A little away from the more familiar Johannesburg tracks is a course which is here to stay, writes BEN KARPINSKI.
From classic championship institutions such as Royal Johannesburg and Kensington and Glendower, through evergreen country clubs like Country Club Johannesburg and Bryanston, all the way through to the modern show-stoppers of Steyn City and Blair Atholl, Johannesburg is a golfing hub like no other.
But the recently upgraded Soweto Country Club is our focus this month. Situated in Pimville, Soweto, between Eldorado Park and Kliptown, the course was established in 1974, designed by Gary Player on a very modest budget. It went by a variety of names: The Pimville Golf Course, Soweto West Country Club and Pimville Golf Club before finally settling on Soweto Country Club.
At first, it was not much more than an open expanse of land with sand greens and some trees vaguely dictating the flow of play. Sunday churchgoers crossed the fairways en route to their places of worship, while intrepid players criss-crossed around them in search of par. It was nevertheless a facility fiercely contested by different unions and associations. Naturally this was because during apartheid it was the only place where South African black golfers could play in the region.
By 1980 progress started to be made when the sand greens were converted to grass, under the eye of the late Fox Bosman, who became the club’s first greenkeeper. But nothing elevated the status and playability of the club quite like the renovation that was unveiled in March 2019.
Upon arriving at the club, a manageable 30-minute drive from the northern suburbs of Johannesburg, you are given a friendly welcome at the parking lot. The clubhouse is modest in size, but well equipped to provide all you need for a great day out. The caddies, mostly from the nearby Pimville region, are an absolute must for your round.
The layout, even from the championship tees, is not the longest by any stretch of the imagination. Many holes twist and turn, with the 1st offering a slight dogleg left and instantly revealing the character of the course and the established tree lines.
When Player redesigned the course he wanted to change the layout as little as possible. Incredible work was done in creating new greens and bunker complexes, but the holes still run their original course. One of two ‘new’ holes, though, is the par-three 2nd. Having played the 1st as a gentle par four, when you stand on that 2nd tee box, which usually plays a little into the wind, the course doesn’t appear to be the pushover the scorecard suggests.
The 3rd hole is the lone par five on the front nine, with the tree-lined fairway opening up into a brilliant dogleg left where the longer hitters get a real chance of birdie.
Your round now very much under way, you start to get into a rhythm for what the course is about. The holes are mostly set in an up-and-down formation; down being played in a southerly direction with the prevailing wind at your back, up being holes played northerly with the wind against you.
At the 7th hole, you are faced with an extremely tough par three regardless of the wind. At 214m from the championship tee, with a sharply contoured green, par is a terrific score here. If this hole doesn’t trouble the scorecard, the super tight par-four 8th just might, with the front nine coming to a close with another well-constructed dogleg par four where the position of your drive is key.
The back nine is where the Soweto Country Club truly comes alive and opens up a bit. The 10th hole is a handsome par five where accuracy trumps power. A drive must be placed down a corridor of trees and the approach must be kept left of a newly developed water hazard.
The 11th hole used to be a somewhat unremarkable short par three, but with the revamp it is now a risk-versus-reward par four where the big hitters can take on the trees down the right, while the more conservative players off the tee would be better served finding the left half of the fairway. From here water again comes into play on the approach, with anything overcooked on the right side getting penalised.
The par-five 12th is another tricky dogleg where, line wise, you must take your medicine off the tee. Thick rough up the left side will quickly create a big number for you and make any approach for the green in two almost impossible. The course returns to its familiar up-and-down flow from here with the drivable par-four 13th providing another tremendous risk-and-reward hole of which to take advantage.
Nos 14, 15 and 16 are also tight par fours of varying distances, emphasising the need for accuracy. The 17th is another strong par three that plays to a relatively flat and accommodating green that sits without the defence of any bunkers. This all sets you up for a final turn for home on 18 and a true championship finishing hole. A large fairway bunker provides a marker for your tee shot. Though somewhat deceptively placed for the first-timer, you need to end up to the right of it to give yourself the best chance of attacking the green with your approach. The most densely tree-lined of the fairways, the green opens up nicely with just a bunker on the left to be avoided. And with that you can roll in a putt to round off a truly fun golf experience.
Many words can be used when describing Soweto Country Club, but fun is one that kept popping up over the 18 holes. It’s really got a little something for everyone, and is a layout you certainly want to try your luck on again very soon.