An Epic South African Golf Trip

After a nine-hour night flight and a 90-minute drive, I unpacked at my hotel and enjoyed a restorative breakfast. Returning to my room on the fifth floor with a balcony overlooking an enormous swimming pool, I was about to decide what to do with my day when I sensed that something about the room had changed.

No, not the room. The balcony. An hour ago it was the picture of well-ordered serenity; now it looked as if a cyclone had hit it. The two deck chairs were overturned, a dark liquid was splattered across the glass doors, and the floor was littered with shards of white china. On closer inspection, I saw that a full pot of coffee had been smashed with extreme brutality.

I knew I had locked all the doors before heading down to breakfast. And given the configuration of the hotel, it was impossible to gain access to my balcony from a neighboring room. Utterly befuddled and more than a little scared, I moved stealthily to the only closet in the room, hesitated and yanked the door open, half-expecting an axe-wielding Jack Nicholson to scream, “Heeere’s Johnny!”

Nothing. Nor was Anthony Perkins behind the shower curtain. By chance, however, two maintenance men were down the hall, and I called them in. They took a quick look, exchanged knowing glances, and broke into ear-to-ear grins.

“The baboons, sir,” said one. “They were playing this morning. They must have snatched the coffee from another balcony and smashed it on your porch.”

Clearly, this would be a golf trip unlike any other, full of sights, sounds and smells I had never experienced, to a land both pristine and primal, triumphant and troubled, a land blessed with an astonishing diversity of natural beauty and a growing collection of world-class courses. This was South Africa.

Stop one: Sun City
I arrived with 14 clubs, two dozen balls and zero expectations—just a few preconceptions. To me South Africa was synonymous with the Africa from childhood myths and movies—the Dark Continent, home of Tarzan, lions and rhinos, pith-helmeted hunters and spear-carrying Zulus. I had an ugly-American-level familiarity with Nelson Mandela, F.W. de Klerk and the end of apartheid, but beyond that all I knew about South Africa was what well-traveled friends had told me: The weather is mild, the beaches are gorgeous and you can get a great meal with a bottle of wine for $25.

Sun City offered a gentle introduction. Self-anointed as Africa’s Kingdom of Pleasure, Sun City is sort of a bushveld Disney World. The flagship accommodation, the Palace of the Lost City, was built in 1992 to look like a city buried by a volcano and rediscovered centuries later (by a billionaire developer). The grounds are dotted with fountains and life-size statues of elephants and cheetahs, and the lobby brings to mind Grand Central Station, only bigger.

No South African layout is better known than Sun City’s Gary Player course, host to the Nedbank Golf Challenge, which dates to 1981, when Johnny Miller defeated Seve Ballesteros on the ninth hole of sudden death. Remarkably, for this over-the-top resort, the course is a bit understated—no Donald Trump waterfalls, just an unrelenting succession of tough but fair holes. The greens were faster and smoother than I expected, so my punchy St. Andrews stroke was of little avail. The most memorable hole is the 9th, a do-or-die par 5 where I skulled my third shot under the lily pads.

I see how the pros would respect the Gary Player course, but I was more charmed by its sibling, the Lost City course. Also designed by Player, it sits on more dramatic terrain—particularly the back nine, which sweeps through the foothills of the Pilanesberg Mountains with several elevated tees providing marvelous views. The hole everyone comes to play is the par-3 13th, a mid-iron to a green shaped liked the African continent. The stone pit short and left of the green serves as home to a large community of crocodiles. I managed to push my ball safely to the back fringe.

The golf was very good, but the poolside club sandwich, made with fried eggs and avocado on deep-fried bread, was the best of my life. And the gourmet dinner at the Villa del Palazzo restaurant was so satisfying in every way that I returned for a second night—Sun City’s 42 other restaurants will just have to wait for my next trip.

Stop two: Kruger National Park
South Africa’s best courses are spread across a country that is roughly equal to France and Spain combined, so my itinerary called for a bit of traveling. I needed a one-hour flight sandwiched between a pair of 90-minute drives to reach Jock Safari Lodge in Kruger National Park, the largest game reserve in South Africa.
Truth be told, I saw little delight in rising at dawn to rattle across bumpy terrain in an open vehicle. But the trip organizer, Gordon Turner of PerryGolf, insisted I stay two days in the game reserve; I’m very glad he did.

Soon upon my arrival, I was getting ready for dinner when to my astonishment a family wandered by the window—a family of rhinoceros. These were white rhinos, which were almost extinct in the 1960s. Now there are more than 7,500 in Kruger, thanks to a dedicated conservationist named Dr. Ian Player, Gary’s brother.

The next morning I was to play South Africa’s most prestigious private club, Leopard Creek Country Club. The club had provided a car and driver for the 40-minute trip, and within moments of hopping in, I dozed off. Then there was a tap on my shoulder.

“Sorry to disturb you,” said the driver, “but I think you should see this.” Staring directly at us was an enormous bull elephant. We were within 30 feet of him and the big fellow kindly obliged while I snapped a dozen photographs. Then, as if on cue, he ambled off into the bush.

“Early morning is the best time for game viewing,” said the driver. “You might want to stay awake for the last half hour of the ride.”

Over the next 15 miles, we saw zebras, giraffes, impalas, Cape buffalo and best of all, a leopard perched serenely in the branches of an acacia tree. Many who go to South Africa on safari return without a leopard sighting, and I randomly spied one while going to play golf! I had now spotted four of Africa’s Big Five—rhino, elephant, Cape buffalo and leopard. Only the lion remained.

Leopard Creek is the vision of Dunhill czar Johann Rupert, who built the Player design as a playground for his well-heeled friends. It has the look and feel of an elite American club—lush fairways, bunkers with bright white sand and meticulously manicured, fast-running greens. The Crocodile River and several manmade ponds are in play on half the holes, most notably at the 5th and 7th, a pair of side-by-side, all-carry par 3s, and at the 9th and 18th, which end in pond-fronted greens at the foot of an elegant yet comfortable clubhouse that shot straight onto my list of the 10 best in the world.

There are a few sights at Leopard Creek you won’t find anywhere else. On every tee is a life-size bronze sculpture of the club’s eponymous feline. On a wall in the halfway house is the Leopard Board, where members dutifully record sightings of the elusive cat (“left of 14th tee, 2 p.m. Thursday”). Then there is the burly denizen of the pond that guards the green of the par-3 16th—Harry the Hippo, who provides despondent three-putters a truly novel excuse: “Harry snorted on my backswing.”

Back at the lodge, I found a “sightings checklist” for my game-viewing expedition the next day. More than 250 different species were awaiting discovery. There were also lists of birds of prey and potentially fatal snakes. More comforting was the roster of medicinal plants. (Should you ever find yourself ailing in the African bush, know that acacia karoo leaf combats diarrhea.)

By 9 a.m., thanks to our game tracker, my fellow safarists and I had spotted nearly two dozen different creatures, from a massive blue wildebeest to a dwarf mongoose. We even came upon a pride of lions. My five boxes were checked, and more importantly, I had an experience I would never forget.

Stop three: Durban
The seaside city of Durban is home to the grande dame of South African courses, Durban Country Club, founded in 1922 after a flood had all but destroyed Royal Durban Country Club. Appropriately, the two architects responsible for rebuilding were named Waters and Waterman, who did a magnificent routing job, making full use of prime land just a few hundred yards from the Indian Ocean.

I have never seen a more stern start—set along a narrow stretch of rumpled dunes with dense tropical vegetation on both sides. The centerpiece is the par-5 3rd, played from an elevated tee to an ever-narrowing fairway that climbs to a small, ball-repelling green.

No. 12, 156 yards to a small plateau green that slopes off on three sides, is affectionately known as the Prince of Wales hole in fond memory of the day half a century ago when His Highness twirled a 16 on it. The nation’s finest players, from Bobby Locke to Player to Ernie Els, have had some of their finest moments there during multiple South African Opens. Although I couldn’t make the same statement, I found myself wishing I had the time to play this course again. And again and again.

Stop four: Fancourt
After another short plane ride south, I was in George, at the western tip of the scenic stretch known as the Garden Route. Just a five-minute drive away was Fancourt, site of the 2003 Presidents Cup.

Africa’s leading golf resort, Fancourt offers four courses, including the jewel, Player’s Links course. Although well removed from the sea and hardly a true links, it has a similar look thanks to the 60,000 truckloads of dirt excavated from this former airstrip and fashioned into dozens of hummocks and swales.

I knew this would be a difficult course when I saw some hole names: Calamity, Kilimanjaro, Wee Wrecker, Prayer. It was the merciless greens that got to me. At the par-4 12th I thought I hit a perfect 5-iron approach—it settled happily, less than 10 feet from the pin. As I was walking to the green, putter in hand, the ball rolled off the false front, 30 feet back down the fairway. What had looked like a possible three quickly became an effortless six. The name for that hole was perfect: Sheer Murder.

The 2003 Presidents Cup ended in a 17–17 deadlock, forcing a sudden-death playoff between Els and Tiger Woods that was halted due to darkness, whereupon captains Player and Nicklaus
controversially decided to call it a tie.

I had no issues with time. First off at 8 a.m., I was finished two and half hours later—finished in every sense of the word. My struggle would have been even more desperate if not for Promise—not the name of a hole but my caddie. Whether it’s coincidence or canny marketing, South African caddies seem to adopt names that buoy the spirits of their golfers. In three days, I was accompanied by Promise, Valor and Fortune.

Stop five: Pinnacle Point
On the following morning came two big surprises. First, instead of driving to the next course, I was hoisted there by helicopter. Second, the course itself.

Roughly 25 miles southeast of Fancourt, on a stretch of cliffs 600 feet above the Indian Ocean, sits the most spectacular course I have ever seen. Less than a year old and the creation of South African architect Peter Matkovich, Pinnacle Point is destined to do for South Africa what Kauri Cliffs and Cape Kidnappers have done for New Zealand. It simply must be seen and played.

The only places I can begin to compare it to are Pebble Beach and Ireland’s Old Head. But it’s set on more jaw-dropping terrain than Pebble and is a much better course than Old Head. This is extreme golf, to be sure, but it is also honest golf. There are no unreasonable assignments, no silly holes—just engaging, exhilarating ones.

The course is also home to 264 species of flora—more than in the entire U.K.—so there’s ample opportunity to stop and smell the flowers. There are also two private beaches, a hotel and a casino on site. The casino, in fact, came first and the property’s non-golfer owners had no idea what to do with the land before someone suggested golf. Today, regulations forbid building this close to the sea, so South Africa will never have another course quite like this one.

Pinnacle Point will ultimately be a private club with an international membership, most of whom have bought lots near the course. For now it’s open to guests of the Pinnacle Point Hotel. I urge you to find your way there.

Stop six: Cape Town
My route south resumed with a three-hour drive along the coast, through a mountain pass, past a string of cattle and ostrich farms before heading back toward the coast and the Western Cape Hotel & Spa, where continental-style accommodations, food and service blend gracefully with South African décor and ambiance.

The hotel course, Arabella, was completed in 1999 and ranks among South Africa’s best. Another Matkovich design, Arabella is set on gently rolling terrain within a nature preserve and alongside South Africa’s largest natural lagoon. There is great variety—long and short par 4s, doglegs each way and elevation changes. The closing holes of each nine wend toward the lagoon, most dramatically at the 8th, a steeply downhill par 5 to a green surrounded by water and reeds.

There were other courses I wanted to play—Pearl Valley and Steenberg in the wine country; Humewood, the only true links in Africa; Wild Coast, a Robert Trent Jones Jr. design with a par 3 over a natural waterfall. Alas, my time was limited and the final stop was Cape Town, a city I wanted to see, not just pass through.

The one-hour drive along the edge of the Western Cape took me through a stretch of scenery that was like the Monterey Peninsula on steroids—broad sand beaches at the feet of steep mountain cliffs. I rarely take the time for pictures, but at one point I simply had to pull over and snap off a few, just to be sure I wasn’t dreaming.

A few miles outside Cape Town, Table Mountain hovered into view. A geological oddity, it rises 3,000 feet but instead of forming a peak, it flattens into a two-mile-wide plateau, the iconic broad shoulders above one of the prettiest harbor cities in the world.

Situated at the southernmost point of Africa where the Indian and Atlantic Oceans merge, Cape Town was a waystation for the Dutch East India Company, and the colonial influence remains in the 19th
century Dutch and Victorian architecture. I was fortunate to be billeted at the Cape Grace, a classically elegant hotel on the west quay of the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, a working harbor that has been gentrified into a dining, shopping and entertainment center. The French doors of my balcony opened to a view of the marina below and Table Mountain above.

Since opening in 1996, Cape Grace has ranked among the best hotels in the world. Bascule, the hotel’s cellar bar, is stocked with more than 450 varieties of single malt whisky. While sampling an all too small selection of them, I learned a few words of Afrikaans from the Englishman on the barstool next to mine as we listened to a terrific jazz trio. It was all very cosmopolitan, emblematic of what this city is about.

I could have gone to several lovely beaches but took a tour of the city, wandering the shops of the waterfront and stopping for a couple of adventurous meals—medallions of ostrich steak, springbok salad and crocodile curry. I heartily recommend the ostrich, which is actually a red meat. I could have sworn I was eating prime aged filet.

The weather throughout my stay was San Diego perfect—sunny 70–80 degrees during the day, cool at night—as it is for most of the year in most of the nation. Indeed, for 12 days I was blessed and pampered.

I was also more than a little sheltered. Much of South Africa beyond the resorts continues to be troubled by high crime rates and drug use. Unemployment is high, a third of the population doesn’t have electricity and a fifth has AIDS.

The legacy of apartheid is evident in the deep economic divisions that remain, and South Africa’s rich cultural diversity—there are 11 national languages and almost as many religions—can be a two-edged sword. Even tourists can’t escape the evidence. Every rental car facility has signs urging motorists to keep their car doors locked at all times, and in one hotel the complimentary toiletries kit included a pack of condoms with an exhortation to observe safe sex.

There are also positive signs. The government is stable, its economy has seen eight years of growth, and over the past decade housing prices have risen at record rates. There is a spirit of optimism, evident in the smiles of caddies, cabbies and nearly everyone on the streets, as well as an inescapable feeling that most citizens want to get on with the business of building their nation. They are doing so on the shoulders of a tourism economy that last year grew at three times the global rate—and for good reason. South Africa is an intoxicating place—and a great place to take your golf clubs.