The natural charm of Zwartkop Country Club, along with the club’s focus on enjoyment, will leave you wanting more, writes BEN KARPINSKI in Compleat Golfer.
Golf is still sometimes seen as an elitist sport. One where tradition trumps function, and an old guard quite literally guards the old ways of things, reluctant to usher in a more contemporary way of being.
Steeped in tradition, but very much focused on the many joys of golf, Zwartkop is anything but this. It is a place where the game has evolved into an attraction for all, and has essentially become the very definition of the country club experience. By teeing up here, you also get to enjoy a piece of South African golfing history.
Situated just west of Pretoria in northern Gauteng, some of the best in the game have walked the fairways here. Locke, Player, Palmer, Nicklaus, Casper, Jacklin, Ballesteros, Faldo, Price… the names punctuate a celebrated past where pros and members have tested their games over the years, and returned time and time again for more.
Zwartkop hosted the 1955 SA Open and is still the only course in the Pretoria region to have held this honour. Before hosting the tournament, iconic golf course architect Bob Grimsdell renovated the layout, giving it much of the charm and quality you see today. From this base numerous pro events were staged at the club, with it playing host to a star-studded tournament of yesteryear, the ICL International. Zwartkop staged this event from 1984 to 1995, but historically it also boasted numerous high-profile exhibition matches where Gary Player took on the best players in the world in front of vast local crowds. A stroll through the clubhouse before the round takes you back to those times, with priceless memorabilia and photos immortalising them for all to see.
The most impressive part of the club’s history, however, comes from one family in particular: the Hayes, who have been an integral part of the club from as far back as 1940. The late Otway Hayes arrived at Zwartkop back then as the club’s professional, and now, almost 80 years on, the family owns the club outright and are directly involved in all that makes it such a special place for members and guests alike.
Measuring just 6 206m from the club tees at altitude, Zwartkop is not naturally long. Grimsdell relied on the defining trees and Hennops River to give the course not only its beauty, but also its challenges. Together with well-positioned bunkers and smaller-than-usual greens, the course always tested the professionals, but from forward tee settings still made for an enjoyable experience for the everyday golfer.
Your round begins with the gentle par-five 1st hole taking you away from the clubhouse. A straightforward hole that provides a real chance of birdie, but from there the Zwartkop experience becomes unique. The par-four 2nd bends from left to right, with water down the right side capturing anything leaked off the tee. Depending on the time of year you play the hole, however, you may get lucky and have a lie out there. Back in a particularly dry winter in the late 1950s, Otway Hayes’ assistant Tony Rice decided to play his ball from the lifeless hazard, and with a 5-iron sliced it around the trees where the 150m marker sits today and managed to hole out for an eagle-two!
The 3rd hole has some unique history in that this was where a young Dale Hayes got his first hole-in-one. At the age of nine he used a 4-wood to record the feat. He ran back to the clubhouse to inform his dad Otway of the incredible news and then ran back to complete his round. Legend has it that was the last time he ran at all!
One of Zwartkop’s greatest features is that it certainly makes you think off the tee. You can try to overpower it with modern-day equipment, and those skilled enough to shape it both ways with driver can create some scoring opportunities. But the classic layout still makes staying in play the name of the game, taking us back to a time when golf was more a game of skill and finesse than power, as it is fast becoming.
Sadly, each summer the Hennops River is bound to play havoc on the course, often rising to flood levels, rendering some holes unplayable. As a result the quality of grass is compromised in places. Despite this, the grounds staff always ensure the greens and fairways are in good condition by using a variety of grasses to adjust to the elements. The rough, though, can be extremely penal in the lower sections.
The trees give a constant natural beauty to the course, but also an ever-present challenge. On the 6th hole, a tree sits squarely on the left side of the fairway, meaning you have to favour the right side. This may make the hole a little longer, but it is your best bet for having a clear shot to the green.
There are five par-threes on the course, the most straightforward of which is the 7th hole. Just as well, as the front nine comes to a tricky end with two strong par-fours that can easily ruin a tidy scorecard. Speaking of which, if your ball hasn’t found a watery grave by this stage, you have done particularly well.
The 9th hole doesn’t just bring you back to the clubhouse along another impressive tree-lined corridor. It also gives you a glance at the par-three mashie course that is a firm favourite with those just getting into the game, or members looking to have a bit of afternoon fun with their short game.
Picking up from the close of the front nine, the back nine starts with two challenging holes that require strong tee shots to set up manageable approaches to the green. The 11th, in particular (the stroke one for the course), is a hole that even by modern standards is a beast of a par-four at 443m long.
The first of the three par-threes on the back nine brings the river back into play. Like the other short holes, you may not have a long club in your hands, but accuracy is vitally important as you approach the smaller greens. The short par-fourth 13th requires a fair amount of strategy off the tee as water snakes across the front of the green, meaning driver is seldom in play for the longer hitters.
The par-four 14th is one of the more spectacular holes here. Though mature trees define each hole on the course, here, in particular, you need to play around them with great precision on the drive and approach.
Around the turn of the century, Peter Matkovich redesigned the 15th hole. Originally a short dogleg par-four, it is now the longest of the par-threes, and uniquely without water in play.
The wraparound stretch for home is then an exciting one where scoring is certainly a little easier. The par-five 16th is the stroke 17, the par-three 17th the stroke 13 and the closing par-five 18th the stroke 15. A fitting end, really, as Zwartkop prides itself on being a course where they look to make things easier instead of harder for the golfer.
That’s the philosophy Dale Hayes and his team live by here. The golf course will never be a pushover, owing to its natural charms and meandering layout, but they want golfers to enjoy themselves wherever possible when they tee it up here.
Some say the membership model at golf courses is dying and much needs to change to retain members, and indeed attract new generations. Zwartkop, though, reminds us that sometimes you don’t need to fix what isn’t broken. A round of golf here is an enjoyable experience. This is a genuine middle-of-the-road club that gets the basics right, making golfers feel like they are at a place where they are valued and have all they need to get the most out of their game.
This is where the Hayes family touch comes to the fore. Not only is the pro shop one of the best you will see at a golf club, it also has an extensive library where members can loan out books on a variety of golfing subjects. There is a hair salon where members receive preferential pricing, and dining options to suit the needs of a family and corporate entertainment.
It sort of feels like home at Zwartkop and that is exactly what the country club was always designed to be, and naturally still is in this case.