green is a good option. Next up, the stroke one, another par four requiring accuracy to avoid the fairway bunker from the elevated tee. The elevated green, another two-tiered monster is protected by three bunkers on its right flank making it a must hit target. The closing two holes of the nine are relatively short par fours with the eighth presenting a real birdie opportunity for the stroke makers. The ninth dictates accuracy off the tee to fairway sloping from right to left.
The back nine starts off with a long par five riddled with danger. Out of bounds right the cricket stadium is tough to ignore when there’s a live game. Closer to the green water needs to be negotiated to a very well protected green. Aggressive play seldom pays off on this hole. The 11th is a dogleg left with a tight landing area and out of bounds right. The 12th is the first of three short holes on the back nine and is pretty straightforward at 151 metres with the middle of the green a good target regardless of the flag position.
The balance of long and short, dogleg left and right should become noticeable as the 13th is played. This par five, dogleg right, again requires accuracy off the tee, with the green in range for the longer hitters. Numerous bunkers left short and leading up to the green are best avoided. The long 398 metre par-four 14th is straight as it comes but finding the fairway is a must. The par three-15th is discussed in our pro tip by Golf Director Francois Spangenberg, see page 71.
The final three holes are some of the toughest finishing holes in the country and ideal for games going down to the wire. The 16th is a tough uphill par four measuring 397 metres. A strongly right-to-left sloping fairway has to be found in the quest for par. The elevated green is a long narrow target bunkered left and strongly sloping from back to front. Leaving the ball below the hole would be advisable.
Following the monstrous 16th the diminutive par three 17th should not be underestimated. The two-tiered green with a bunker front and back is well below the level of the tee box only 147 metres away. The drop in elevation makes club selection paramount in finding the putting surface. Leaving the ball on the wrong level will make it that much more difficult to score par. Tipping the yardage book at 400 metres the only straightforward feature of the uphill stroke two 18th is its fairway. The further up the fairway the drive lands the narrower the fairway gets. The approach to the long green must avoid the four bunkers protecting it. Again the green slopes strongly from back to front so leaving the ball below the hole should be the goal.
The short walk from the 18th to the famous clubhouse overlooking the course allows time to reflect on what must be considered a challenging layout. Fair but tough are the words the ring true for this elegant old lady designed by Bob Grimsdell. The clubhouse is littered with trophies and memorabilia indicative of the status of the club and its esteemed members. Its location and proximity to the financial hub of the country, numerous upmarket restaurants and shopping centres as well as accessibility by main highway make for a must play course.
PULL OUT BOX IN THE COPY
Although greens are elevated and well protected they are superbly true and are a joy for those with a good stroke. Be aware of the continual undulations in the course, although subtle, they do have a say in club selection especially with numerous elevated greens. Frostbitten fairways in winter mean the ball rolls substantial distances. Taking this into consideration on many of the sloping fairways should be part of the strategy for better scoring.
Week days: 18 holes R310 (9 holes R160)
Weekends: 18 holes R450 (9 holes R230)
Week days: 18 holes R450 (9 holes R190)
Weekends: 18 holes R700 (9 holes R350)
Golf carts: 18 holes R280 (9 holes R140)
DISTANCES (FROM, ESTIMATED)
Port Elizabeth: 891km
East London: 1 039km
Cape Town: 1 261km