In the eyes of the golf world, South Africa has long stood out for its great players—major champions Gary Player, Ernie Els and Retief Goosen, as well as rising stars like Trevor Immelman and Tim Clark. But the figure to make the greatest impact on modern golf in this nation of forty-seven million isn't a golfer at all but a former amateur boxer. His name, of course, is Nelson Mandela. Following the isolation of the apartheid era, South Africa's return to the international community during his presidency sparked a boom in investment that has transformed the country into a leading tourist destination. Golf is a big part of this success story, as new luxury resorts take their place alongside the country's classic courses, but visitors quickly realize there's so much more to experience.
First colonized by the Dutch in the 1650s, then by the English a century and a half later, South Africa today is a rare creature: an "old country" in the process of finding a dynamic new identity. This isn't always easy in a nation with eleven official languages, but South Africa is beginning to draw strength from its diversity. And the natural wonders, from the seascapes of the Garden Route (the scenic coastal highway) to the wildlife of Kruger National Park, are equally diverse. Add to the mix the beauty of the Cape winelands and the inventive cuisine and warm hospitality of multicultural Cape Town, and one begins to sense that while the golf is world-class, the off-course adventures—the sights and sounds and tastes of a supremely fascinating continent—are just as unforgettable.
Where to play
LEOPARD CREEK *****
Around the fairways at Leopard Creek Country Club you'll spot baboons, armies of monkeys, impala, even wandering giraffes. From the river's-edge green of the par-five thirteenth, you might look down on a pod of hippopotamuses or a herd of elephants. Sound more like Wild Kingdom than a serious place to play the game?It's actually not. Golf at Leopard Creek is the nearest Africa comes to the elegance and mannered calm of Augusta National, but it also magically finds a way of coexisting with the bushveld (tropical savanna) that it has borrowed from the local fauna. Bent-grass greens and 1,200 sprinkler heads capable of pumping 800,000 gallons of water a day mean that Leopard Creek isn't exactly a natural ecosystem. Nevertheless, the course that's been created here is manicured to perfection and is truly superb. The view from the elevated tee at the long fifteenth is one to be savored. And for fans of the seventeenth at Kiawah Island's Ocean course, Leopard Creek's par-three sixteenth, a 208-yard carry over water to a tight green, awaits.
Malelane Gate Road, Malelane, Mpumalanga; 011-27/137-912-000, leopardcreek.co.za. Yardage: 7,252. Par: 72. Architect: Gary Player, 1996. Greens Fees: $225 (hotel guest), $63 (with member).
LINKS AT FANCOURT *****
The two teams that fought to a dramatic sundown stalemate at the 2003 Presidents Cup were mesmerized by the Links at Fancourt. This is South Africa's toughest course, and if it was situated on Irish or Scottish coastal terrain, it would be one of their toughest, too. As an homage to Ballybunion or Royal Troon—codesigner Gary Player thinks it has echoes of both—a flat former airfield was turned into a fantasy landscape of high mounds and dunes swaying with tall fescue and rye grasses. Tee shots bound down corridor-narrow fairways sown with a mix of cool-season grasses which, when firm, allow the ball to skip and twist along the land's every contour. On many holes, only the hot sun and the rugged Outeniqua Mountains, which dominate the horizon on this part of the Garden Route, remind golfers that Scotland is half a world away. The spell is powerful enough that even a handful of small lakes and marshes will fail to upset links purists.
Fancourt Hotel and Country Club Estate, Montagu Street, Blanco, George, Western Cape; 011-27/448-040-030, fancourt.com. Yardage: 6,958. Par: 73. Architects: Gary Player and Phil Jacobs, 2000. Greens Fee: $143 (hotel guest).