Club members stand tall
You'd probably have to be of a certain age, Capetonian or heavily involved in South African amateur golf to have known and appreciated the prowess of Mowbray Golf Club in its prime. The course, situated just 15 minutes' drive from Cape Town International Airport, was a golfing beacon of the Mother City – and indeed the whole country – little more than two decades ago.
The course was unofficially founded just after the turn of the 19th century on the Rondebosch Common, but, given that it was open to the public, golfers were not the only ones to make use of it. The first hole was used for rugby matches on a Saturday, the second as a Malay cemetrey, while the fourth also served as a Municipal rubbish dump. Cows were permitted to graze on it too!
Such extra-curricular activity caused the members to eventually run out of patience, and the course relocated to its current position. The design was a careful process, and although surroundings such as the N2 and a railway line may not make for blatantly glorious scenery, its beauty lies in its layout.
Each hole is a well thought-out test of golf, and on any given day, the ever-present Cape Doctor can be into you, behind you or across you. It truly is a championship course, and it thus serves as no surprise that Mowbray has hosted the South African Open on seven occasions, along with three Bells Cups. Many other esteemed amateur tournaments have also graced Mowbray's fairways, and you might have bumped into the likes of Gary Player, Vijay Singh, Seve Ballesteros, Ernie Els, Nick Faldo and a host of other big names if you'd played there in the 1980s. The man in the Pro Shop would also have been none other than three-time European Tour Order of Merit winner Dale Hayes.
However, Mowbray's fortunes took a terrible turn for the worse in 1993. A fire destroyed its clubhouse that year, and although the current one was opened the following year, it wasn't enough to stop a dramatic decline. A deterioration in the condition of the greens in the years that followed scarred its esteemed reputation, and any hopes of staging further major events were dented.
An attempt was made to rectify this, as construction of 18 new greens began in 2006. However, this venture was funded largely on credit, and the ensuing recession had a catastrophic impact on the club's finances.
Mowbray even found itself contemplating closing its doors in recent weeks as a result, until a special meeting was called by the members. And it was at this meeting that a glimpse of the "Mowbray magic" was recaptured. Despite an ongoing spiral of negativity, a clubhouse full of members stood tall (literally, as there were nowhere near enough seats for the numerous attendees), fought for their club, dug deep into their pockets and took it upon themselves to move it forward.
Whether it will be enough to save the club remains to be seen, but Mowbray and its members are nothing if not resilient. It is a special place, and former club professional Hayes hailed it as such in his Cape Times column last week, even requesting a membership invoice to be sent to him.
It underlines the beauty of a club like Mowbray. Make no mistake, it is not the only golf club in South Africa suffering from financial distress. Tough economic times have made golf an unjustifiable expense for many, and membership numbers have dropped alarmingly at many clubs as options like PlayMoreGolf have become more appealing.
But while PlayMoreGolf and the likes may provide affiliation (and financial relief!) to South African golfers, it will not provide the spirit and camaraderie that club members enjoy. The history and tradition of Mowbray has kept it alive amid setbacks that perhaps should have extinguished it, and its members share a special connection that united them in force last week. It adds a dimension to one's golfing experience, and a sense of belonging.
Many clubs have been, or perhaps will still be, pushed to the brink as the golfing landscape changes with the times. Some may not survive, while others might come out the other side. But one thing is for sure: any club with a core of proud members has a fighting chance.