If golf is supposed to be about the pursuit of pleasure, then the field assembled for this week’s Mercedes-Benz South African Open Championship at the historic East London Golf Club are truly in luck.
Such is the view of legendary South African professional turned television commentator Dennis Hutchison, whose relationship with the old course goes back almost half a century and who is as delighted as anyone to see the tournament return to East London for the first time since 1967.
“It probably won’t be the longest course the guys will face on Tour this year but it is definitely a fun course to play,’’ said Hutchison, who will describe events as they unfold in South Africa for The Golf Channel in the United States.
“It’s a very picturesque setting, especially holes like the second, third, 12th, and 13th where you can look out to the sea and other holes where you can look out over the town. It might not be that long but it is tricky in places and you’ve got to be careful. It is a sporty course and I think we are in for a very good championship.
“It’s a traditional course and one which was on the schedule for a number of years but then it came off for a number of reasons. But the people there have done a very good job and, although I haven’t been down recently, I hear it is in very good condition.”
The list of winners at East London reads like a Who’s Who of South African golf, with among their number being Sid Brews, Bobby Locke and the man in black, Gary Player, who took the title the last time the championship was staged there, 34 years ago.
Ironically, one name not to feature on any honours list at East London is that of Hutchison himself although, and as the 68 year old admitted, the fact he let the 1954 South African Amateur Championship title slip from his grasp still rankles.
Two up with two to play against Alan Jackson, Hutchison horseshoed his winning putts on both the 35th and 36th holes before looking on in disbelief as his opponent holed a monsterous putt on the first extra hole to take the trophy.
“He paced it out afterwards and it was 73 feet long! I didn’t really want to know, especially after the ball hit the back of the hole, jumped three feet in the air and then fell back down into the cup! But what can you do, that’s golf I suppose!”
What finish the 2001 Mercedes-Benz South African Open gives the history books remains to be seen, but the players, led by defending champion Mathias Grönberg, seem sure to enjoy the wide array of challenges presented by the varied layout.
“The first hole is a beautiful uphill par four but the short second is one of the most spectacular on the entire golf course. You are right up there, a good 150 feet above the green, playing straight out to the sea – I think you’d probably say that is the signature hole of the course,” said Hutchison.
“The third is a wonderful par five right on the sea, while the fourth is a tricky little par four. The fifth was one of those little gamey holes where, if you wanted to take a chance you could drive it onto the green over a ridge, but if you made a miscue, you’re were going to take a six or seven.
“But I believe they’ve moved that tee back so in general I think the players will now drive to the top of the hill and pitch down. I believe they’ve moved the tee back on the sixth hole as well which is a lovely par four but one which will be a difficult drive now into the fairway from the side.
“The seventh goes down the hill before you get to the par four eighth which is a tricky little hole round the corner. The long ninth will be played as a par four for the championship and it is a blind tee-shot which leaves a tough second up to an elevated green.
“Turning for home, the tenth is a superb par three where you’re way above the green again, not quite as high as the second hole, but still a good 50 feet up. The wind is always blowing there and it always seems to be across, so for these guys I reckon it will be a five or six iron.
“The 11th is a wonderful par five which doglegs to the right with woods all down the right and severe rough on the left. The 12th is a beautiful sweeping par four down the hill into the valley so you’re actually hitting your second shot from a downhill lie into a green surrounded by natural mounds – it really is a beautiful looking golf hole.
“The 13th is a relatively straightforward par four, the 14th will be played as a par four now, it used to be a five, it is straight and uphill but often downwind. The 15th is a good par five which doglegs from right to left and you’ll need a couple of pretty good hits to get there. The 16th is a straight enough par four, a little hole but a tricky one.
“The 17th is another wonderful par three, not a long hole but again well above the green and with the wind which can blow there at times, you sometimes seem to have to wait an age with the ball in the air, which is never easy.
“Coming to the end, the 18th is a bit of a blind tee-shot on a hole which sweeps back down into the valley in front of the clubhouse. You can almost hit the clubhouse if you pull out your driver and really go for it, but if you can get your tee shot in the right place, the fairway kind of feeds into the valley towards the approach to the green.”