Second day of the NRW Tour 2016, second stellar course we played. Carsten and I went for Gut Lärchenhof, one of the poshest clubs in the region. It’s a Nicklaus Design and features a fantastic US-design golf course which really lacks nothing. Some will argue there’s very little atmosphere, but truth be told this club is the ultimate package: from the Titleist golf pyramids on the range to the tranquility on the course and the quality of all facilities – Lärchenhof is a modern classic and belongs to one of the top 50 courses in Europe.
Once you get passed the huge gates which secure the property in front of the beautiful club house, you enter a golf-dedicated society. Everything on the property smells quality, everything is very much cared for, everything tries to be perfect.
The only thing which wasn’t perfect was the weather – to be precise, it was the opposite of perfect. We arrived in the morning in drizzle and the forecast was horrendous. We paid the not-so-small green fee knowing there wouldn’t be any refund if we’d need to abort. We were lucky on the front nine, although the rain seemed to intensify. There was no other person on the course playing in these conditions! During the back nine the rain became torrential and we had to take shelter for at least 30 minutes. This was when we met the other two crazy people on the course that day – two pensioneers fighting out a matchplay event. We were impressed… and let them play through.
So in short, we were extremely unlucky with the weather. It’s a fantastic venue and I love to come back in beautiful sunshine to really enjoy the course to the fullest some day. Because it deserves it! It’s a Jack Nicklaus design, features rolling fairways and an interesting architecture without being overly tricky, narrow or hilly. Lärchenhof hosted several German Masters, several Mercedes-Benz Championships and still is the alternating venue for the BMW International Open on the European Tour. If you ask me, that speaks for itself.
The quality of the course is without a doubt one of the best I’ve seen – and this must have been overly complicated given the fact that rain was omnipresent for the last months. I visited the club once before to attend the BMW International Open as a spectator and I would be surprised if the quality of the greens, fairways and tees had been much different back then. It’s just that we used other tee boxes…
From what we heard, to become a member of the club you have to pay an incredible amount of money but those who can afford, find themselves in golfer’s heaven: on a beautiful and quiet course, with incredible practice facilities, a spacious and luxurious club house and so many little things that make your day on the course as pleasant as possible. Oh, and they have a Porsche Panamera as airport shuttle, just in case you fancy to hop over for a quick round.
It doesn’t do justice to the holes to pick some which really stand out, because they are all stunning, but without a doubt the home stretch 15th, 16th, 17th, 18th is one of the best you can find. Just see for yourself!
I think this video gives you a very good impression of what to expect for your money. Definitely worth it!
So far this journey had been fantastic throughout! We experienced wild animals, beautiful landscapes, amazing beaches and great golf. And this was before we even went to Stellenbosch and Cape Town.
And taking Stellenbosch as an example, for those of you who have been there and love wine, we know that this place is pretty awesome. It’s a picturesque place of earth, peaceful, relaxed and full of rich history of wine making. You basically can’t drive for one minute without passing another astonishingly beautiful vineyard, or wine estates as they tend to call it.
Putting the difficult history of the country aside, there were many settlers coming from Germany, France and the Netherlands, staying and producing one bottle of finest Pinotage, Chardonnay or Shiraz after the other. What’s left is a huge industry, world-renowned wine from across the winelands in and around Stellenbosch and with it absolute mind-blowing wine and country estates, beautifully restored and kept in good shape.
So in short, you can have a pretty good time in Stellenbosch, no doubt about it.
But one thing we had in mind as well was golf – as you do, naturally. One treat you might think about is get a good night’s sleep, play 18 holes of golf, get a shower, relax on the clubhouse terrace, eat some great food and then head off to a wine farm for a tasting or a normal dinner with a bottle of red, or two. Done. Perfect day!
There are actually several choices in terms of great courses in and around Stellenbosch: Erinvale, De Zalze, Devonvale and the one we were going for, Pearl Valley.
Pearl Valley is situated in a valley not far from the city of Paarl, which forms the wine triangle Stellenbosch, Franschoek, Paarl. The posh estate features another Jack Nicklaus course (the third we saw on our journey) and is venue to several tour events and national championship tournaments.
The course has quite a usual resort or estate feeling with beautiful holes meandering through areas with huge villas along the fairways and around greens. The contour of the course is rather flat but not boring at all. Contrary, Nicklaus again managed to come up with very interesting holes.
We actually played with a Frankfurt-based golf buddy of mine, who chose to spend some months in the Cape Town region. As you do. But seriously, if you can, money and time is available and you happen to love golf, in that case the Garden Route and everything west of it is golfer’s dream. We met in the car park, entered the lobby, paid the (quite expensive, for South Africa standards) green fee and headed to the driving range. That was actually the first time during our trip we were able to spend more than 2 minutes on the practice grounds to be honest.
One thing that I most likely will never forget, there was a guy standing in the middle of the driving range, I’d say 160 metres from our position to water the lawn. He hardly moved and just tried not to miss a spot of the ground. First I thought, when is this guy done and leaves. It turns out it takes some time to water the drinving range by hand, so he stayed. Then I figured, wow, that’s dangerous, I should use a club with which I can’t reach the distance where he was working, but apparently all the others around me were pretty relaxed about the situation. Apart from the guy next to me who at some point whispered “shit” just after a shot. He must have felt that his shot pretty much was dead straight towards the 160 metres mark. I looked up, saw the ball coming down 2 metres next to the suicidal lawn waterer, who couldn’t care less. No reaction whatsoever!
But anyway, after we got some practice shots and putts in, we went to the first tee and started our round. The starter was nice and friendly, although he didn’t want my buddy play from the championship tees. He wasn’t very convincing though. There are five tee boxes available and I went for the middle ones – it turned out it was a good choice because although the course doesn’t look overly complicated and demanding, it has its specialities and I was relieved that at least distance was no issue.
I struck the ball well, had some good, some very good and clearly some very poor shots. After a couple of holes we were joined by another player, an English bloke who was on sabbatical too and coincidently worked in London in an office building right next to the one I was working in. So we must have met before, at least in a queue waiting for the Wasabi sushi lunch one day.
Some words on the course: it’s an interesting setting, has large bunkers and although some holes look pretty standard from a course architecture perspective, you won’t get bored to play the course at all.
Most impressive holes:
2: Dogleg par-4 right with water all the way to the right
4: Split par-5 fairway with a creek meandering through. You have to cross it three times.
5: Two-level fairway
7: Straight hole with water to the right just before the green
8: Par-4 gain water all the way to the right, but this also in front of the green, creating sort of an island green
13: Par-3 with (take a guess) water all the way to the right.
The course in general is well maintained, although from time to time I thought the greens could have been in a better shape. Which is strange because on no course on earth I experienced so many ground workers and green keepers (ok maybe in Mauritius) at the same time. Most of them weren’t working all the time, but when they did, they were standing in the middle of the fairway in driving distance or mowing the green.
The setting of the estate in the valley between all these beautiful mountains is somewhat special. You don’t have a spectacular view like at Pinnacle Point but you sense that this place has its own unique feeling. At least I mesmerised on every hole that Jack Nicklaus designed this course, that he had something in mind which really works and is a great course in between a posh residential country estate.
One last thing to service and equipment. The service, the friendliness and hospitality was very good, best example as always: you go inside for the halfway snack, come out, the carts are parked in front in the right order and your clubs have been cleaned—ready to go for the back nine. It’s always the little things that matter and which stay as positive memory. One thing that I definitely kept as a fairly negative memory is the quality of the carts and the on-board GPS systems. It’s a first world problem, I do see that, but they don’t have touch screen devices, so there is no measuring possible to possible obstacles such as bunkers, trees, water, etc. You have the information how far you have to hit for the green, that’s all you got.
All in all a great round, playing with friends and nice people in sunshine in mid December. What else can you ask for?
The moment you stand on the first tee at St Francis Links in St Francis Bay, you realise what waits for you along the following 18 holes: a masterpiece, laid out in the rolling dunes of the Eastern Cape in South Africa, a links course meandering through dunes of coastal fynbos and coastal thicket, two omnipresent pieces of local flora.
Golf legend Jack Nicklaus has designed a number of golf courses along the Garden Route in the passed years. During our trip we had the chance to experience some others, but what he created and established at St Francis Links really stands out in our opinion.
St Francis Bay is a small, chic holiday home town in the Eastern Cape. It’s famous for its Cape Dutch houses, all painted white with thatched roofs. It looks adorable and although we could only stay for one night, you get a feeling that life has a different quality over there with all the pretty and huge holiday houses, the beach, the canals, the breeze and the golf.
We had a 8am tee time and just arrived on time for check in, pay, buy the logo ball and yardage book and then head right to the first tee. Definitely not an optimal start, especially as we haven’t played much before, but our score wasn’t in focus that day, it was the course we wanted to experience to the fullest.
Most South Africa tourists wouldn’t even know where St Francis Bay is, even those who come regularly wouldn’t necessarily and immediately know where it is to be found. Between Port Elizabeth and the Tsitsikamma National Park, St Francis Bay is for some in the middle of nowhere. Even more outstanding that the initiators of St Francis Links and Jack Nicklaus chose this piece of land to create what we would call a top-notch course with all necessary facilities you can imagine.
St Francis Links is a complete golf estate, one of which you often find in South Africa. A gated golf community with an impressive and vast club house, loads of staff, huge villa properties and town houses nestled somewhere in the dunes and a fantastic course.
The club offers conferencing and wedding facilities too, but it’s fair to say that the golfer is in the club’s focus (next to the residents obviously). And boy, what a great course this is! Although we’re talking links golf here, it features a very interesting routing. Some holes are designed and shaped in a way that we’ve never experienced a hole ever before.
The course condition has been outstanding and the flora, the dunes, the setting in general together with the interesting course makes a great combination. It wasn’t much traffic on the course at that time in the morning and we could enjoy the undulated fairways, the heavy bunkering and the challenges Mr Jack Nicklaus had in mind for us. Penalising but definitely joyful.
What I really liked most was the setting of some of the tee boxes for the more backward located tees. Unbelievable imagination, Mr Nicklaus. Hats off. Best example may be the mens tees on hole no. 5. Definitely a stunner.
It has been a great round of golf. And even with no warm-up at all I managed to score two birdies and almost a hole-in-one. Only 10cm…
Most impressive holes:
4: Par-3 with two(!) greens. It’s called ‘Double Vision’ and offers a second pin location on a completely separated green. Seen that before?
5: One of the best tee boxes on earth and a hole with crazy bunkering along the fairway
6: Challenging par-5
11: Uphill par 4 with an intimidating tee shot for men
13, 14, 15: A complete section around/over a lake, obviously loads of water in play
16: Double-split fairway with a creek running right through it (check out the video below)
18: Fantastic tee box, water left, dog-leg left and a great finish towards the club house
Check out the fantastic Hole Explorer on the St Francis website for more interactive information about the holes which Jack Nicklaus beautifully laid out in this gorgeous piece of land.
So for the course, we couldn’t be happier. In 2007 St Francis Links was awarded ‘Best New Course in South Africa’ and since then it ranks amongst South Africa’s Top 10 courses and also hosts Sunshine Tour events. And rightly so.
Although we were a bit disappointed by the staff friendliness and comforting on that day, the club facilities are indeed very good, people take care of your clubs, equip the cart with everything you need and make sure you have great time.
The carts feature the newest GPS systems with convenient touch-screens and with it no excuse for bad yardage or errant shots. So it’s only on you if you have a bad golf day. But we would recommend to enjoy the day to the fullest anyway, and not to concentrate on the score so much. But that’s obviously on you to decide.
So, in case South Africa is on your list for a golfing trip, make sure to take SFL into consideration. It’s a bit off the standard route along the Garden Route but definitely worth the detour. You won’t regret it.