Evolving from an automobile club, Killarney Country Club is superbly defined by its city surroundings, writes BEN KARPINSKI.
Every golf club has a story. It is something that makes the game unique, in that the place of play is always so much more than just that. And the further the club goes back in history, the greater the stories that can be told of it.
Killarney Country Club has a story dating back to the start of the 20th century. Situated in Joburg’s high-profile northern suburbs, it was originally a club dedicated to motoring with an exclusive group of early-day car owners naming it the Transvaal Automobile Club (TAC). Nestled on what was then Cooks Farm in the affluent area of Houghton, the club evolved into the Automobile Association of South Africa (AASA).
As cars became more ubiquitous, the appeal of the once-specialist club started to wane, but with more motorists taking to the streets, it refocused on roadside assistance and new premises were sought, closer to the Johannesburg commercial hub.
The TAC, however, retained its status of a social club, and it became a popular retreat for nearby residents, offering croquet, tennis, bowls and golf. The story of the club could easily have ended there and been a good one to this day but for a highway that was to really define the golf club’s future.
The M1 highway, which today links Johannesburg to Pretoria, was to change the layout of the golf course considerably. But a dilemma was turned into a unique golfing opportunity. Legend has it that former club captain David Black met Robert Trent Jones at the 1967 US Open and lured him to South Africa for $10 000 and six first-class air tickets. Jones apparently felt he would have more course work out here, but his achievement of creating a fine golf course on a narrow strip of land, which became known as the Killarney course we experience today, was to be his one and only design in the country.
Apart from laying out a challenging yet enjoyable course that at no stage is ever wider than two fairways across, Robert Trent Jones also insisted that Killarney be the first course in the country to have bentgrass greens. Setting the trend for the rest to follow, the course is famous for having some of the best greens in South Africa.
You will probably get your first taste of this on the practice putting green before heading to the 1st hole, a gentle par four. Although the obvious feeling about playing Killarney is that you are in for a round that requires pinpoint accuracy off the tee throughout, the 1st hole eases you into the game.
The course is set on three sections of land joined by tunnels which take you under roads feeding to the M1 highway. After going through the first tunnel, which takes you to the top section, you are confronted with the unique risk/reward 2nd hole. Whether laying up, or having a crack at the green, there is no real bailout on this hole which is an attention-grabbing contrast to the 1st hole. Playing up towards Joburg’s ever-striking skyline, the course opens up a little from here with the par-four 3rd hole, winding back towards the first par three.
Killarney has a tremendous collection of short holes, with the 4th perhaps being the pick of the bunch. Playing as much as a mid-iron for your average player, the famous canal that winds its way through the course penalises anything too far out to the right. But like most holes on the course, once you eliminate the focus on the trouble around the greens, you are met with an ample target.
One of the most picturesque holes on the course is the par-five 5th. Here your drive needs to favour the tree-lined right side of the fairway, giving longer hitters a good chance of getting on in two. From there you head back towards the clubhouse with a delightful gauntlet of diverse holes. Diverse in that you have the par-three 6th and short par-four 8th holes giving you good scoring opportunities. But with the 7th and 9th holes, you are faced with two par fours that are absolute brutes from tee to green with strokes of one and five, respectively.
The back nine starts in a similar vein. Measuring 420m from the club tee, the tee shot on the 10th is perhaps the most demanding, needing to be straight and long enough to have a reasonable shot into the green. From here you access the bottom section of the course via another tunnel, and a set of holes that require a fair amount of strategy off the tee. The 11th and 12th holes are both relatively short par fours that allow for the longer hitters to focus more on placement with perhaps a long-iron. Then the par-four 13th provides one of the toughest and impressive holes beautifully framed from start to finish.
The 14th hole is another enjoyable par three where you play to a green well below the tee box with water to cover on the approach.
Heading back towards the clubhouse, the par-five 15th hole may be the stroke 18 on the card but it is anything but a pushover. Especially when reaching the green where water guards the left side, making for a nervy approach no matter the strategy.
The old, established tall trees and famous Johannesburg parkland feel make Killarney a gem. Yes, the narrow nature of the design is felt in places, but with its superior conditioning and wonderfully framed holes, this doesn’t always play on your mind as much as you would expect.
Returning to the middle section of the course, the dogleg-left par-four 16th is a great example of this, allowing you to swing a little more freely to advance your ball to the uphill fairway, en route to the green around the corner. The 17th is another solid par three which then sets up the brilliant par-four 18th hole.
Not much to worry about length-wise at around 350m from the club tee, you do however have to advance your drive up the right-hand side of the hole. With water short and left of the green for your approach, anything tangled up in the trees down the left makes par a very challenging score.
Navigate this correctly, though, and you have a relatively flat and welcoming green to end your round with. And with the resident swans bobbing in the water a few metres away, and a comfortable clubhouse awaiting for an after-round drink, you will certainly want to return to do it all again sometime soon.
18th hole, 348m, par four
Measuring only 6 078m from the club tees, Killarney is not the longest course out there, especially by Highveld standards. What it lacks in length, though, is certainly made up for in picturesque holes with a premium on accuracy and a bit of strategy from the tee. The signature hole, the par-four 18th, illustrates this brilliantly.
Killarney Country Club’s golf and operations manager, Barry Steen, says: ‘Finishing holes are often what golf courses are remembered for, and at Killarney Country Club we are proud to offer something memorable. By modern standards it is a pretty a short hole at just 348m from the club tee, but even the most confident of big hitters is forced to consider what to do on the tee box.
‘The prudent way is to play to the right half of the fairway, ideally giving yourself around 100m to the green. This puts you at the best part of the fairway before it starts to slope and narrow towards the dam that guards the entire left side of the green.
‘Getting this right is half the battle won, as the green is relatively flat with space to the right for anything pushed too far offline.
‘However, there are also two bunkers on the right side that you will want to avoid as no amateur likes to play towards the water from the sand. Especially with those who have finished their rounds looking on from the nearby bar!’
Weekdays before 8am: R275
Sunday afternoons: R350
Cape Town: 1 404km
Gqeberha: 1 053km
East London: 968km
BY ROAD (FROM OR TAMBO AIRPORT)
Get on the R24 in Isando from Exit 46. Continue on the R24 to Bruma, Johannesburg. Continue on Marcia St, take the M33 and Osborn Rd to 11th Ave/R25 in Norwood. Turn left on to 11th Ave/R25. Turn right on to 5th St.
60 5th St, Houghton Estate, Johannesburg 2198
Tel: (011) 442 7411
Email: [email protected]
– This article first appeared in the March 2022 issue of Compleat Golfer magazine. Subscribe here!