With its amazing variety in nature, wildlife and culture, South Africa certainly stands up to its slogan “a world in one country.” It also has some of the world’s most exciting golf courses.
What was I thinking jetting nearly halfway around the globe to an unfamiliar animal kingdom to play golf in the bush, when I could have just as easily been bushwhacked using my clubs right near home?
Honestly, the decision was a no-brainer. There is a wealth of phenomenal courses throughout the African continent’s southern tip to challenge the skills and senses. Of course, golf is not the biggest game in the land – that happens to belong to the elephant, rhino, cape buffalo, leopard and lion, the ‘Big Five.’ Throw in added ingredients of exotic culture and heritage, a burgeoning wine industry, world-class cuisine, unforgettable scenery and you have the exact reasons any adventurous golfer should wander that distance.
THE RAINBOW NATION. Prior to my visit, the closest brush I ever had with golf in South Africa was being paired with two-time US Open champion, Retief Goosen. We were at the 2001 Grand Slam Pro-Am in Hawaii; over 19,000 km from his homeland and where the only element of danger was coconuts falling from the trees. What I didn’t realise at the time was that Goosen epitomised the congeniality and friendliness of everyone I would eventually meet during my journey throughout the ‘rainbow nation’.
“We have a wonderful variety of courses you can play year around, ranging from ocean links to parkland to high altitude,” says Goosen. “Plus the number of great golfers that have come from South Africa indicates how great a golfing country it is.”
The record books validate his claim. South African golfers have won 20 major championships, accounting for more than any other country except the United States, post-World War II. But I doubt any of those champions can lay claim to a feat I was able to accomplish right in their own backyard.
When it concerns golf adventure in South Africa, the top prize of this bucket-list trip goes to the Extreme 19th – a par-3 requiring helicopter transportation to a tee box 430m high overlooking an Africa-shaped green. It’s surrounded by the expansive game reserve at Legend Golf & Safari Resort in Limpomo, three hours from Johannesburg. After one grip-it-and-rip-it swing, a lofty chip and a soft-breaking 12-foot putt, I walked away with par and a tale to brandish at many a future 19th hole. As excessive as this cliff-hanging spectacle is, however, the total golf landscape and experience in South Africa goes far beyond a single hole.
AN ADVENTUROUS LAND.Golf in the Western Cape dates back to 1885, when Henry D’Oyley Torrens, commanding the British forces in Cape Town, first introduced the game. Now, almost 120 years and more than 500 courses later, my barnstorming 12-day golf adventure to South Africa would be strategically maneuvered by Scott Edkins, the commander of South Africa’s leading in-bound golf tour company, Ascot Tours. As a first-time visitor wanting to make the most of my experience, I considered it essential to be part of his troop.
“Knowledge is key and we know where to travel, which courses to play, which hotels to stay at and which restaurants to visit at the best times of the year,” says Edkins. “No matter how much internet research a person does they will not know things like whether a course is undergoing treatment or a hotel is alongside a building site or if a restaurant has changed chefs.”
To decompress from 25 hours of flight time and adjust to summertime when it was still winter back home, I spent my first full day in Cape Town exploring city streets, experiencing the shops and restaurants of the reclaimed V&A Waterfront that’s within eyesight of Robben Island, Nelson Mandela’s imprisoned home for 18 years, and riding a cable car to the top of Table Mountain where I was afforded a panoramic view of the cosmopolitan city.
After a restful night’s sleep at the Table Bay Hotel, it was time to unpack the sticks to start sampling the South African fairways.
ON THE ROAD. With a short drive from Cape Town’s city centre, the golf tour teed off at Steenberg Golf Club (established in 1995), situated in the heart of the tranquil Constantia Winelands along the Garden Route, considered one of the greatest drives on earth.
After entering the resort grounds, past vineyards and posh estates lining the 6,320-meter Peter Matkovich design, our entourage pulled up to the clubhouse to a motley lineup of caddies, but since they weren’t mandatory and because nobody understands my game better than myself, I opted to pass on a personal guide.
Soon after unloading and smacking my first golf ball, as fate unfolded, it didn’t take long for my first confrontation with South African wildlife. Not exactly a Big Five encounter, but while playing the opening hole my second shot from the fairway needed to dodge some sacred ibis birds.
Every green presented varying challenges at this manicured facility, boasting a 5-star hotel and winery on the oldest registered farm in the Cape, but the signature 7th and 14th holes painted a particularly splendid setting.
With a short and tricky par-3, the 7th hole features an island green completely surrounded by a bunker and water, while the breathtaking Steenberg Mountain-framed 14th boasts the longest green (63 metres) in the Southern Hemisphere.
STUNNING SCENERY.Staying on the Garden Route trail just over an hour east down the coast from Cape Town, I headed next to Arabella Hotel, Spa & Golf Resort. This is where, once again, Peter Matkovich weaved a scenic combination of links and parkland beauty along the Indian Ocean. For my bag of shots, the 6,081 metres Arabella GC, a pristine layout consistently on South Africa’s Top 10, proved to be a friendly balance between challenge and enjoyment.
Blending naturally with the landscape and bordered by the renowned Fynbos bushland of the Kogelber (a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in the Cape Floral Kingdom), it is also one of the best spots in the world to eyeball migrating whales from April through December.
The signature par-five 8th, running downhill to the green adjacent the Bot River, and the risk-reward par-four 9th, skimming South Africa’s largest lagoon all the way to the putting zone, were two of the best finishing holes encountered on any outward nine. I could have easily ended there and been plenty content, but then I would have missed two of the finest finishing holes of any inward nine that included a 160 metre par-three and the 471 metre par-five.
A TRUE PEARL. As the crow flies, approximately 60 km north from Arabella to the Paarl Valley (one hour from Cape Town), 18-time major golf champ, Jack Nicklaus, put his signature stamp on Pearl Valley Golf Estates. Set against the backdrop of the Drakenstein Mountains and bordered by vineyards, Pearl Valley was named ‘Best New Course of the Year’ (Golf Digest, 2005) and has played host to the South African Open three times.
The layout at the 500-home gated community lies on a fairly flat landscape, but its valley location and the seasonal changing winds play a key role in how the course works. There are nine lakes to maneuver at Pearl Valley GC and, in typical Nicklaus style, no shortage of long, shallow bunkers, although, these seemed more fair than most of his sandy creations.
Among the selection of standout holes at Pearl GC, none throws a stiffer challenge than the par-5, 4th. This is a hole that 2013 US Open winner, Justin Rose, categorises as one of his top nine in the world: “It’s a very technical par-five, with a creek crossing it three to four times but the backdrop of the mountain is what makes it so special.”
THE LINKS. Within 15 minutes of the estate, nearby towns of Paarl and Franschhoek (gastro capital of South Africa) lend plenty of side attractions, or head a bit further up the road in Stellenbosch, where the fruit of the vine flows at Ernie Els Winery.
Given the assumption that golf travellers yearn to play internationally acclaimed, television-exposed courses, I had my eyes set on one course during my trip: The Links at Fancourt. This 6,930-metre course, designed by Gary Player, hosted the 2003 Presidents Cup that famously ended in a tie after Ernie Els and Tiger Woods remained even after three playoff holes.
Two additional Player courses, Outeniqua and Montagu, adorn the luxury Fancourt Hotel and Country Club Estate, South Africa’s leading golf resort located in George on the western tip of the Garden Route. The marquee 18 holes are, however, at The Links.
While it’s not a true links, lying far from the sea (given the heat of the day, ocean breezes would have been a welcome relief), it has every bit the look and feel with land from a former airport that was transformed into a trail of hummocks and swales.
“The Links is among my favourite courses I have ever designed and is an engineering and construction marvel, when you think that we started with one of the flattest, worst sites I’ve ever seen,” says Player. “Our team created a course that will forever remain a good test of golf, no matter how much technology affects the game.”
This is a walking-only course and, whether it was the heat or the persisting battle of hole after hole, I was relieved to have my mandatory caddie who helped support my enduring determination to fire shots somewhere near a target.
I did fall victim to my share of bogies at The Links but the first one occurred before I even teed off upon reviewing the scorecard and noticed holes named Calamity, Wetland, Long, Sheer Murrrder, and Wee Wrecker. Not a good mindset when approaching hole No. 1, which would have been better off given the name of No. 17, Prayer, because the only prayer I had was to savour the experience.
In the end, South Africa proved to live up its slogan ‘a world in one country’ and has found a way to take golf to a whole other adventure.
Good to know
Direct flights to Johannesburg from London Heathrow are available with South African Airways (flysaa.com); British Airways (www.britishairways.com); and Virgin Atlantic (www.virgin-atlantic.com). Flights are available to Cape Town from Johannesburg.
• Steenburg Golf Club
Green Fee: N/A; rental buggy and clubs available
• Pearl Valley Golf & Country Estate
Green Fee: R695; rental buggy and clubs available
• Arabella Golf Club
Green Fee: R575; rental buggy and clubs available
• Fancourt Links
Green Fee: 750-1100; Hotel guests and members only; caddies mandatory; rental clubs available
• Table Bay Hotel
• Arabella Hotel & Spa
• Fancourt Golf Resort
GOLF, WINE AND ADVENTURE TOURS
Ascot Golf Tours has been at the forefront of South Africa golf tourism for 17 years and offers customised golf holidays for individuals and groups