Situated just outside the Rhenosterspruit Nature Conservatory to the north of Johannesburg, Blair Atholl was Gary Player’s home for almost quarter of a century before developer Robbie Wray helped transform the property into a low density residential estate with a championship golf course as its focal point.
Measuring an incredible 8,300 yards from the back markers, Blair Atholl is one of the longest golf courses in the world and the fairways are routed in a large anti-clockwise loop with only the opening and closing holes running adjacent to each other.
The Crocodile River runs parallel to holes 4 - 6 and alongside holes 8 and 16 whilst a 150-year-old canal flows behind the 8th green and beside the 9th tee on its way to feeding the main dam in front of the 17th green.
There’s a really tough finish to the round at Blair Atholl, starting at the 14th, and this hole is the first of three consecutive par fours that each measure in excess of 500 yards from the championship tees.
After a breathless full-carry tee shot across water to the well-bunkered 17th, the slightly left doglegged home hole plays uphill towards a green protected by a small creek to the front.
The Blair Atholl club has a close association with the private Champions Retreat club in Augusta and they compete annually for the Atlantic Cup, a competition where both 12-man teams play each other over five rounds of better ball, greensomes and singles matches.
Gary Player’s course at Blair Athol is one of the longest in the world, measuring a monstrous 8232 yards from the Gold tees. The figure may be a staggering one but there is a caveat to that sum, as it is eased considerably by the 6000ft elevation and the associated thinner air at this altitude, meaning the ball flies much further, lessening the trepidation a touch.
This course is famous for its length but shouldn’t be defined by it, particularly as there are four sets of tees to choose from. Although only 45 minutes from central Johannesburg, it is a wondrous site, benefitting from sweeping African bush views and with a feeling of tranquil spaciousness. There are many holes that have the wow factor, in fact it was a word muttered between our group on a regular basis. And that theme starts from the very first hole as you crest the hill on this par 5, to be faced with the most attractive yet intimidating downhill approach shot to a green heavily defended by water.
Player’s love of Augusta National can be seen in the bunkering style here, where the large in your face hazards dominate the sight lines on many holes. The 2nd is a prime example of this, where sand seems more abundant than grass, both from the tee and on the approach to the green.
The 3rd is self proclaimed as the signature hole on the course, and it is no wonder when you set eyes on it for the first time. A par 3 of just a little over 200 yards, played to a green fronted by a lake and sandwiched by typical bunkering on both sides. This is an exacting tee shot, but a rewarding one if executed as intended.
My favourite hole on the course is next, the quite remarkable par 4 4th, a hole that is as frightening and beautiful as they come! The sweeping dogleg left is dominated by the Crocodile river that stares you square in the eyes from the tee and borders the entire left side of the hole. At over 500 yards in length, it would be a test played flat and straight, but with the various hazards and the torturous sloped green site, placed just close enough to the water to be in your field of view, this is a hole that will live long in the memory however you fare.
The other hole of particular note on the front is the downhill par 3 8th, again played over the river, to a large side-on kidney shaped green. The green site is one that you need to be on the right section of to have much of a chance, and I can attest to the fact that playing long of the green to avoid the water short is not a tactic I would employ again; the chip from back there is as delicate as they come.
Moving beyond the quite breathtaking half way hut (which is worth the visit on its own), the back nine moves away from the river and the length of the course really starts to bite. The par 5 10th features a beautifully framed approach over a trio of bunkers, as does the similarly defended 13th. These approaches wouldn’t be so difficult if it weren’t for the fact that these two par 5’s both measure over 650 yards from the championship tee!
Then you move into the ‘Blair Mile’, a stretch of three par 4’s (14-16) measuring as the name suggests, a combined distance of a mile. The length is again the headline, but these holes have the potential to write many a varied story. The sweeping uphill 16th is the jewel in the Blair Mile triple crown, and will play as a par 5 for all but the longest and most adept golfers.
Although the 3rd is designated the signature hole, and the 8th is eminently photogenic, I actually think the par 3 17th might be the most striking of all the short holes on the course, made even more memorable by the narrow rocky causeway that you walk across to get to the green. Finally, watched over knowingly by the beautiful clubhouse, the par 5 18th offers both opportunity and potential for a despair, with water threatening once again.
Some courses blend into others in my memory, but this is not one of those types of courses. Blair Athol features blockbuster hole after blockbuster hole, and while the test is a stringent one, the course is still very playable and ever so special. There are just two average holes, the 7th and the 11th, and these holes would more than hold their own on lesser courses. They just standout due to the brilliance of the other 16 holes. But don’t let that statement detract from the overall theme here, which is one of real appreciation for this larger than life design.