On the edge of the Indian Ocean, wedged between its turquoise waters and the Gwaing River and perched atop a plateau that spills down from rugged cliffs, lies the source of the gleam in Ernie Els' eye over the past few months.
"It's the nearest thing to heaven," Els said of the spectacular site for his first 18-hole signature golf course in South Africa to be built only a couple of hundred metres from his home in Herold's Bay on the famous Garden Route.
After testing the waters of golf course architecture and working together with Nicklaus Design on the development of Whiskey Creek, Els decided that he was ready to commit to a development of his own.
"Golf course design is a fascinating business. It's totally new to me, but great fun and it really gets you thinking," Els said. "It can easily take a lot of your time, though, so for now I don't want to get too many projects on the go at once. I'm on a very exclusive wavelength regarding my course design. I've received a lot of requests to design courses, but I'm only looking at the best sites and at working with the best developers."
"Obviously, tournament golf is my main priority. But as the years go by it's something I'll get into more and more. It'll be fun to be able to introduce elements from some of the great courses I've played around the world, and develop my own style."
"I've always wanted to do a golf course in South Africa. I feel I'm 32-years-old and getting on in my golf career, and that now is a good time to get a feel of what golf course design is all about," he said.
The new Oubaai (translated Old Bay) development emerged from Els' desire to create something truly special on 200 kilometres of the most scenic coastline in the world.
Els has his own home in Herold's Bay, a rocky cove about 15 kilometres from the Western Cape town of George, the sixth oldest town in South Africa. George is located at the centre of the Garden Route, which winds its way along the coastline from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth in the shadow of the Outeniqua Mountain range.
This stretch of coast - famous for its spectacular vistas and wealth of fauna and flora - is home to some of South Africa's most impressive golf estates and property developments, the most notable of which is the lavish Fancourt Hotel and Country Club. International visitors are afforded easy access through the George Airport, which itself is only a 45-minute flight from Cape Town International, or a 1 hour 45 minute flight from Johannesburg International.
But you would do better to drive the 440 kilometres from Cape Town to George in order to truly appreciate the natural wonder of the area.
And it is into this cauldron of wealth and beauty that Els, backed by the Kuwaiti company Kharafi Holdings, will place his impression of what it has been like to play such spectacular courses as Pebble Beach, Augusta National and Cypress Point, laced with his own touch.
"This course could become our little Hilton Head Island or Myrtle Beach. I want to make it something special and I think it will be. It should take 18 months to build, so hopefully people should be able to play it by the time the President's Cup comes around in 2003," Els said, adding that he will employ a very traditional approach to the design.
"I've spoken to Greg Norman about a few design ideas, and Nick Faldo as well. Nick is very good and he's also a traditionalist. I've also spoken to Tom Weiskopf. From what I have seen, golf course design boils down to a mix of what you envision the course to be and your style of play."
"I'm a big fan of the sand belt courses around the Melbourne area in Australia. The courses over there, especially the Alister Mackenzie layouts, are typical of the way I want to go with my design business. I want every project to be top notch."
The natural sensitivity of the area means Els has had to work closely with local conservationists to ensure the development does not threaten the environment.
"We will work our design concepts into the land, rather than force the land to fit our plans," said Els.
"This course must run with the terrain. It's not a links, but I won't mess with the terrain too much. The result will be a course with a natural flow to it and with stunning vistas of the ocean and mountains."
Oubaai will be designed to championship standards, and Els admits that it will be one of the toughest tests in the game.
"When played from the back tees, this course will certainly be a challenge. It will play 7,200 yards from the back tees. The 17th will be the most spectacular par-three in South Africa, and will undoubtedly be the signature hole. It will play 165 yards, and when you stand on the tee you will just see ocean."
"The uphill par-five seventh will probably be the longest hole in South Africa, playing all of 540 yards from the back tees. All in all, there will be five par-fives and five par-threes."
Els' signature course will be the heart of this exclusive residential development boasting 128 townhouses and 322 housing units (ranging in price from $50,000 to $250,000) as well as a community centre, restaurants, a 100-room boutique hotel and a driving range. The architectural theme will be coastal contemporary, combining the styles of traditional Northern Coastal California, Mexican Modern, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa and making use of natural materials such as carmel stones, wood timber and brushed metals. Only 15 percent of the 238-hectare development will be given up to residential development.
Guests or residents will have the comfort of 24-hour security, and can entertain themselves with various activities such as tennis, walking trails, bird watching, surfing, fishing and whale watching, with Oubaai being the venue where whales calve in the winter months from April to September.
And as the brochure points out so eloquently, "Playing there will be different every time. Living there will be a spectacular lifestyle. Being there will be for the fortunate few."
Tel: +27 44 851 0131
Michael Vlismas is a freelance golf writer and has covered the game for Reuters, several international newspapers and publications such as the Daily Telegraph, Golf Digest and Golf Weekly, as well as having done radio work for the BBC World Service and other stations worldwide.
Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.
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