Travel and Leisure
The Hack Daddies
As surely as December brings Christmas, March brings the Hack Daddies Golf Tour.
For a select group of thirty- and forty-something gents, Hack Daddies is an annual fixture – a chance to leave real life behind in Johannesburg or Cape Town and spend a few days chasing little white balls around some of the most spectacular courses in South Africa. In between the golf there is lots of banter and plenty of beer. Vegetables are scarce.
No-one can remember exactly how the name “Hack Daddies” came about, and it’s actually something of a misnomer. Only a handful of the sixteen members are out-and-out hackers – I’m sorry to say that this reporter is one of them – and, while there may not be any scratch golfers on the tour, there are a few single-digit handicappers.
To be fair, in recent years most of the guys have become dads, so at least the second part of the title is accurate (albeit not in the way it was originally intended). But family responsibilities, along with professional commitments, recede into the background as the Hack Daddies take on their tour identities.
For this reason, as with most male rites, nicknames are crucial. Andrew and Simon and Jon are gone. Instead we have Locksmith, Beefy, Double-Glove, Fish Eagle, Smash, Hat-trick, Pappy, Half-Arc ... the list goes on. Sporting tradition also demands that a friendly rivalry of sorts is sustained; unfortunately for those from Gauteng, Team South tends to beat Team North hands down.
Ultimately, however, it’s not about winning or losing. (Bucking Grantland Rice’s famous poetic formulation, it’s not about “how you play the game” either – if that were the case, the use of four-letter-words and the beating of clubs against trees would disqualify most competitors.) It’s about bromance: a bromantic comedy set alternately on pristine courses and in sought-after leisure destinations.
South Africa hosts thousands of tours like the Hack Daddies every year.
In 2013 we travelled to the southern Cape. At George airport, where the staff ensure that golf bags come out on the carousel before any other luggage appears, we were reminded not only of how important the sport is to the regional economy but also of just how many golf tours are undertaken across South Africa daily.
An hour’s drive up the coast brought us to Oyster Creek Lodge on the Knysna lagoon. Unpacking crateloads of ice, booze and braai meat as we admired the triple-storey log cabin that was to be our home base while on tour, we worried that the elderly caretaker-couple staying on the premises might be put out by some late night revelry. Four days later, as we shook hands in the driveway, we apologised for any excessive noise.
“You call that loud?” they asked, mildy amused. “We’ve had much worse. There are groups of golfers here all the time.”
Indeed, while the appeal of Oyster Creek to most tourists might be its prime position – surrounded almost entirely by water and a short drive from the town centre and the Knysna heads – for those on golf tour the main priority is easy access to local courses such as Pezula and Simola. The Hack Daddies had these two in their sites on Day 1 and Day 3, with 18 holes at the George Golf Club sandwiched between them.
The marked differences between these courses are worth noting. Of course, they play differently; Pezula and Simola are both dramatically situated coastal courses with remarkable views from elevated tees, but while the former is a tight links with impenetrable rough, the latter requires more distance off the tee and is deceptively tiered down steep slopes. George, by contrast, is an open but heavily-treed parklands course set in the lee of the Outeniqua mountains. Perhaps the more significant differences, however, are neither in terrain nor in layout.
Pezula and Simola are part of an increasingly dominant golf phenomenon: the private estate or resort course. More modest, and in many ways a typical “country club”, in pure golfing terms George can nonetheless hold its own with the prestigious courses along the Garden Route – including its immediate neighbours, Montagu and The Links at Fancourt – and is regularly ranked in the top 25 in the country. Founded in 1886, it also has tradition on its side.
Yet golfing traditions have, nationwide, grown somewhat fragile in recent years. While George’s reputation should ensure that it continues to thrive, many country clubs and municipal courses are being driven deeper and deeper into debt. Although golfing facilities are as expensive to maintain as ever, the usual revenue streams have begun to dry up.
In the US, Europe and parts of Asia – China is the obvious exception – recessionary conditions have had the impact one might expect on a sport that is the leisure equivalent of a luxury item: the golf industry has slowed, almost to a stop (in order to remain profitable, or simply to balance their books, golf courses in America have employed 60% fewer staff over the last five years).
In South Africa, slightly unusual conditions apply. Inbound tourism figures continue to increase, with the number of golf tourists rising proportionally. In 2011, South Africa was named “Best Golf Destination” by the International Association of Golf Tour Operators. But most of the benefit here accrues to the world-renowned resort and estate courses.
The “local” courses are left to depend on a somewhat outmoded income model: subsidies from a stable membership base, green fees from visitors and occasional fundraising days and tournaments. The problem is that fewer and fewer golfers among the new generation of young professionals are willing or able to pay tens of thousands of rands annually for membership of a club.
This generation doesn’t have a sense of loyalty to a particular club the way their parents’ generation did; the clubhouse is no longer a social hub as it used to be. They also find it more difficult to commit to regular scheduled rounds and are reluctant to give up whole weekends for competitions. They may play less often, but they still enjoy a greater variety of courses.
Predictably, technological shifts have had a substantial impact on the industry. Online initiatives like playmoregolfSA, golfteetimes.co.za, lastminutegolf.co.za and even less specialised platforms such as Groupon not only make it less expensive to play golf without being affiliated to a club, but also make it possible for individuals or fourballs to obtain large discounts at prestigious courses they would not otherwise be able afford.
Many clubs have been forced to take drastic action to survive. In Cape Town, plans are afoot at the well-established neighbouring clubs of Rondebosch and Mowbray to cut each course in half and combine the remaining holes into a single course. This example raises some tricky questions. Are there simply too many golf clubs in South Africa? Can we justify the operation of over 600 golf courses in environmental and economic terms?
There are no easy answers. Yes, golf courses use far too much water and tend to create partly artificial ecologies. Yes, much of the land might be more effectively used for agricultural, industrial or residential purposes. But many courses already combine golf with other tourism and leisure options and with high-end housing, or create employment opportunities in rural areas and small towns, or become valuable “green lungs” in big cities.
Either way, tours like the Hack Daddies will be around for many years to come – and as long as they are creating a demand, South Africa’s golf courses will ensure that there is no problem with supply.