Home to some of the world’s most beautiful courses, designed by champions and sometimes set at the edge of wildernesses beset by animals, South Africa is a hot golfing destination. Take a look at our guide to the very best golf courses in South Africa.
Challenging, scenically spectacular, and impeccably maintained, here’s a Gary Player-designed turf with everything, including a place at the very top of Golf Digest SA‘s rankings. With virtually no room for error, the penultimate hole – known as “˜Prayer’ – is a par-3 and among the most difficult short holes you’ll ever face, while the 18th is a par-5 dream. One of three full courses on the luxurious Fancourt Golf Estate in the quiet Garden Route town of George, The Links offers a perfect marriage of superlative design and an impeccable setting. In 2011, The Links achieved Audubon Co-operative Sanctuary status, awarded for its commitment to the environment and preservation of the wildlife on the property. The only downside is that it’s pretty exclusive – to play here you either need to be a guest of a member or you need to check into one of the estate’s hotels. The second option, of course, brings access to a truckload of additional pleasures, including one of the best spas in the country.
Hazards take on new meaning at this breathtaking course, set up against the edge of Kruger National Park. Mixing golf with wildlife safari, you might just hear lions roar while you’re preparing to putt or find yourself sharing fairways with giraffe and antelope. Hitting balls across lakes with hippos and crocodiles is typical on this course, located as it is on the banks of the Crocodile River – the 13th hole’s green is some 32 metres above the water’s edge and provides awesome views across into the park and up the river. The final hole is an especially memorable par-5 island green. Leopard Creek is one of the most popular golf courses in South Africa, so make sure to arrange your tee-off well in advance.
Gary Player Country Club
Host to the Nedbank Golf Challenge (formerly known as the Million Dollar Golf Challenge), the Gary Player Country Club – set in an extinct volcanic crater on the grounds of a vast casino and entertainment complex built in the middle of nowhere – was designed to compete with the best in the world. It’s among the longest in the country and deceptively flat, with wonderful par-5s and a three-shot 9th that will take your breath away. Its location – remote in the way of Las Vegas, yet just two hours from Johannesburg – presents a startling juxtaposition of bustling resort abutting a vast bushveld wilderness where animals roam and green hills stretch into the distance. Water hazards and fast putting surfaces provide ample challenge, and the course is known to be a fair test of one’s ability.
The eighth hole on this Peter Matkovich-designed course has been described as one of the most beautiful par-5s in South Africa, while the 18th is rated amongst the country’s finest finishing holes – getting there means finding your way around some tricky sand traps and challenging water hazards, but the pristine grass and dazzling views help make every moment memorable. Surrounded by the Kogelberg Mountains, just minutes from a coastline known for some of the finest land-based whale-watching on earth, this country estate course is set on the tranquil Bot River lagoon, an important wetland ecosystem that shelters blue cranes and countless other water birds. It’s within easy striking distance of several excellent cool climate wine-growing regions, including the exceptionally beautiful Hemel-en-Aarde (Heaven and Earth) Valley. The Arabella course, staggered alongside the lagoon and surrounded by indigenous fynbos, is among the most eco-friendly golf courses in South Africa, and there’s a top-notch hotel and spa within putting distance of the greens.
St Francis Links
On undulating terrain surrounded by fynbos and protected milkwood trees, a teasing opening hole, and four unforgettable par-5 holes, this is a superb Jack Nicklaus Signature course – ranked last year as the best-conditioned in the Eastern Cape. Set in the natural dunes above the holiday village of St Francis Bay, overlooking the Indian Ocean, the visual distractions at St Francis Links are as good as the play. Named South Africa’s best new course in 2007, it’s quickly matured, evolving into a worthy destination in its own right, pleasantly far from the country’s main urban hubs (it’s an hour’s drive from the small city of Port Elizabeth). The club is known for its magnificent chicken pies, best enjoyed after the ninth hole.
Royal Johannesburg & Kensington East
The Royal J&K – formed in 1998 by the merger of two respected clubs, each over a hundred years old – is considered one of the most prestigious golf courses in South Africa. Major tournaments hosted here have included seven South African Opens, and it’s the venue of the annual Joburg Open. The East Course is among the longest courses visited by the European Tour, and is consistently ranked amongst the country’s top 10. It possesses one of South Africa’s most difficult holes (the 11th).
Durban Country Club
With a combination of sand dunes, lush vegetation and views of the adjacent Indian Ocean, Durban Country Club is among South Africa’s quirkier courses, with a pedigree and history to match its fascinating location. Many come just to play the highly-rated par-5 third hole, which plays down a narrow fairway from a high tee. Dense bush and a voracious bunker stand ready to ambush even the hardest-working players, making it a perennial favourite. Steeped in Durban’s own brand of conviviality and tradition, the course has played host to the South African Open 17 times, more than any of the other golf courses in South Africa. The course also saw Gary Player’s first South African Open win, back in 1956, when he scored 286. Established in 1922, the course is attached to a clubhouse built in the classic Cape Dutch style, affording views across the Blue Lagoon estuary. Virtually next door, stands the monumental swoop of the Moses Mabhida Stadium, built for the 2010 FIFA World Cup.
Glimpsing at the score card will give the impression of a walk in the park. At just 5,329 metres with six par threes, it sounds like a pushover, but in reality the Robert Trent Jones II-designed course is among South Africa’s most testing. Arranged between the Umtamvuna and Mzamba rivers along the Indian Ocean coastline, this is a thrilling course that takes you through a dramatic landscape of ravines and hills, rivers and dams. One glimpse at the untamed cliffs dropping away into the ocean will make you understand why it’s called the Wild Coast, a result of the tumultuous sea’s destruction of countless ships. The 12th hole – “˜Green Mamba’ – involves a waterfall and a funicular ride and is considered reason enough to make the trip to this far-away part of the country.
A sheltered, tranquil haven up in the hills above the coastal lagoon town of Knysna, awe-inspiring views make it a challenge to keep your head down at this Jack Nicklaus Signature course – each hole offers sumptuous panoramas, encompassing either the lagoon or the Knysna River snaking through the lush valley below. Indigenous vegetation and forests fringe the carefully plotted greens and fairways on a course that segues seamlessly with the natural lay of the land. With 325 pristine hectares, the Simola Estate itself is no slouch, offering a selection of five-star luxury accommodations and a fine spa, and a setting that feels far from the hubbub, yet is close enough to Knysna to make good use of some of the best culinary stops on the Garden Route.
Mature trees, flower beds, shrubs and water hazards contribute to the wonder and challenge of this, another Garden Route favourite, originally designed by Gary Player in the early 1990s. The exquisitely conditioned Montagu, with its glorious parkland layout, covers large tracts of varied, undulating terrain, with the craggy Outeniqua Mountains to the north, and the Indian Ocean to the south. Like Fancourt Links, Montagu – named for the nearby mountain pass – is, according to 2014’s World Luxury Hotel Awards, set on Africa’s finest luxury golf resort, so you can expect superlative attention to detail at every level. There are two smart hotels on the 613-hectare property, as well as two pro shops, and the world-class Fancourt Golf Academy, offering expert tuition and advice from full-time PGA teaching professionals. Academy facilities include ample practice and chipping greens, a 4-hole course, bunker facilities, and a driving range with open air and undercover practice bays.
Have you played any of these golf courses in South Africa? Let us know in the comments section below.
Written by Keith Bain