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Time for a Swinging Safari in South Africa

By Michael Vlismas, Contributor

The members at the Leopard Creek Country Club will warn you not to venture too deep into the rough of a course known to be home to some of Africa's most venomous snakes. The par-three 13th hole of the Lost City Golf Club has a large crocodile enclosure next to the green, which will certainly add a bit of snap to your swing. And the very name "Wild Coast Sun Country Club" is an apt reminder that the gentleman's game in South Africa is still very much wild and untamed.

The sheer richness in diversity and the high quality of golf courses makes the South African golfing experience a truly memorable one. About 80% of Southern Africa's golf courses are located in South Africa, home to a multitude of world-class layouts.

Africa's long history as the second home of British ex-patriots ensured that the game of golf has always flourished on this continent. South Africa has arguably the strongest association with golf in Africa, and it is generally accepted that the first feathery was sent scuttling down the fairway in the Cape Province in the late 1800s.

With over 400 golf courses to choose from, it is fair to say that no golf tour of South Africa can really claim to do justice to the array of quality courses the country has to offer. But there are a few "musts" that certainly give a credible account of South Africa's golfing riches.

The leading courses are generally located in the Cape, Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal, with a few gems sprinkled throughout other parts of the country. The majority of these compare favourably with anything the world has to offer.

The Gary Player Country Club at Sun City has long been ranked as either the best or second-best course in the country. Sun City was born as the Las Vegas of Africa. The entertainment resort, located just past the town of Rustenburg in the North West Province, is nestled in the cradle of an extinct volcano and is famous as the home of the annual Nedbank Golf Challenge that assembles the world's 12 best golfers of the year to battle for a $2-million first prize on the fairways of the Gary Player Country Club.

German professional Bernhard Langer has described this bushveld layout - designed by Gary Player - as being on a par with Augusta National or Valderrama.

At over 6,938 metres from the back tees, it ranks as one of the longest courses in the world and can be as much a physical, as mental test of any golfer. The heat is exhausting, the greens are lightning quick and the famous kikuyu rough means any shot hit slightly off line is punished.

But playing a course upon which the likes of Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Greg Norman, Seve Ballesteros, Colin Montgomerie, David Duval and countless others have made their mark is worth what it may do to your handicap.

The vistas of rolling hills, large lakes and typical African bush are matched by the resort's countless amenities and luxurious atmosphere. The Lost City Golf Club - another Player course and ranked within the top 20 in the country - is only a wedge away, located behind the opulent Palace hotel.

The neighbouring Pilanesberg Game Reserve provides the nature lover with the ultimate African experience, and game drives can be booked from Sun City.

About two hours' drive from Sun City lie the sprawling cities of Pretoria and Johannesburg in the Gauteng Province. Gauteng is home to some of the best manicured courses in the country, and while the Cape Province may well claim to be the original home of golf in South Africa, Gauteng has the greatest concentration of courses. Here, layouts such as The River Club, Glendower Golf Club, Pecanwood Country Club and Houghton Golf Club stand out as essential stops.

The River Club was voted by Golf Digest South Africa as the best conditioned course in the country, and this highly exclusive Sandton layout is almost faultless. Apart from pure aesthetics, the course also boasts one of the toughest finishing stretches in South Africa. But you will need a member's invitation to play here.

Glendower Golf Club, proclaimed a nature reserve in 1973, has a rich tradition as a regular home of the South African Open and also the layout upon which Bobby Locke set the then world record score for 72 holes by winning the Transvaal Open with rounds of 66-69-66-64 for a total of 265 in 1939.

The outward loop is spectacular, with Locke including the par-five second among his best 18 holes worldwide. The par-four 10th is one of the toughest par-fours in Johannesburg with a long approach over the water.

Houghton Golf Club is another favourite South African Open venue, although these days it is known more as the home of the Dunhill Championship on the European Tour. Located in the plush Johannesburg suburb of the same name, where former president Nelson Mandela has a home, Houghton is a relatively short layout that relies more on the golfer's ability to shape the ball off the tee. Ironically, Houghton is home to one of the longest par-fives in Johannesburg, namely the 532-metre 12th hole.

About a 60 minutes drive down the M1 highway is Pretoria, the country's capital. On it's outskirts lies the Pecanwood Country Club, the first Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course in South Africa. The layout, located on the banks of the Hartbeespoort Dam, is still fairly immature and is not yet the sternest test. But it is nevertheless a worthy experience.

KwaZulu-Natal is fondly called the Golf Coast of South Africa, and is home to Durban Country Club, which if it is not holding its regular placing of number one in the country, is rarely out of the top three.

Durban Country Club is another popular venue for the South African Open. There is a decidedly links feel about this layout, which is fashioned out of the dunes and is a stone's throw away from the beachfront. There are many who believe this course may still rank as the best in Africa, providing the golfer with a well-blended mix of parkland and links golf where the wind is a constant factor.

The humps and hollows of the par-four 17th may transport your mind to the windswept links of the United Kingdom, but the monkeys that scuttle around the undergrowth give it a distinctly African flavour.

Further down the north coast you will find splendid estate courses such as Mount Edgecombe, Zimbali and Prince's Grant, while the south coast brings you in touch with layouts such as the Wild Coast Sun Country Club.

In terms of aesthetics and memorability, the Wild Coast Sun golf course is a certain winner. This sweeping layout takes you from the hills and into the valleys of some of South Africa's most spectacular countryside, and the views of the Indian Ocean are breathtaking.

This can be another gruelling test of your game if the wind blows, while a funicular is ready and waiting to transport the weary golfer from the pit of the 12th green to the heights of the 13th tee.

Further inland and for days when the swing feels a little too loose for comfort, be sure to take in the quaint Natal Midlands, home to trout fishing, mountain biking and hiking trails or the curio-driven Midlands Meander.

The Cape Province offers some of the most spectacular scenery and outstanding golf courses this country has to offer. The Royal Cape Golf Club is the oldest club in the country, dating back to 1885, and has set a worthy benchmark for other equally impressive layouts on the Cape Peninsula.

But none shine so brightly in their allure as Fancourt. This internationally renowned golf estate is home to the Montagu course, the Outeniqua course, and recently, the Gary Player-designed Links, the latter being the venue for the Presidents Cup in 2003.

Fancourt is situated just outside George, home of Ernie Els, on the scenic Garden Route and has been voted the premier resort in South Africa. It is a breathtaking slice of some of the most spectacular countryside in the world, nestled between the mountains and the Indian Ocean, and if there were only one place you could visit in South Africa, then this would be it.

And finally, you could do no better than to wind up your South Africa tour with a round at the lavish Leopard Creek Country Club, located just outside Nelspruit on the border of the Kruger National Park in the Mpumalanga Province.

As the playground of tobacco magnate Johann Rupert, Leopard Creek aims to please in every respect. It is fast setting a reputation as the country's next top golf course, and matches Rupert's own perfectionism in its conditioning. The course is famed for its par-five fourth green that overlooks the Crocodile River and the Kruger National Park.

You will find that public access to South African golf courses is far easier than in other parts of the golf globe. The favourable Dollar to Rand exchange rate means a round will cost you between $6 to $40. Leopard Creek is the most expensive course in South Africa with a green fee of about $90, and requires you to be a hotel guest at the Malelane Sun Hotel within the property. Fancourt is, in South African terms, another expensive round of golf. But for the dollar traveller, it should cost about $40 for a round on the Montagu or Outeniqua courses.

Contact Details

Leopard Creek Country Club (Malelane, past Nelspruit in the Mpumalanga Province)
Tel: 0027 13 791 2000
Country Club. 0027 13 790 3304
Malelane Sun Hotel
Website: www.southernsun.com.

Gary Player Country Club (Sun City Resort, near Rustenburg in the North West Province)
Tel: 0027 14 557 1245
Website: www.suninternational.co.za.

Lost City Golf Club (Sun City Resort)
Tel: 0027 14 557 1245
Website: ww.suninternational.co.za.

The River Club (In the Johannesburg suburb of Sandton in the Gauteng Province)
Tel: 0027 11 783 1166.

Glendower Golf Club (In the Johannesburg suburb of Edenvale in the Gauteng Province)
Tel: 0027 11 453 1013.

Pecanwood Country Club (Hartbeespoort Dam, past Pretoria on the road to Sun City in Gauteng North)
Tel: 0027 12 244 0068
Website: www.pecanwood.co.za.

Houghton Golf Club (In the Johannesburg suburb of Houghton in the Gauteng Province)
Tel: 0027 11 728 7337.

Durban Country Club (Durban, KwaZulu-Natal Province)
Tel: 0027 31 313 1777
Website: www.dcclub.co.za.

Mt. Edgecombe (Just outside Durban on the KwaZulu-Natal North Coast)
Tel: 0027 31 595 330.

Zimbali (Near Ballito on the KwaZulu-Natal North Coast)
Tel: 0027 32 538 1041
Website: www.suninternational.co.za.

Prince's Grant (Near Stanger on the KwaZulu-Natal North Coast)
Tel: 0027 324 482 0005
Website: www.princesgrantlodge.co.za.

Wild Coast Sun Country Club (Near Port Edward on the KwaZulu-Natal South Coast)
Tel: 0027 39 305 2799
Website: www.suninternational.co.za.

Royal Cape Golf Club (In the Cape Town suburb of Wynberg in the Cape Province)
Tel: 0027 21 761 6551.

Fancourt (Near George in the Southern Cape Province)
Tel: 0027 44 804 0030
Website: www.fancourt.co.za.

Michael Vlismas, Contributor

Michael Vlismas is a freelance golf writer and has covered the game for Reuters, several international newspapers and publications such as the Daily Telegraph, Golf Digest and Golf Weekly, as well as having done radio work for the BBC World Service and other stations worldwide.

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