Restoring the Durban Country Club Golf Course to its ‘GOLDEN AGE’ Origins
[18th green at DCC with imposing Cape-Dutch Clubhouse in background. Two deep “valleys of sin”, short right and pin high right.]
The term ‘Golf Architect’ was first coined by celebrated course designer Charles Macdonald in 1910 when he went to the United States where he incorporated in his designs the moving and shaping of land to create hazards and strategic challenges and interest. Indeed the period from 1900 to 1937 has become known as the ‘Golden Age’ of Golf Course design. Architect Tom Simpson named the “Roaring Twenties” the ‘Golden Age’ of course design. DCC was opened for play at the end of 1923. Other notable courses from this Era include Bethpage Black, Pinehurst No. 2, the Greenbrier and Pebble Beach.
[Pinehurst No. 2, the signature golf course at a resort in Pinehurst, N.C., May 28, 2014. The famous golf course, recently returned to its original appearance with irregular sand and native vegetation, hosted the United States Open in 2014]
There is no substitute for great property and when Royal Durban’s flooding problems raised the scepter of Durban possibly never hosting another South African Open some of Durban’s leading businessman decided to start the Durban Country Club.
In stark contrast to the pancake flat at the course at Royal Durban, DCC is a rectangular strip of land north of the city running parallel to the Indian Ocean. More than half the property’s topography consists of enormous rolling sand dunes feeding in from the beach. With the undulations and naturally sandy soil much of the flooding problems that beset Royal Durban would be alleviated. The course was designed and built by George Waterman who was assisted by Laurie Waters, a champion golfer of the time.
Golf Architects and aficionados of the game generally divide the course into two distinct parts, the “dune land” holes and the flatter holes. Holes 1-5, 8, 9, 12, 13, 17 and 18. Country Club’s reputation as a top golf course is based on the beauty and comparative uniqueness of the vast natural rolling sand dunes.
Gordon Turner wrote; “It’s rolling land, moving north to south. It’s a hard course to characterize, as it’s not exactly links, not exactly parkland. It’s somewhat akin to the kind of terrain you find in the Melbourne Sandbelt. The greens and fairways use a hybrid grass that was created just for the Club. [Paspalum greens were replaced in 2010 with Mini-Verde P18]
The green sites are generally small, flat and well-bunkered, and perched in precarious positions. If you’re having a bad round, you can find yourself reloading all day. As far as I’m concerned, it’s tough to beat the first five holes at Durban – they’re about as good as it gets. The tee boxes are perched high, and you hit down chutes into valleys of dunes. It could be Royal County Downs (in Northern Ireland), except instead of fescue grasses, you have banana and palm trees. And you don’t want to wander too far into the bush after your ball, as there are a number of poisonous snakes in this region – black mamba, green mamba and Mozambique spitting cobra.”
Indeed these holes, particularly the first five, 8, 17 and 18 are so strikingly unique, beautiful and challenging that they form the basis of the courses reputation and is probably the greatest reason for the courses reputation and why the course remains in the top 100 golf courses of the world.
Flat Parkland Criticism
Prior to the work done when the course had to be altered in order to accommodate the building of roads surrounding the property, the flatter areas were integrated and linked by numerous impressive bunkers almost akin to large waste bunkers. The 10th hole had a “Hell’s Half acre” type bunker known as the Sahara, the 14th had two deep and large bunkers on the left side of the fairway and the 15th was an island bunker green.
[Picture taken in 1944 note the level of encroachment that has taken place and the sand areas that were prevalent.]
- Large Sahara bunker on 10
- Use of deep fairway bunkers on 14 and absence of coastal bush
- Sand Island green on 15
- Lack of vegetation on 8
Golfclubatlas.com correctly point out; “The Golden Age architects appreciated that the flat holes would be a letdown without building such features. In addition, these mammoth bunkers helped to pull the sandy qualities of the “dune land” holes across the rest of the property. In that manner, the transition from the “dune land holes” to the flat holes and back was less jarring. Unfortunately, these sandy features have been removed and the flat holes now suffer from a lack of playing interest and the courses lacks a flowing quality as the golfer passes between the two type holes.
The Club has been considering a Master Plan from David McClay-Kidd but progress is slow. The road map to restoring continuity to the course hangs on their Clubhouse wall in the form of the 1930s aerial, and from it, grandeur could be restored. Nonetheless, as we see below, the “dune land” holes as they exist today beckon the golfer to make the trip.”
Perhaps in an effort to protect the course against equipment advances and in order to protect what is a short course, under 7000 yards, from being dominated by the top golfer the Club’s custodians allowed the coastal vegetation and Silverleaf in particular to encroach to the extent that the course ran the risk of being known for how penal it was rather than the great dune shapes that prevail.
Golfclubatlas.com wrote, “Not unlike the tree problems that many Golden Age courses face in the United States, a case can be made that the vegetation is too smothering at Durban Country Club. First, it certainly is a penal hazard as it affords little opportunity to recover. Second, it robs the course of interesting playing angles and third, it diminishes the sense that the golfer would otherwise enjoy as to how unique the landscape is”.
First green with the city and the Indian Ocean in the background
Addressing the Criticism and Challenge
The first attempts to address the problems of encroachment began during the captaincy of Murray Leyden in 2006 when through his efforts DCC started removing many alien Casurina Trees and Norfolk Pines. It was during this time that David McClay-Kydd was brought to DCC and he confirmed that the encroachment and proliferation of trees was denying the proper appreciation of the uniqueness of the landfall.
Unfortunately serious financial constraints beset the Club and this greatly impacted upon golf’s budget and the removals stopped. In 2010 the greens were re-laid and the opportunity was used to re-do the 16th green which as part of the Grimsdell re-design of the hole which was a large flat green totally out of kilter with the rest of the course. In its place is a smallish well-mounded and bunkered hole in keeping with the rest of the course.
In a similar vein the 15th, a Player re-design was similarly mounded to bring it into line with the other green complexes and hopefully link it to the undulations of the course as a whole.
DCC Trust Intervention and Opportunity
A group of successful Durban businessman and patrons of DCC recapitalised the Club in 2011 and the Chairman of the Trust had the vision to realise that the jewel in the crown had been neglected and enlisted the help of renowned South African Course designer Peter Matkovich to address problems on the course.
General conditioning, encroachment and alien trees were identified as the major problems facing the course and a programme of cutting back was introduced with the mandate of returning the course boundaries and outlines to where it was in the past. Cutbacks of encroaching vegetation have taken place on the first, second and seventeenth, third, fourth, fifth, and eighth. We are optimistic that before spring we will be able to fully complete the proper opening up of the shared third and eighth dune complex.
[The improvement in aesthetics and the highlighting of the shapes of the dunes can best be illustrated by these two photographs: -]
2009 – Hole 3
2015 JULY – One Can see all the way to the 4th tee dune[Renowned Architect Tom Doak has equated the third tee shot with ‘looking down the barrel of a gun.’]
Hole 2 – 2009
Similarly there is a concerted effort to highlight the playing of golf from dune to dune and nowhere is this better shown than in these pictures of the second hole.
Whereas the stifling effects of the encroachment of the coastal bush has at last been meaningfully addressed we as a Club we need to address the flatter, weaker holes and take steps to integrate more harmoniously and the challenge remains as succinctly captured by Golfclubatlas.com;” The Golden Age architects appreciated that the flat holes would be a letdown without building such features. In addition, these mammoth bunkers helped to pull the sandy qualities of the “dune land” holes across the rest of the property. In that manner, the transition from the “dune land” holes to the flat holes and back was less jarring. Unfortunately, these sandy features have been removed and the flat holes now suffer from a lack of playing interest and the courses lacks a flowing quality as the golfer passes between the two type holes.”
With a considerable desire at the Club to be the best that we can be, an appreciation of the need to protect the course and to preserve it by going back to the values of the golden Age Designers so that we can display the full beauty of the natural, one-of-a-kind dunes in a properly integrated manner utilising the lessons of the past and by properly utilising the natural land that we have been so fortunate to have inherited.
Although I suspect some Members might think of me: