South Africa can be wild. Wide open grassy plains where cheetah lie in wait, thorny bushveld home to the Big Five, and dramatic rocky outcrops perfect for savouring an African sunset. There’s certainly no shortage of wilderness in the northern and eastern regions, and yet in-between the Big Five country you’ll find long stretches of clipped kikuyu, oval depressions of bent-grass and manicured squares of lawn.
But no, these aren’t the work of hungry zebra or wide-lipped rhino. Rather the fairways and greens of the remarkable wilderness golf courses on offer in South Africa.
South Africa boasts over 500 golf courses, and the golfing industry pours over R30 billion (US$2.7 billion) into the economy each year. The Cape Winelands and the Garden Route have long been the most popular destinations for golf travellers to South Africa, but the predominantly parkland courses – impressive as they are – lack one exciting ingredient: wildlife.
As you head to the Lowveld, in the far east of the country, or the Waterberg and Pilansberg regions in the north, a handful of courses offer a golfing experience unlike any other on the planet, with wild animals roaming free and water hazards taking on a new, toothier, menace.
Elements Private Golf Reserve is a fine place to ease into your golfing holiday. Laid out by acclaimed golf architect Peter Matkovitch, this 18-hole championship design is one of his finest.
It’s not the wildest course in South Africa, with mostly antelope wandering the fairways and surrounding hills, but then you can do without further distractions on this long, testing track. Besides, while you won’t find lion and leopard roaming free here, the stunning setting in the Waterberg Biosphere Reserve – a malaria-free World Heritage Site – more than makes up for it.
As does the course: “Matko” has put together a challenging layout of tight fairways that call for careful course management. The signature holes are those at the end of each nine, sharing a large water hazard. The par-5 18th in particular is a memorable risk-and-reward hole where you’ll be tempted to charge the green.
The course is less than two hours from Gauteng, making it ideal for a weekend getaway or stopover trip. The estate offers a range of two- and four-bedroom self-catering houses and apartments, with a restaurant and bar on-site.
Another great option close to Gauteng is Sun City. This mega-resort is a popular family getaway for its combination of hotels, entertainment and water parks, but is also home to two of South Africa’s finest golf courses.
The Lost City Golf Course offers the most novelty, with crocodiles in the water hazards and an array of wildlife wandering across the fairways. It’s also a fairly forgiving course, making it ideal for a warm-up round before tackling the remarkable Gary Player Golf Course.
Laid out by the legendary South African golfer himself, Player built the course to strict US PGA specifications and has created one of the toughest tracks in the southern hemisphere. Stretching to over 7000-metres (7655 yards) from the back tees you’ll find yourself tested on every shot. The fairways appear deceptively wide, yet any wayward balls will find themselves in deep kikuyu rough and impenetrable bushveld. Watch out for the snakes if you decide to go searching, particularly in the springtime.
The signature hole is the par-5 9th, which runs to a challenging 545-metres. The 18th – scene of many a showdown at the annual Nedbank Golf Challenge – is also memorable thanks to a green heavily guarded by water and bunkers. This may be a family-friendly resort, but you’ll find both wildlife and world-class golf on offer too.
In the Lowveld region – home to the world-famous Kruger National Park – Hans Merensky has been offering a memorable safari and golf experience since the 1960s, and this 18-hole layout is billed as one of the best courses to walk in South Africa.
Bordering Kruger, there is no shortage of wildlife here, with giraffe and antelope often spotted keeping the rough in check. Each hole has a suitably wild nickname hinting at what you should keep an eye and ear out for: #11 is ‘Lion’s Stalk’ while ‘Buffalo Bend’ is the long par-5 16th. And no prizes for guessing what hazards lie in wait for golfers as they tee up for the 170-metre par 3 17th hole. You’ll need a solid tee shot to get down in three with the ‘Hippo Hollow’ in your way.
A little further south, almost all self-drive tourists to the Kruger National Park find themselves in the main Skukuza rest camp at some point. But few realise that this small town encircled by the Park is also home to a rather memorable golf course.
The Skukuza Golf Course was first built to keep the park staff entertained, but this no-frills nine-hole layout has since become a sleeper-hit with safari travellers in the know.
It’s a short course – just 5950m off the men’s tees – but the thick rough and abundant ‘aerial bunkers’ (also known as trees) make for a reasonably challenging round. There’s plenty of wildlife to keep you entertained too, with impala, hippo, warthog and baboon in residence.
It’s certainly not the best-conditioned course in the country, but if you have your clubs in the car and an afternoon to spare it’s well worth a round.
And then the best is left for last. Leopard Creek Country Club is regularly rated as the finest course in South Africa – it jockeys with The Links at Fancourt for top spot – and offers the definitive safari golf experience in Africa.
Like The Links, it is laid out by Gary Player, and the track is uniquely South African. Thick bushveld frames the manicured fairways, while long stretches of the course border the Crocodile River. Unsurprisingly, the water hazards here are filled its namesake, and it’s also not uncommon to spot hippo, antelope, buffalo and elephant while lining up your putt.
Despite the distractions, you’ll need to concentrate. Player takes no prisoners on a course that requires careful club selection to stay out of trouble. Not least on the 505-metre par 5 13th, the signature hole. From the elevated tee box a solid drive will put the green within reach of a fairway wood, but with a shallow river running the length of the hole you’ll need to stay straight. Risk the green or lay up? Don’t let the elephant to the right rush your decision now!
With such a memorable course it’s no surprise the members of this private club prefer to keep it to themselves. However, the club makes limited mid-week tee times available to selected safari lodges in the area. It’s exclusive, challenging and certainly not cheap, but for a world-class round in a Big Five wilderness; this is golf like you’ve never played it before.