The early years of our history
The first mention of the club was made in the local newspaper, the old Knysna George Herald, when it reported that the Knysna golf course was first ‘paced out’ in 1906. However, it was only officially recognized when it was founded, in 1909, by local magistrate Mr Cloete and half a dozen other keen golfers, including school inspector Arthur Scott and well known local personalities George Strydom and Dick Thomas.
The original course, before the railway line came to Knysna, was situated in the lower part of town. The nine holes stretched over the recreation ground on land currently used by the railways and the area where the school sports grounds are presently sited. The holes were laid out round the perimeter of the site, the longest fairway being 200 yards and the putting areas being grit greens.
There was no clubhouse, but the Club employed one workman to undertake course maintenance. His only equipment was a few hand tools, a wheelbarrow and a tin shanty in which to keep them. The Wednesday field usually consisted of just two players, this sometimes trebled to six on Sundays. Arthur Scott was President, Secretary and Treasurer and it is recorded that any member who failed to pay his subscription within three weeks following a General Meeting, received a personal call from him.
When the railway line was nearing completion in 1927, part of the course was expropriated and the Club received compensation in the magnificent sum of £10. An alternative site, above the town to the west of Thesen Hill, and stretching down Lilies Kloof, was rented from the Town Council for just one shilling (equivalent to 10 cents) a year. This site is currently occupied by the new Gaol and SANEL. Mrs Linda Bell’s house later occupied the clubhouse site. Laid out over very steep and undulating terrain, this so-called ‘Goat Course’ opened on 12th April 1929. It was started with 50 pounds, consisting of the £10 received as compensation for the loss of the old course down the hill, some money from the kitty and donations from members. Arthur Scott, using convict labour, succeeded in laying out nine holes. The clubhouse, which boasted a small lounge, was an improvement on the tin shanty and green fees of sixpence (equivalent to five cents) were deposited in a small wooden box. Gravel greens were completed on the 19th April 1929.
It was a tiger of a course which David Cuthbert remembered well, having played there as a small boy using cut-down golf clubs. The greens were surfaced with fine grit and each member carried a scraper to smooth a line to the hole. The scrapers, some made of stinkwood, were folded and fitted into a golf bag. It is possible that Dick Thomas, a teacher at the Trade School, was responsible for these.
The move to Leisure Isle
Meanwhile, a second course was started on Leisure Isle in 1935 by the island’s developer George Cearn. A short article by an unknown writer, found by Mike O’Shea at the Knysna Museum, described the founding of Leisure Isle as follows:
“Known originally as Steenbok Island, it was bought by Mr Geo Cearn from the Duthies of Woodbourne. Mr Cearn, American born of British parents, had lived in Kenya, where he had a business in Nairobi, came to Knysna on holiday in 1923. On a second visit, a couple of years later, he decided to retire here.”
The article describes how he built the causeway from the Heads road to the Island out of rock from the hill to the south east of the Island. This was ferried across in cocopans on rails along a bank laid across Woodbourne Marsh. This stone was also used for building the roads and the walls around the Island at a cost of £9, 000. Wood and brush groynes were placed at intervals along the south wall to encourage the sand to silt up to form a beach.
Mr Daantjie Keyter, an impressively large figure, ruled the roost. For his guidance and supervision of the work he was paid the princely sum of £1 (R2) per day. The labourers, many of whom were recruited from the gaol, were paid 2 shillings and sixpence (25 cents) per day, plus one hot meal. It took 3 years to build the sea wall before the Island township of 499 plots was laid out, allowing for a school and other facilities. A nine hole golf course was built after the sand dunes had been flattened and grassed over at a cost of £4,000.
The original tea house attached to the Golf Club was the only building on Leisure Isle at the time. Mr Cearn later attached a new tea house to his home and Mrs Cearn’s sister, Mabel Clift, served refreshments. On 16th March 1939 George Cearn leased the club, golf course and main building to Mr C.E. Herring who ran it for his own account. He promptly obtained a liquor license and converted the premises into a hotel, which officially opened on the 21st April 1939. Mr Herring was succeeded some years later by William (Bill) Anderson.
This course became popular with golfers who found the ‘Goat Course’ too strenuous. Some members used their own course on Saturdays and Leisure Isle on Sundays. The Knysna Course, up to that time, was to the left of Thesen’s Hill. It spanned the hills and valleys. Finding this hilly course unsuitable for elderly players, the Island course was favoured. Accounts differ as to exactly when the ‘Goat Course’ finally closed, but it was some time between 1930 and 1945, when the council sold a portion of the land to a Mr Barrett.
The lease, which was on a yearly basis, was terminated. The years of the Second World War saw less golf being played, especially on the hill. When Bill Anderson bought Leisure Isle Hotel from Herring in 1945, he was faced with a problem. The links had been neglected. The sea walls had broken and sea grass was 3ft high in places. The greens also needed attention. In no time he had the course in good condition and offered the members of Knysna Golf Course a new home – and half the green fees collected. The popularity of golf in Knysna began to grow, amongst locals and visitors alike. The late Bobby Locke, who took regular holidays on Leisure Isle, held the links in high regard.
Home at last
When Bill Anderson took over the hotel in 1945 there were only five houses on Leisure Isle. Due to temporary ill-health, Bill sold Leisure Isle Hotel in 1949. Difficulty with the new owners forced the Club to consider an alternative site. Mr Stephan Parkes favoured a site at Westford but the majority felt that this was too far from town. The development of Hunters Home Township by the Municipality offered a better alternative.
A swampy mosquito-infested area had been set aside for the future development of a golf course. The Club drew up plans to build nine holes on the higher lying areas of this ground and use this site as the first nine. Leisure Isle was to become the second nine as it already had a nineteenth hole. Following negotiations with the Town Council, a start was made on laying out the new nine holes at Hunters Home.
Initial construction was started in 1949 by George Strydom and completed to a state of readiness by Jock Fraser with considerable help from the Municipality. George Strydom officially opened the new course on 21st February 1951. Despite being unable to play golf, due to the loss of one leg, George managed to drive a long ball from the first tee, resting his stump on his wheelchair, to officially open the course. Initially there was no clubhouse. Tea was served from a little wooden hut, which was later used as a tool shed. The shed later became part of ‘Corkies Hotel’ behind the 17th green. (Corky was the brother of Niklaas Wabane’s, who lived in the old shed.)
Greenkeeping in the earlier days was a haphazard affair. The club did not own a tractor and had to hire one from a certain Cecil Taylor. The rough did not get cut at all. Cattle and donkeys were allowed to graze on the course, which helped a little. The Greenkeeper at the time, Mr Scheepers, introduced the practice of burning the grass around the trees until Tony Steyn, the Standard Bank manager and newly elected Committee member of the Club, yelled at him not to set the course on fire. Scheepers was mad at the interference and told Niklaas Wabanie, in Afrikaans, to take his matches and burn under Tony’s feet.
Murray Delgano, a building contractor and member decided to close down his operation but at the Captain’s request, agreed to retain his team and provide his own supervision free of charge to build a new change, locker and shower room to a design by Stanley French. On completion the internal fittings were organised by Keith Cretchley and the lockers built by another member. All this was achieved for about R5,000.
Keith Norton, a retired sheep farmer and a Committee Member was greatly concerned about the flooding. He arranged a loan of a front-end loader, free of charge, to the Club and spent days with his theodolite constructing the drainage ditch which runs along the boundary of the 15th hole. This canal carried much water off the course to the lagoon.
However, a few exceptionally wet years and serious floods followed the opening of the new course. Finances were strained. David Cuthbert wrote:
“I remember a period when the course was unplayable for nine consecutive Saturdays. The necessary fund raising projects brought the members closer together and, as a result, the Knysna Golf Club grew from strength to strength”.
This strength was further cemented by practice that continued for many years. Members wishing to play on a Wednesday or a Saturday would enter their names on a list that was posted in the bar. The day before the competition the Captain would do a draw (seeded if necessary) and this would be posted, the same day, in the window at Central Pharmacy in town. In this way every member – and particularly new members – became well known to each other.
To move or not to move?
In 1966 the late Harald Thesen left a legacy of R20 000 to the Club. Various proposals were considered regarding the use of the money before it was eventually decided to expand the present site. One of the alternatives was described thus in the local weekly newspaper of Friday 5th August 1966:
“The Knysna Golf Club will hold a special general meeting on Monday, August 22nd to decide whether or not to build a new championship 18 hole golf course. The project is expected to cost R75,000 of which R20,000 has already been donated to the club by Mr. H.W. Thesen.
“The proposed new course is north-west of Knysna on the property of the English Church Property Board. The proposed site of the new clubhouse is just less than three miles from the Knysna Post Office. The whole area is about 100 morgen. All members of the club were recently sent notice of the meeting to discuss the proposed new course. Each also received a memorandum from the president of the club, Mr. R L E Condon, setting out the reason why the club’s management committee was considering building a new course. The meeting was put ahead to August 22nd, 1966 from August 18th. Mr. Condon said the present course was comparatively short and featureless. Even if it were expanded to 18 holes these features would remain. Although visitors often praised the condition of the course, Knysna would remain a backwater as far as golf was concerned. It could play no part in the development of Knysna or the Southern Cape as a golfing centre.
“Describing the site of the proposed new course, Mr. Condon said the nature of the ground lent itself to the construction of a ‘truly magnificent’ course. The area was undulating with natural features and easy gradients. The soil was good and there appeared to be abundant water. The area was one of great scenic beauty and was ideal for a future country club. The ground would cost R10,000, the clubhouse R30,000 and course R35,000, repayable over 25 years if subscriptions were increased, bar profits rose and green fees were increased as expected. Special arrangements could be made to protect the present level of subscriptions paid by pensioner members. ‘The choice before us is one of remaining in relative obscurity in the golfing and sporting world or creating something which could be the most talked about club in the Republic’, concluded Mr. Condon.
The matter was raised again in the newspaper on 16th August of that year:
“At the meeting held to discuss the proposal the members were not in favour of the new site. In addition the Church’s offer to sell the land had been withdrawn and the proposal therefore fell through.”
Bigger and better
The George and Knysna Herald of 24th May 1968 reported that:
“Knysna is to have an 18 hole golf course soon. The Town Council has agreed to the extension of the present site bounded by Howard Street in the north, Kennet Street in the east, Wilson Street in the south and Heads Street in the West.
“Mr. R L E Condon, President of the Club and Mr. H M Hulett, Captain, completed the negotiations with the Town Council last week. The present nine hole course will now be re-designed and incorporated in the general layout of the new 18-hole course. Mr. Hulett told The Herald today that this does not affect the club’s future plans for an additional 18-hole course. ‘We are still looking for suitable land. This project might be launched within 10 years’, he said.”
According to Mr. Hulett the number of golf players in Knysna was growing every year: “A few years ago some 20 players took part in a Saturday afternoon game. Now-a-days there is a draw of at least 60. Many are young people,” he added. “A meeting of members will be held in the near future to discuss the various aspects of the new 18-hole course.”
Max Hulett played a major role in organizing the construction of the new nine holes. The official opening was reported on in The Herald of 30th March 1971: “At the official opening of the new nine holes at the Knysna Golf Club, a plaque in memory of the late Mr. Harald Thesen was unveiled by Mrs. Hildur Stent on behalf of the Thesen family. Mr Thesen had donated R20 000 towards the building of an 18-holes golf course. The club president Mr. Jack Finkelstein welcomed a large crowd to the unveiling and the official opening of the new nine holes of Knysna golf course.
The ceremony was held on Saturday afternoon, after the first round of the Knysna Hotel Cup had been played. Mr. Ernest. A. Meyer, the Mayor of Knysna, in his speech said that, although the golf club owes the new nine holes primarily to the generosity of Harald Thesen, the emphasis should be on the man and not the money. He knew Herald Thesen as a good citizen and he defined this as being one who contributes more to life than he takes out of it. He likened life to a game of golf saying it was not one’s ability to keep out of the rough that was so important but one’s ability to get out of the rough.
The Mayor extended the Town Council’s hearty congratulations on the Club’s elevation to an 18-hole golf course. The most pleasing aspect was that the extension had been achieved mainly through its own endeavours. The new nine holes had been built ‘departmentally’ which was a fine achievement. He paid particular tribute to Club Captain Max Hulett whose devotion and hard work had made the nine holes out of vlei, bush and wild grass. In this regard he had “confounded the critics and astounded his friends.”
The Club President Jack Finkelstein also paid tribute to the hard work and fine endeavours of Max Hulett, saying that the 18-hole course was not only a benefit to the club, but to Knysna as well.
When the late Mr. Frank Dickens who lived on Leisure Isle left a 13th of his estate to the Club, the decision was made to improve the current second hole, which, with the neighbouring sixth fairway, bore the brunt of the occasional floods and salt from a high water table. Work on these two holes has paid dividends providing a grassed fairway, which was snatched from an impending wasteland. The second green was moved to its new location in 1992. 1991 heralded a new era with radical changes envisaged for the golf course. A new aspect of budgeting for developments and maintenance was put forward with a view to keep up with the increasing interest in the sport and the mushrooming golf estates along the Garden Route.
In 1995 bent grass was planted on the first green as a trial. Flooding occurred roughly every seven years so, with this in mind, all the greens were raised and re-constructed with bent grass to USPGA specifications over a two-year period from 1996. This mammoth task, supervised by Philip Basson an adviser from George, proved invaluable in protecting the greens, even when the rest of the course has been under water.
The effects of climate change and re-direction of water due to developments in the immediate area continues to be the cause of flooding problems and all members are resigned to the fact that the course becomes unplayable on occasion.
The club today
In 2006 it became apparent that the clubhouse and surrounds needed to be upgraded, necessitating major renovations and rebuilding. The project was driven by John Marr and debentures were sold to raise funds. Lionel Wilmore, a member with architectural skills, devised a phased rebuilding programme whereby the day-to-day running of the Club remained largely unaffected. Lionel was elected clerk of works and Simon Jantjies, also a Club member (and former Club champion) won the tender for the construction work.
The new building was completed in May 2007. Assisted by funds raised through the sale of debentures to members, additional improvements were also able to be made. These included rebuilding the workshop, upgrading the caddy facilities and constructing a new garage to house 100 golf carts. The same building team was in charge with Andre van Oudtshoorn, the new Club Captain, at the helm and the work was completed in June 2008.
The clubhouse upgrade, together with the new and improved facilities, made an immeasurable difference to the general appearance and functioning of the club and a fitting celebration of its centenary in 2009. But many of the benefits were tragically short-lived.
At around 6pm of January 13, 2010 a fire broke out in the water heating system and, fanned by high winds, rapidly spread through the clubhouse. Thankfully there were no injuries, but the devastation was complete. The entire clubhouse and its contents (including trophies and memorabilia, pro shop stock and members golfing equipment) were destroyed within an hour.
But a club comprises more than a physical building and its members wasted no time in taking action. The following morning, a disaster committee was formed and immediately set to work on arranging temporary facilities. A Bedouin-style tent was erected with portable cabins serving as a green fees office, bar and refreshment stall. Members and visitors were able to play the course the day after the fire while the clubhouse was still smoldering.
A few weeks later, a pre-fabricated temporary clubhouse was erected on the 1st tee and this served the club well for both golfing and social functions for the next year or so.
Although the new clubhouse had to be constructed using the ‘footprint’ of the previous building, the opportunity was taken to re-think and redesign its layout completely. The result has been a transformation that has delighted and impressed both members and visitors alike.
The official opening took place on April 15, 2011 – just 15 months after the fire. The clubhouse is now one of the most stylish, modern and well-equipped in the country and stands testament to the dedication, imagination and sheer hard work of the club’s committee, members and contractors.
Membership currently stands at over 1,100 and, not surprisingly, is still growing. During holiday periods visitors from home and abroad enjoy full use of Knysna’s superb facilities. The number of playing members increases substantially during the summer when overseas visitors, commonly known as “Swallows”, return to their holiday homes in Knysna; their continued support and friendship is welcomed by all.