Course of the month – Short but very sweet

Southbroom is something of an institution. One of the most popular ‘holiday’ courses on KwaZulu-Natal’s South Coast, it is visited by thousands of local and foreign tourists each year and the course continues to garner new devotees. John Botha explains why:
In an era when so many new courses are being built, each employing modern construction techniques and fashionable designs, the message from golfers is clear: most of these courses are simply too long and too tough. That a course such as Southbroom remains so high on golfers’ hit parades proves that longer is not necessarily better.

This course cannot be stretched beyond its modest proportions and it doesn’t pretend to have any fancy defences against the modern golf ball and equipment. The greens complexes are not fashioned into weird and wonderful shapes, or designed to bedevil even the most proficient players armed with lobwedges. Nor are the putting surfaces shaped, contoured and speeded up to confound players who naively believe that after hitting a reasonable shot onto the green, they should be able to hole a putt. It is obvious that golfers enjoy spending time on a course where sheer power is of little importance and, while equipment manufacturers and modern course designers continue their battle to outdo each other, the vast majority of players play the game for fun, and Southbroom certainly offers this in generous helpings.

But this charming course, as short and user-friendly though it may be, is not a pushover by any means. And contrary to what its lack of length might suggest, it doggedly refuses to be beaten into submission.

It is interesting to note that most golfers agree on what should constitute a great test of skill and very few disagree that the likes of the Gary Player Country Club, Durban Country Club, Glendower or Royal Johannesburg and Kensington’s East course should be ranked among the best championship courses in the country. But not every golfer particularly likes playing these giants, and when a cross section of golfers are asked to list their ‘favourite’ courses as opposed to what they might consider to be the ‘best’, a very different set of names emerges. It is always a good bet that Southbroom will invariably feature on lists of courses that golfers love playing.

Few golfers actually consider all the factors that influence a course’s ranking, but most are clearly influenced by three important factors: location, condition and design, and Southbroom excels in all three of these departments. And most golfers, for good reason, dislike a high frustration factor i.e. having to pull off their Sunday best shots to avoid losing a ball, tramping about in knee-high rough looking for balls, and generally finding themsellves engaged in a battle to survive the round without feeling like a rank beginner.
Southbroom’s location, on the aptly named ‘Golf Coast’ which runs south of Durban, is one of the best, and the climate that this region enjoys, described as a 12-month summer, is perfect for golf.

Subtropical temperatures and high rainfall figures mean the courses in this region are lush all year round, and Southbroom is always found to be in fine fettle. The design, which relies heavily on the use of water for its challenges, is sympathetic to the average player’s abilities without insulting them. And this would seem to be the key – this is no ‘Mickey Mouse’, pitch-and-putt layout – it has some wonderful holes that require accurate ball-striking, yet the high handicapper will not come off this course wanting to give up the game.

The opening hole sets the tone – a straightforward, 324-metre par four that has water down its right side. The 2nd, only 10 metres longer, continues to lull the player into believing that there is not too much to it, but missing the green could create problems, particularly if the approach is too long. The 3rd hole is an exceptional par four, with out-of-bounds guarding both sides of the fairway, and played into the prevailing southerly wind this two-shotter seems a lot longer than its measured 369 metres. The approach over water to the interestingly shaped green is never easy and a par here leaves one with a real sense of achievement. The next hole (the 4th and the first of the par threes) is one of the most beautiful holes to be found anywhere. With a magnificent view from the Indian Ocean, only 114 metres separates the player from the green, but with a stiff south-easterly wind blowing this can be a very elusive target indeed. Every course should have at least one tantalising short hole, and they don’t come better than this.

The 5th is one of the par fours that beg to be driven and at 255 metres it is well within range. But like all the holes here, it is never a good idea to blaze away with abandon, because a slight mis-hit could lead to disaster. The 6th, the first of the par fives, is certainly reachable in two, but the sloping fairway and a green that is well-guarded and has a stream to the right puts just enough doubt into a player’s mind. The 7th is one of the stronger par fours that demands a good approach to a green that is protected by water, trees and bunkers, and the 8th is another great par three played from an elevated tee that demands a precision iron shot. The closing hole on the outward loop is perhaps the finest of all – a tight par five with water running the length of the hole and, although reachable, it holds all sorts of perils for the less-than-perfect approach.

The homeward nine is another collection of playable holes that have unique characters, and at no time does one gain the impression that any hole was simply constructed to get the player from point A to point B. The 10th is another of those par fours that seems to be too short to really present problems, yet still demands a sensible tee shot and a good approach to a three-tiered green. This is followed by another fine par three, which is invariably played with a crosswind which makes things interesting. Two more par fours follow – each quite different and both offering just rewards for accurate play. The 14th, measuring 185 metres, is the longest of the par threes and certainly one of the best holes on the course. The 15th and 16th are relatively simple holes to negotiate, as long as the fairway is found from the tee, and then somewhat unusually, the round finishes with a pair of par fives – each reachable, but neither a guaranteed birdie opportunity. Both are tight and both require very precise tee shots and approaches.

On paper, this course does seem pitifully short. The longest par four, the 16th, measures only 370 metres, and there are three par fours that are less than 300 metres long. None of the par fives can claim to be genuine three-shotters and, with the exception of the 14th on a windy day, the par threes hardly strike fear into the heart of a relatively confident ball-striker. The point is that this course is far greater than the sum of its parts. Any golfer getting around here in nett par figures (bearing in mind that the course is rated 68 for men and 70 for women) has played well. There is too much water, the bush is far too thick and the greens too cleverly protected for any player to get away with poor shots.

I once had the pleasure of playing a round here with Denis Hutchinson, who never misses an opportunity to extol the virtues of Southbroom. That day ‘Hutchie’ gave me a lesson on how restrained, controlled golf pays dividends on a layout like this. It is a pity that more courses like this are not being built – courses that reward the thinker and put the power-strikers in their place. I love Southbroom, but then again, who doesn’t?