It came as something of a shock to the system when Royal Johannesburg and Kensington golf clubs merged in 1998 to form the one club – after all, had both clubs not been established more than 100 years before?
Proceeds from the sale of the Kensington property went towards upgrading the clubhouse and the two courses on the Johannesburg site, allowing the amalgamated club to face up to the new golfing challenges that await in the new millennium.
The West course is the shorter of the two courses (though they each measure in excess of 7,000 yards!) and both are fine examples of metropolitan parkland layouts. The East is the tougher of the two (hosting the South African Open seven times between 1946 and 1986) and it was completed in 1935 by Robert Grimsdell, probably South Africa’s finest golf course architect and resident pro at “the Royal” for over twenty years. It has been upgraded in recent years, first when architect Mark Muller re-laid a number of greens then when some stream realignment work was carried out on the back nine holes.
The East is famed for its fearsome start to the inward half, with back-to-back par fours over 500 yards in length at the 10th and 11th holes. The latter, in particular, is regarded as one of the hardest holes in South Africa. Played downhill from the tee, the fairway doglegs smartly to the right where the approach has to carry across water before making it to the safety of a distant green.
Host venue to the Joburg Open since 2007, Royal Johannesburg and Kensington Golf Club was able to lay claim (for a couple of years) to being the only golf club visited by the European Tour where more than one course was used for a single event. The Joburg Open and the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship were the only two events on the European Tour International Schedule where two or more courses were used and the Alfred Dunhill Championship is spread across three separate clubs – St Andrews (Old), Carnoustie (Championship) and Kingsbarns. However, in 2010 the Singapore Open joined the party, where the event was played across Sentosa’s Serapong and Tanjong courses.
The East course at Royal Johannesburg and Kensington now measures 7,592 yards from the tips, making it one of the longest courses on the European Tour. The West course measures a more modest 7,237 yards!
The East course at Royal Johannesburg & Kensington reopened in January 2018 after an upgrade by Golf Data which was overseen by Robbie Marshall in collaboration with Royal CEO Chris Bentley, superintendent Shaun Brits and club officials Alan Field and Gordon Ogden.
Stuart McLean, editor of Golf Digest South Africa, told us: “Those expecting to see radical changes to the East Course when it was reopened may have been disappointed. Traditionalists will be relieved that Bob Grimsdell’s design masterpiece has not been messed around with. All changes are subtle ones. Instead, what we see with this upgrade is an entirely new vision of Royal East. It’s the attention to detail and many attractive 'little things' that have transformed the layout.
“Who would have thought that pruning the many large trees on the parkland property would have made such a difference in opening up the beautiful undulating vistas around the East Course? Golf Data have always been brilliant with their bunkering design, yet the quality of the new bunkers – moved further away from the tees to catch the long hitters – is exceptional, even by their standards.
“The bunkering on the East Course had been criticised in recent years, golfers citing poor sand quality, so the bunkers were a priority on this project. Expensive construction techniques were paid for to improve drainage, reduce contamination, and retain the colour of the sand. The presentation of the experience at Royal J&K has been raised several notches, and it will be raised further in 2018 when a similar upgrade is completed on the West Course.
“I have visited some of the world’s best courses with Golf Digest, and unhesitatingly I would say that the new-look Royal is now up there with the best of them. The club exudes class on and off its courses, from the entrance walkway to the locker rooms to its entertainment areas. It’s the kind of class you only experience at proper golf clubs. The clubhouse is still a clubhouse, not a boutique hotel."