Golfers plead for release with Soweto Country Club under threat

Soweto Country Club's impressive course after a recent revamp. Picture: www.garyplayer.com

After 10 weeks of shutdown, South African golf officials continue to appeal to government in an attempt to lift restrictions, with the industry on the verge of a potential collapse.

The Soweto Country Club, the flagship of the Sunshine Tour’s development programme, is under threat due to the continued prohibition on golf, deputy commissioner Thomas Abt has admitted.

Soweto Country Club was designed by Gary Player and built in 1974, but it fell into disrepair before a major refurbishment turned it into an iconic course in the historic township.

Sunshine Tour commissioner Selwyn Nathan spearheaded the fundraising effort that saw both local and overseas corporates, the government and golfers themselves contribute to the revamp of a 6 560-metre parklands layout that holds a special place in the heart of local golfers and the Soweto community at large.

The championship course hosted the Joburg Ladies Open in March 2019, an international event co-sanctioned by the Ladies European Tour.

But now the continued success of this incredible project is in question because Soweto Country Club, like the majority of golf clubs in South Africa, is in a dire financial situation due to being closed for the last 10 weeks during the government imposed lockdown to prevent the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Soweto Country Club is absolutely threatened,” Abt said in a Sunshine Tour virtual press conference on Thursday. “One has to tip the hat to Selwyn Nathan, who championed the revamp and got funding from various tours and businesses around the world. But the club needs a sustainable platform and maintenance of the course is critical.

“We’ve had to re-evaluate maintenance and reduce the number of staff employed because there are no rounds of golf, no food being sold by caterers and no beverages being bought to bring in money.

“So the sooner golf clubs can reopen the better. It’s a very unfortunate situation and we’ve had to put plans in place to try and save Soweto Country Club.

“It’s been a tough time for GolfRSA but they have put their best foot forward and had positive discussions with the minister (sports minister Nathi Mthethwa), the department of sport and his advisors. We’ve had constant engagement on almost a daily basis.”

Much of that engagement has been centred around trying to get government to better understand the dynamics of how golf works in South Africa, with the decision to allow professional golf to resume not having any impact without the clubs and amateur game being allowed to follow suit.

“In our discussions we’ve been trying to understand the reasons why we can’t play golf and we’ve also tried to help them (government) understand better how the lockdown applies to golf, and Grant Hepburn (GolfRSA CEO) has engaged them on how the sport works in this country,” Abt said.

“In order for the professional game to take place, the amateur game and their facilities have to open up first and then the pros can. Our country seems to have it the other way round, but the amateur game supports the professional game and that message seems to have been absorbed now.

“In the meantime, we’ve asked our professionals not to put any pressure on facilities to open. So they’re not able to do anything just yet, but the clubs and ranges have been closed for more than 60 days so we can wait a few more days to play golf again legitimately.”

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