Golf has been played in Bloemfontein for a lot longer than some might realise, and long before the post-World War I golf
boom took place, there was a fanatical group of golfing diehards playing their beloved game in the Free State’s
As in other major centres, the Victorian courses were modest affairs, carved out of virgin bush (or in the case of Bloem,
stark savanna veld). Rather curiously, as the game became evermore popular in Bloemfontein, two very fine 18-hole layouts came
into being – right next to each other.
The history of the game here is rather sketchy, but we do know that an advertisement appeared in The Friend newspaper calling on
interested parties to meet and form a golf club as early as 1894. By the end of this decade, before the outbreak of the Boer War, there
were 40 members of the Bloemfontein Golf Club, two of whom actually played off a scratch handicap.
It would seem that soon after this, a group of Scots who were employed by the Railway Institute, not to be outdone, started their
own club in 1904, a club that would become Schoeman Park. We are told that after starting its life as a nine-holer, and moving to various
venues, it finally found a permanent home and, in 1957, could boast a layout of 18 holes, which for many years was considered to
be the finest course in the province. It has never been confirmed whether Bob Grimsdell himself laid out the course, or whether a
group of members, in consultation with the renowned architect, actually constructed the holes, but either way, the course bears
many of the Grimsdell hallmarks.
Prior to the course taking shape, a major obstacle had to be overcome, as the land, owned by the Railway Institute, was waterlogged.
The area, which today would be considered to be an ‘ecologically fragile wetland’, was drained, and to keep the claybased
land dry, stands of ubiquitous bluegums were planted. These giant trees today define the course, which is very much classic parkland
in nature. (Credit to the greens committees of recent years, an indigenous tree-planting programme has been instituted.)
At full stretch, the layout measures a little over 6 500 metres, which considering Bloemfontein’s altitude of 1 370 metres above sea level,
is certainly short by modern standards. But judging by the popularity of this vibrant club, not many golfers care, and in fact many visitors
probably relish the prospect of making scores that might flatter their ability. Some might decide to overpower this seemingly benign layout,
only to find their ball clattering into the giant bluegums that line the fairways, and suddenly the course will not seem that easy. For
the better players to really attack this course, they should be able to work the ball both ways from the tees.
No hole actually stands out or could qualify for ‘signature’ status, but the 4th is an interesting par four with out-of-bounds to the
right, and the finishing hole is a true classic two-shotter that bears a stroke rating of 1. The outward and homeward loops are well
balanced, although the back nine is probably a shot or two tougher than the opening loop. (I particularly liked the short 17th – the
longest par three on the course.)
It might be suggested that Schoeman Park could tighten up its course by strategically positioning some fairway bunkers, and reconstructing
some of the rather featureless greens complexes, but this would no doubt spoil the character of this very pleasant old classic.
The shallow, concrete-lined ponds are decidedly old fashioned and do little for the general layout, and whoever does manage to land in
one (probably only the higher-handicapper), will be able to fish out their bal.
The greens, previously sown with cynoden, were converted to bent grass in 1998, and although they are both receptive and true,
the old surfaces with their wicked nap perhaps made for a better test of a player’s putting skills.
There has been no shortage of important events hosted at this club, including the 1995 Men’s Amateur Championship and the
women’s equivalent in 2000. The club also hosted a test match when a team from Brazil played a Springbok squad in 1975. In addition,
the club was home to the Spoornet Classic, a professional tournament which was one of the most popular events on the Sunshine
Tour. Sadly, this tournament was discontinued. Some famous names, the likes of Dale Hayes, Alan Henning, Cobie Legrange
and Tony Johnstone, triumphed here, and it was on this course that Retief Goosen recorded his first win as a pro. Earlier this year
the Nomads Nationals were played here and, true to form, these generous gentlemen, who do such good work for various charities,
ensured that the bar takings soared during their week at the club.
Schoeman Park can boast one of the finest 19th holes in the country. Although larger than most, its wood panelling
festooned with honours boards retains a cosy feel and, as far as ‘proper’ club bars go, it doesn’t get more traditional than this. But
what truly makes this club is the quality of member that faithfully patronises this facility – a jovial lot who make sure that there are no
strangers in their midst – only new friends.
One cannot help feel that the game is very much alive and well at this club – there is a strong junior section, and head professional Ian
Palmer and his four assistants have their hands full giving lessons and generally providing a first-class service to the members and
visitors. Palmer, a former successful tour pro who has become a doyen among those of his trade, took it upon himself to look after the young Ernie Els when he first joined the professional ranks, and when Els was approached by Palmer to speak at the club’s centennial dinner in 2004, Els happily obliged. We have it on good authority that the evening turned out to one heck of a party, but parties are not unusual occurrences at this club.
If you happen to be travelling along the N1 highway through Bloem, there are more than a few good reasons for stopping off at Schoeman Park for a quick round, although after joining the locals for a post-round drink, you would be well-advised to stay the night in one of the
many fine guest-houses nearby. There is a good chance that you will bump into one of the Free State’s many sporting heroes in the 19th hole, as this is the watering hole of choice for the province’s rugby and cricket teams.
This course is unlikely to feature on any list of great championship tests, but so what. It will certainly appear among many golfers’ favourite experiences. You will be unlikely to lose a ball here and it is an easy course to walk. You will also not have to spend upwards of six hours getting round. All too many old classics have been ‘revamped’ and all too many have had their original characters changed without actually being improved. Long may Schoeman
Park stay the way it is – a loveable old classic, frayed edges and all.