Humewood Golf Club
Eastern Cape, South Africa

Humewood Golf Club, Golf in South Africa, Major S. V. Hotchkin

When many of the golfing countries in North America are dull and grey, the charms of Humewood become particularly acute. The above photograph looking down the ninth fairway and out to Algoa Bay was taken in February.

As the game of golf developed, so to did its architecture. Knowledge on the subject emanated from the United Kingdom in various ways with its golf professionals first traveling across the English Channel. Though rudimentary in nature, early British resort courses like Pau in the 1860s and Biarritz in the 1880s proved successful, which emboldened golf professionals to go further afield. The Scottish invasion of North America led by Willie Dunn, Willie Davis and Willie Campbell gave the game in Canada and the United States of America a boost forward in the 1880s and 1890s. Their courses were interesting enough to allow newcomers to foster a liking for the game at key clubs like Royal Montreal, Shinnecock Hills and The Country Clubin Brookline.

Importantly, amateur enthusiasts soon helped golf course architecture reach another, higher level.The knowledge that Charles Blair Macdonald, A.W. Tillinghast and Stanley Thompson garnered by seeing the great British links proved invaluable to their later work in North America. Likewise, trips to the United Kingdom by businessmen including George Crump, Hugh Wilson andHenry Fownes were instrumental in the founding of several North American cornerstone designs.

During this age of travel and the sharing of ideas, the likes of Bernard Darwin and Horace Hutchison carefully chronicled the advancements in golf course architecture. By 1925, the Golden Age of golf course architecture was well advanced across the United Kingdom, Ireland, Europe and North America.

The same cannot be said for the southern hemisphere. Yes, the Brits brought golf to growing countries like Argentina when they came to assist with their infrastructure requirements such as railways. For instance, Mar del Plata opened for play in 1881 and remains a wonderfully fun course to this day. However, to call it a great design is ambitious and it took a golf course architect (the expression was coined by Macdonald in 1908) to provide architecture in the southern hemisphere with a much needed shove forward. The time was 1926 and Alister MacKenzie’s trip down under to Australia and New Zealand forever set a new standard for golf course design, especially in that part of the world. Three years later, MacKenzie was again south of the equator, this time primarily in Buenos Aires building thirty-six holes at the stylish Jockey Club.

While MacKenzie was in South America, another great British architect was making his own mark in the southern hemisphere and that was Major Stafford Vere Hotchkin in South Africa. According to historian Tom MacWood, Major S.V. Hotchkin’s arrival in 1929 came at a crucial time and did for South Africa what MacKenzie’s trip meant to Australia.

MacWood is quick to point to the importance of Dr. Charles M. Murray in getting Hotchkin to South Africa. Murray had studied in Britain and upon his return in South Africa in 1904, began his lifelong interest in agronomy and golf course architecture. After a tour by top British amateurs to South Africa in 1928, Dr. Murray wrote that, ‘Unless we move with the times and so modify our links as to afford a standard of play as is called for on the courses over which first-class events are played today in other parts of the world, it is obvious we cannot hope to produce golfers capable of holding their own in championship golf. That Australia has realized this is shown by the fact that during the last few years the leading clubs have been busy carrying out very drastic alterations to their links under the supervision of well-known architects.’

Murray’s clamoring that South African golf was inadequate paid off the following year. When Port Elizabeth Golf Club decided to build a new links within five hundred yards of the shoreline in the Eastern Cape, they reached out to the United Kingdom for one of its best. The timing suited Hotchkin better than either of his design partners, Cecil Hutchison or Sir Guy Campbell, and off he went from England by steamer to South Africa.

According to MacWood, Hotchkin’s initial inspection of golf courses in South Africa confirmed what Murray contended. Essentially, the design of the courses was more akin to where the United Kingdom stood in the 1890s with the gutta-percha ball. Poor bunkering and square greens created little strategic interest. Straight holes abounded with few doglegs or interesting playing angles. Presented in such a blunt manner, the game’s appeal was limited. Indeed, what a pity it would have been to squander the opportunity to build world class golf in South Africa, given its climate, abundant coastline and sandy soil.

Fortunately, Hotchkin was about to change all this when he was given his greatest blank canvas with which to work at Humewood Golf Club. MacWood shares this telling quote from Hotchkin himself:

‘On my arrival these enthusiasts immediately took me out to view the ground, and I expected to see rolling sand dunes and glass-clad valleys; instead I was first taken over some rocky scrubby ground, then through dense scrub, and later having fallen into many holes, torn my clothes, and missed treading on several snakes, I arrived breathless and heated on a small sand dune. When I recovered my breath, I at once agreed with my guides that it certainly was a most wonderful piece of golfing ground, and that without any assistance from man, nature had produced ground which would not only defeat but instill respect in the best golfers. Wonderful to relate, when work was once started, in under three months a desert of scrub and sand was turned into an eighteen-hole golf course; not only was the ground prepared but all fairways and greens panted, a road constructed to the clubhouse, and wells sunk for providing water. The links are constructed on beautiful undulating sand dunes overlooking the sea, and the lay-out is absolutely modern and up to date. The club house is centrally situated with nine holes on each side of it, the 18th green being in front of the club house, and 9th green and 1st and 10th tees close to it. But providing the grass does grow well–and I understand that no fears are entertained on this score by those who have gone into the matter since water has been struck close to the surface several places– I feel justified in predicting that the Humewood Course will prove fully the equal of first-class championship seaside courses in Britain.’

Before building Humewood Golf Club, Hotchkin’s most prominent design was Woodhall Spa in Lincolnshire, England. His grandfather had actually started the spa in 1840 but work carried out to the golf course by Cecil Hutchison and Hotchkin in 1920s had made it one of the country’s foremost inland designs. Nothing about Woodhall Spa is contrived or forced upon the landscape. Its hazards are well placed and appear as part of nature. Its bunkers are famously deep and they dictate the playing strategy on numerous holes. All of this was a portent to what Hocthkin would bring to South Africa. By doing so, Hotchkin, more so than any other person before or after, helped South Africa realize its golfing potential.

Humewood Golf Club, Golf in South Africa, Major S. V. Hotchkin

Though there are only forty-five bunkers at Humewood, they are well placed and act as true hazards.

Port Elizabeth is known on the continent as the Windy City and there is no shelter from it on this exposed links. Safe to say, Humewood Golf Club‘s crumpled sandy landscape and wind are at the core of its challenge and Hotchkin’s routing took maximum advantage of both attributes.His routing does not follow the classic out and back routing of the Old Course at St. Andrews, a course that he adored above all others. Rather, the stately clubhouse was located in the middle of the property with the first nine looping to its north and the second nine to its south. The majority of the holes feature broad playing corridors that run in a general east/west direction within the club’s rectangular property. In relation to the par threes, Hotchkin made sure that each of the four played in different directions.

Humewood Golf Club, Golf in South Africa, Major S. V. Hotchkin

Every aficionado of links golf relishes such awkward stances as they keep the game forever fresh. Pictured above is a long iron approach to the tenth green.

On windy days, Humewood Golf Club is a ferocious test which is one of the reasons why it has hosted five South African Opens and nine Amateurs. Importantly for the joy of the members, the club has done an excellent job over the decades in maintaining width in its playing corridors. The fairways are appropriately wide and the rough is such that golfers can generally find their ball without undue delay and at least advance it back onto the fairway. Some modern courses in South Africa suffer from thick choking rough from which there is no recovery, inadvertently snuffing the joy out of a game. Humewood Golf Course‘s rough is sparse enough to dole out a  ½ stroke penalty while still allowing the golfer to enjoy a sense of continuum in his round. Of course, if the golfer strays forty plus yards off line and into the coastal bush, the fates aren’t as kind.

Humewood Golf Club, Golf in South Africa, Major S. V. Hotchkin

Stray up to twenty yards off the fairways and the golfer finds a wide variety of lies, which is exactly as it should be.

Humewood Golf Club, Golf in South Africa, Major S. V. Hotchkin

Stray further and the coastal bush provides a more certain outcome!

Though Donald Steel consulted here in 1990s and added several bunkers among other tweaks, Hotchkin’s routing has remained untouched for nearly eighty years. All eighteen of his green sites are still in use from when play first commenced here in 1931, which is testimony to the quality of the green complexes. As at Woodhall Spa, theydon’t feature a tremendous amount of interior contours within the putting surfaces but rather are notable for the wide variety of approach (and recovery!) shots that they call for.

Humewood Golf Club, Golf in South Africa, Major S. V. Hotchkin

Some of the greens like the twelfth and here at the fifteenth as captured by photographer David Scaletti are tucked into the bush covered dunes while...

Humewood Golf Club, Golf in South Africa, Major S. V. Hotchkin

...others like the thirteenth are high on plateaus. Every green is open in front so the golfer is free to decide whether a low running or aerial approach makes the most sense given the day's wind.

A closer study of the holes below highlights the range of shots that the golfer can expect during his round. There is not a lot of visual trickery and indeed first glance might suggest the green complexes are a bit simple by today’s standards; in fact, nothing is farther from the truth as they possess outstanding golfing qualities of the sort that no one tires of playing.

Holes to Note

First hole, 400 yards; Is there any more enticing prospect from a first tee than one of a wide fairway that runs downhill toward the sea? Such is the case here and in addition, the wind is generally from behind which is to say that the prevailing wind blows toward Algoa Bay. Of course, the wind can blow from any direction and when it comes in off the sea, a hole like the first becomes formidable as it did in 1979 when Humewood Golf Club hosted the South African Amateur.On his way to winning, Louis Norval played David Frost in the semifinals and their match was extended to a nineteenth hole. When Frost’s long iron approach was blown right into the coastal shrub, Norval saw his opening. Golf is cruel though and despite knowing that was the one place not to go, Norval was too kind and followed suit. After they hacked out and onto the green, Frost’s putt from twelve feet missed and Norval won when he managed to make his six footer. Played downwind, these two great golfers would normally have only a short iron for their approach. However, normal is relative at Humewood Golf Course as is evidenced by their need to punch in long irons under the wind that day.

Humewood Golf Club, Golf in South Africa, Major S. V. Hotchkin

Anyone for golf? If this view doesn't stir passion, one should find an alternative sport.

Humewood Golf Club, Golf in South Africa, Major S. V. Hotchkin

A view from behind the first green is a good indication of how the pushed-up greens often feature tightly mown slopes that fall away around the sides and back.

Second hole, 435 yards; Humewood Golf Course is not laid across dramatic tumbling land akin to some of the Irish links like Lahinch or Ballybunion. Rather, its dune landforms rarely climb higher than ten feet, which in many ways though may actually be better suited for the sport of golf. On the first nine, the tallest row of dunes is found here and to no one’s surprise, Hotchkin perfectly captured it by bending the second fairway from right to left around it. How much the golfer dares bite off varies with his own game and the day’s wind.

Humewood Golf Club, Golf in South Africa, Major S. V. Hotchkin

The aggressive line off the second tee is over the dunes toward the players in the distance. One of Hotchkin's primary criticisms of South African golf was a lack of doglegs and the new design standard that he set at Humewood successfully addressed that issue.

Humewood Golf Club, Golf in South Africa, Major S. V. Hotchkin

This golfer was a bit too aggressive/optimistic off the tee and was left with an awkward recovery shot.

Humewood Golf Club, Golf in South Africa, Major S. V. Hotchkin

The dogleg nature of the second means that the approach is often played back into the wind and this mound might well be used to kick low scooting approach shots in toward such forward hole locations.

continued >>>