Wanderers is one of only three clubs in the country with a SubAir system below the greens that can flush heavy rain away in an instant. The SubAir was installed eight years back when Wanderers called in course designer Rob O’Friel to modernise their greens in 1999-2000. It has paid dividends in this Jekyll and Hyde climate which has seen Gauteng courses suffering badly during drought through December, then being drenched with rain in the new year. After all the recent rain this parkland course is a rich emerald green, and in splendid condition. With its magnificent variety of mature trees lining attractively-shaped fairways, and undulating terrain, it’s a delightful place to play golf.
While the Wanderers is essentially a members’ course, it does a big percentage of visitor rounds, including many corporate days a year, according to golf director Len Flanagan. It also has a wonderful history as a championship venue, having been the “home” of the PGA Championship for more than 20 years, from 1972 to 1995. The PGA in the 1970s was regarded as the “major” tournament in South Africa, featuring as it did some of the biggest Sunshine Tour purses (a record R25 000 in 1975, if you can believe that!), thanks to its beer and cigarette sponsors. Lexington were involved with the tournament from 1977 to 1995. The PGA attracted international stars, mostly Americans, and their presence ensured galleries of a size that have never since been matched in Gauteng.
The Wanderers is not a brutal championship layout, but one that favours the shotmakers. The holes demand finesse and accuracy rather than power, especially the ability to shape tee shots through narrow avenues of trees. There was always low scoring at the PGA, and the list of champions was a classy one. All the great South Africans of recent decades, with the notable exception of Nick Price, won titles there.
The course has changed substantially since those days, with its modern raised greens and bunkering a feature of the upgraded layout. The PGA was always played around a reversed nines set-up, because the old ninth hole coming up a hill towards the clubhouse was a stronger finishing tournament hole than the club’s 18th bordering Rudd Road. Plus, that hole allowed more space for grandstands around the green. The club finally came round to that way of thinking following the redesign.
When you play the Wanderers, a striking aspect is the way in which the holes have been so elegantly squeezed into the property, which is not particularly big. No space has been wasted. Championship tees are tucked away in every corner. The original layout by Bob Grimsdell lost three of its opening holes when the Wanderers Cricket Stadium was built in the 1950s. The modernised stadium now towers over the par-five 10th hole, the longest on the course at 533 metres.
Situated in a prime locale, it is one of the most central courses in Gauteng, and home to an exceedingly friendly and social membership. Its popularity is evident in the fact that there are 1 200 very passionate members. The excellent club spirit is obvious in the number of special club competitions that take pride of place on a busy calendar, and the many Wanderers groups you will find touring other parts of the country. The Wanderers has long held a reputation of having a convivial 19th hole, and its sporting connections have attracted many of this country’s top sportsmen and women as members. They include Graeme Pollock, John Robbie, Hugh Bladen and Terry Paine.
The club has produced a crop of top golfers, and an honours board in the lounge has a long list of the SA internationals who have been members. Several today successfully play the Sunshine Tour, including Nic Henning, Andrew McLardy, Thomas Aiken and Ulrich van den Berg, and when in Johannesburg they can often be seen using the practice facilities near the seventh green.
Familiar faces can also be found among the club staff, because there is a strong loyalty to the Wanderers, indicating good relationships between them, the committee and management. Jackie Seketane, one of the few black course superintendents in South Africa, following his bold appointment in 2002, has been working at the club for 34 years, as caddie, course hand and assistant green-keeper.
The par 71 Wanderers layout has an unusual routing, in that it has three par-3s on the back nine, just one on the front. The front nine, which opens with a hole that underwent a major change in the renovation process, being lengthened from a long par 4 into a 516-metre par 5, has seven par 4s. There are two strong par 4s on each nine where you need to bring out the driver. The 440m fifth, with a wider fairway than most, has been toughened with the addition of another fairway bunker. The 441m seventh has been toughened with the addition of a water hazard on the right of the fairway, in order to narrow the landing area for tee shots on this classic dogleg par four.