SA’s cathedral of bushveld golf, the exclusive Leopard Creek, has been made over with a new strain of grass … prepared to be challenged
Not enough credit is given to a unique aspect of golf in Southern Africa that’s unavailable elsewhere – with our bushveld and wildlife, you cannot enjoy this kind of golf course adventure on any other continent.
Quality golf in typical African bushveld surroundings – open veld and sturdy indigenous trees – with wildlife attached is relatively new. It began in the far north with the construction in the 1960s of Hans Merensky Country Club in Phalaborwa when the copper mine built an 18-hole course slap bang against the boundary fence of the Kruger National Park.
Today the cathedral of bushveld golf is Leopard Creek on the southern boundary of the park, bordering the wide reaches of the Crocodile River. Established by wealthy entrepreneur Johann Rupert in the 1990s, this is the Augusta National of bushveld golf, an exclusive reserve for its members that, like Augusta, annually attracts a global television audience by hosting a professional tournament, the Alfred Dunhill Championship, where viewers can enjoy a visual feast of something completely different in the golf world.
Leopard Creek is ranked by Golf Digest magazine among the World’s 100 Greatest Courses outside the United States (No 65 in 2018) and in South Africa its exclusiveness and scenic beauty makes it the most sought-after golfing invitation in the land. Like Augusta National, however, you won’t get further than the front gate unless accompanied by a member. But there is a loophole for visitors to enter and play golf … if you’re staying at one of a select list of game lodges in or adjacent to the Kruger National Park, you can book a tee time. Be prepared to pay a green fee of R4 000 per person.
The Leopard Creek entrance is at the bridge crossing to the park’s Malelane Gate, and the slow-moving Crocodile River bends here, allowing a lengthy stretch of riverfront access for many of the homes on the Leopard Creek estate. From the gate it’s a drive of several kilometres on a winding tar road to the clubhouse.
The thatch-roof double-storey building blends into its tropical bush surroundings with the rear of the clubhouse providing access to a lower roadway for carts where golfers begin and finish. These carts are compulsory in every fourball, given the wildlife on the course and the need for golfers to evade a potentially dangerous situation. The scariest sight I’ve seen is a black mamba slithering at top speed along a cart track towards me.
Rupert first brought the Alfred Dunhill Championship to Leopard Creek in December 2004 as part of the European Tour schedule, giving the world a front row seat to his remarkable creation. What viewers couldn’t feel though is how hot and humid it is in the height of summer – a cooler time to visit is March through September – and keeping closely mown grass green in that environment requires millions of litres of water each day.
Rupert, advised by former course superintendent Sue de Zwart, knew by then that the kikuyu fairways and rough, and bent grass greens, were unsuitable for the climate and would eventually have to be replaced.
In the spring of 2017 every blade of kikuyu on the property was eradicated and replaced with a more sustainable warm-season cynodon, endemic to the area, which requires 40 percent less water to thrive. Several cynodon varietals had been tested on the adjoining National Junior Development Centre – home to South Africa’s finest practice facility and a 9-hole Par 3 course – before a textured hybrid known as Barbados was selected.
The greens now have a new strain of genetically engineered ultradwarf Bermuda, Champion G-12, and reading the grain proved a testing challenge for the tour pros in the latest edition of the Alfred Dunhill Championship. The winning score of 14-under-par 274 by American David Lipsky was eight strokes higher than the 266 of Brandon Stone when he triumphed in 2016. A change of turf has instantly made Leopard Creek a tougher proposition for the world’s best golfers.
WORDS Stuart McLean