• Horses for courses

    Brandon Stone at Leopard Creek
    Stone at Leopard Creek

    Each month Compleat Golfer’s playing editor Brandon Stone takes us into his world. In this issue he argues that many golf courses are changing for the wrong reasons…

    I have often wondered what turns a good golf course into a great one. For me, the most important thing is playability.

    It’s noticeable how most new course designs focus on them being ‘championship’ courses with the designer seeming to have the top-level golfer in mind. I can’t help but feel it’s the wrong mentality.

    The average handicap is around 17 and less than 1% of all golfers have scratch handicaps. Growing the game is something we’re all invested in and you will have come to understand by now that I’m strong on the enjoyment factor. You need to have a bit of fun out there and remember the maxim, a bad day on the
    golf course beats a good day at the office!

    So in terms of new golf course designs, why are they producing layouts that are over 7 000m in length and play extremely tough? Surely I’m not being too simplistic when I reckon that courses should test your ability, but also leave you with positive memories?

    The redesigned Leopard Creek Country Club is a prime example of how it should be done, with the changes, like shallowing the bunkers and changing the grass type, making the course a lot more playable for the members.

    The ball now runs a lot more on the fairways, which gives the average golfer a lot more distance off the tee, which is never a bad thing! The shallower bunkers help promote easier escapes, and all these changes have made the members very happy; understandably so.

    Yet the course is still no pushover. For the 2018 Alfred Dunhill Championship they got the greens super firm and really fast, which made low scoring tough and ensured that the elite professional golfer was given a stern test with the putter in hand.

    Another good example of a smart redesign is Royal Johannesburg and Kensington East Course. When I first spoke to their CEO, Chris Bentley, about the renovation, he said: ‘We are going to make the course more playable for our members and their guests, because they are our main concern.’ And Chris has lived up to his promise, with the result that everyone is a winner.

    They’ve taken out bunkers, softened the sloping on the greens and cut away a lot of overhanging trees. But most impressive of all was their attention to detail. Anyone who’s played Royal Johannesburg and Kensington will know that the course is always in superb condition. And as far as I’m concerned, that’s what a golf club should focus on.

    However, these two examples are in the minority, unfortunately. I look around and see so many ‘old school’ country clubs either adding tee boxes to make the course longer or adding bunkers where they really shouldn’t. No one is going to arrive at a golf day and reduce their course to a pitch and putt, so why are they trying to make it a harrowing experience for everyone?

    I’ve yet to come across anyone who loves making 28 points in their weekly competition, battling the course as much as they’re battling their game. Golf needs to be about the experience, providing the platform to have fun and wanting you to book your next round the minute you step off the 18th green.

    I’d rather see a club use the money they’ve spent on moving tee boxes and adding bunkers to improve the condition of the course. Work on ensuring the overall experience is what leaves the lingering memories. Pay attention to the small things that count. Pitchmarks make a massive difference to a course. Deal with them and improve things for the average golfer. A solution – because I’m not the type of person who moans without offering one – is to remunerate a group of caddies on a Monday morning and ask them to repair the pitchmarks left by the weekend golfers.

    Also, it wouldn’t be too expensive for the club to cut the fairways and greens more often, thereby improving the quality of these areas. These are small things that would make a big difference. The focus should be on making things better, not tougher, for the average golfer.

    When you get to the 19th hole you want to enjoy a bit of banter and a lot of laughter. You don’t want to walk into the clubhouse or the change rooms and hear about how good shots were punished, how the severe bunkers ruined someone’s round or how they kept three-putting the tough greens.

    Gary Player has also often spoken about this when he says designers are changing courses and building new ones based on the Dustin Johnsons of this world. They’re lengthening them and then placing bunkers in the middle of the fairway. Sure, those bunkers can be flown by the ‘bombers’, but they’re punishing those who are the heart and soul of the game, the average handicapper, who will invariably find that bunker with their second shot.

    My father has always believed that if you look after the course and its members you’ll have a fantastic energy at the club. And that’s what every golf club should be aspiring to achieve. The experience on the fairways and greens creates the entire experience in a golf club. The trick is to make sure it’s an enjoyable one.

    – Stone is the playing editor for Compleat Golfer, this is his May 2019 column 

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