To call it a challenging day for golf would be something of an understatement.
A hot and howling wind funnelling down from the Outeniqua Mountains gusted upwards of 40 kilometres an hour. Standing upright on the tee box was effort enough, let alone connecting a small metal club with a tiny white ball. And the fact that I was about to tee off on what is one of the most challenging courses South Africa has to offer, did little to still my weekend hacker’s beating heart. But for The Links, it was all worth it.
South Africa’s ‘Garden Route’ has long been one of the most popular destinations for overseas and local tourists, but in the last 15 or 20 years the region has become known for greenery of a different sort. A world apart from the Big Five safaris further north, the area is now widely regarded as the premier golfing destination in the country.
There are a dozen 18-hole courses in the 100-kilometre stretch between Mossel Bay and Plettenberg Bay that is the heart of the Garden Route, and the Fancourt Estate outside George is a fitting welcome to a week spent swinging along this scenic coastline.
Fancourt opened in the early-1990s, and offers a stylish hotel, fine-dining and family-friendly restaurants, golf academy and a well-equipped leisure centre and spa. But most importantly, it boasts three remarkable courses laid out by South African golfing legend Gary Player. All three – The Links, Montagu and Outeniqua – are ranked among the top 20 in the country, offering something for almost every handicap.
Outeniqua and The Montagu are traditional parkland courses that offer challenging, but forgiving, rounds to high-handicappers like myself; players that really shouldn’t find themselves standing on the 1st tee at The Links on the windiest day of the month.
Gary Player called The Links his greatest achievement as a golf course designer and the 6477-metre track is breathtaking in its ambition, beauty and challenge. Player’s design team spent months studying the classic links courses of Scotland before turning their eye to the acres of flat land on the southern edge of the Fancourt estate.
What was once pastureland and an airfield is today an expanse of rolling dunes covered in thick rough, grassy swales, undulating fairways and deep pot bunkers. Ah yes, those bunkers. As with any good links-style course, the bunkers are a hallmark of Player’s layout, where each hole has a name to hint at what lies in store.
The 1st (‘On Ye Go’) is a gentle introduction to the course where a steady drive down the middle will set things up nicely. The par-3 that follows (‘Lang Drop’) is also gentle, if you get your tee-shot right. On my round, murderous winds saw the ball blown from 3-foot off the pin, to right off the green. Two holes are all you get as a warm-up though. The 400-metre par-4 that follows – dubbed ‘Calamity’ – requires an accurate drive and solid second to set you up for the water-guarded green.
In the holes that follow, ‘Kilimanjaro’ challenges with its raised green surrounded by yawning bunkers, ‘Sheer Murrder’ for the stroke-1 12th, ‘Prayer’ for the devilishly tight par-3 17th, and – fittingly – ‘Near The Dram’ for the 18th, with its intimidating carry to reach the fairway.
Layout aside, there’s a lovely loneliness to The Links that is rare on many courses. While it may not have the North Sea off to starboard, the course is striking in its careful design that rarely shows another fairway from the one you’re playing. More often than not, you’ll feel like the only player on the course; exclusivity perhaps demanded by the high green fees.
Yet The Links’ sparse surroundings and lonely views are in stark contrast to other courses along this stretch of coastline. Coastline that the course at Pezula makes glorious use of. The wind had died by the time I warmed up on the 1st tee box the next morning, but the course itself offers up more than enough of a challenge.
Designed by David Dale and Ronald Fream of GolfPlan USA, Pezula balances its relatively short track – 5963-metres off the Club tees – by making full use of the area’s dramatic topography. Stretched across the eastern of Knysna’s two famous ‘Heads’ – rocky promontories guarding a wide estuary – Pezula’s layout is dictated by the environment rather than a design template, and ranges from parkland to links across its run of 18.
The gauntlet is thrown down from the very first tee, with a stroke-1 par-5 that requires careful course management to carry a wooded gully and reach the green in three. A water- and bunker-laden par-4 follows that, before the pace settles down for a meander through wooded valleys and wide-open hilltops that offer gentle par-4s and lovely lagoon views. Carts come standard here, with plenty of steep inclines making a walking round all but impossible.
Into the back nine the ocean begins to dominate the horizon. The elevated tee-box of the precipitous par-5 13th is as dramatic as they come, while the signature 14th matches it with a finishing green perched on the rocky cliffs. The uphill run to the clubhouse holds your attention with bushy valleys to fly over, elevated greens to tackle and short par-4s to tempt a long drive. You’ll certainly need one on the 18th, where a long carry to the fairway makes the green reachable in two.
With the manicured fairways and a stylish clubhouse overlooking the 18th it’s no surprise that Compleat Golfer magazine has rated the course a ‘Five Star Golf Experience’ every year since February 2005.
Fitting the five-star golf experience, the on-site hotel is one of the best on the Garden Route and has recently joined the respected Conrad stable. Perched on a hill overlooking the 10th fairway, the Conrad Pezula Resort & Spa was easily the most stylish hotel I encountered on my five-day meander. The contemporary suites are decorated in earthy African tones, and offer plenty of mod-cons to satisfy global travellers. There’s a spacious spa on site offering a range of wet and dry body treatments, alongside a heated pool and steam room that is open to all hotel guests.
My idea of pampering leans towards the Bacchanalian though, and chef Geoffrey Murray at Zachary’s is only too happy to oblige. A firm proponent of farm-to-fork dining, Murray offers some of the most innovative cuisine on the Garden Route, with wines from the hotel’s award-winning cellar to match. If you love wine, food and golf Pezula is hard to match.
Acclaimed South African golfer Ernie Els is known for dabbling in wine-making, but is perhaps more famous in the area for opening his first signature course at Oubaai Golf Resort in 2002.
A short drive from the airport at George, the combination of luxury accommodation at the Hyatt Regency Oubaai, a modern spa and outstanding golf makes the resort a popular destination for local and international golfing guests.
The unconventional layout of five par-5s and five par-3s adds another layer of entertainment to a links/parkland hybrid that appears fairly straightforward at first, but reveals plenty of surprises through the round. Forgiving fairways ease you gently into the morning, before the bunkers become plentiful and the topography of the Gwaing River valley comes into play.
The dogleg right on the 5th requires a careful drive skirting the deep forest, while the 6th asks for a long and accurate tee shot to carry the 120-metres of bush separating you from the green. Els ensures every hole uses the landscape to full effect; a theme that runs throughout Oubaai. On the flat, bunkers and water come into play while on the fringes of the course thick bush and unforgiving dune grasses will focus your attention.
Yet none do that quite like Oubaai’s signature 17th, a hole that for me summed up all that is good and great about golfing the Garden Route. Behind me on the tee box, the Outeniqua Mountains spread out in a hazy line. To my right, the finishing 18th made a lazy curve around a forest-guarded dogleg.
And in front of my pitching wedge? 119-metres of fresh air falling to a green backed by the sparkling Indian Ocean. A par here and a bogey to follow gave me my best score of the week. But with world-class courses and unbeatable views, chances are that on your Garden Route golf adventure your eyes – like mine – won’t spend much time looking at the scorecard.
Fancourt: www.fancourt.co.za, +27 44 804 0010
Conrad Pezula Resort & Spa: conradhotels3.hilton.com, +27 44 302 3333
Oubaai Golf Resort & Spa: www.oubaai.co.za, +27 44 851 1234