LIMPOPO, South Africa - The pre-game ritual of most golfers doesn't involve handling lion cubs with paws the size of Andre the Giant's head, but you might find it does wonders for your relaxation; after this, nothing on the Mabalingwe Country Club course in South Africa is likely to scare you.
Except for maybe the jackals, hyenas, wart hogs or civet cats. Or, if you happen to be playing a hole behind Retief Goosen, it might frighten you to realize the game he's playing is the same one you're supposedly trying.
Even the drive to Mabalingwe is wild: after passing through "Warm Baths," you travel about 10 kilometers down a clay/gravel road, past the Kingfisher Bush Camp, past the high game fences where antelope and elan can be spotted. When you finally arrive at the country club, you find yourself smack dab in the middle of the African bushveldt, in the looming shadows of the Waterberg Mountains, where all of the above mentioned animals, plus zebras, wildebeest, giraffes and more than 400 other species of wild African animals roam at will.
Imagine being the greens keeper here.
"The animals can go anywhere they want," said owner Steve Dunn, an American who has traveled to South Africa yearly for the last quarter-century. "We get some damage from animals, but not much."
The maintenance people had to deal periodically with zebras running over greens, leaving their hoofprints in putting lines, and with the wildebeest who like to sleep on the No. 15 green - so perfect for wildebeest lounging. To combat the non-golfing interlopers, they've started roping off the greens in the early evenings.
There are no big predators at the Mabalingwe estate - no lions or leopards, for example - so you aren't as anxious as, say, the Skukuza course at Kruger National Park, where lions may be in the rough and where hippos lay in wait for you at No. 9's pond. But, there is an amazing quantity of wildlife.
"It's basically a game reserve with a golf course in the middle," said head pro Hendrik Devos.
And a fine golf course it is. It was designed by popular South African architect Peter Matkovitch, who's done many South African courses, including Leopard Rock, Spier, Steenberg and Arabella,which is usually acknowledged as one of the top courses in the country.
"Peter is a very good designer, he just never had the big budget to work with," Dunn said. "He's so passionate about what he does. He's real funny about some things - he gets very upset when weeds grow in the dam (man-made ponds), but to me, they're lovely. He disagrees."
Wild hoof prints and the aesthetics of weeds aside, the course is well-maintained, although still maturing in spots, particularly on Nos. 4, 5 and 6. It's a rather flat course, despite the proximity to the mountains. Another nearby Matkovitch course, Elements, is in the planning stages and will have much more elevation, Dunn said.
That is, if the approximate 4,000 feet in elevation where the course sits isn't enough for you. Your ball flies farther at this elevation, and you'll need some help on No. 6, a 578-yard par-5 said to be one of the longest holes in the country.
There are other tough holes. No 1, for example, requires threading a long iron between or over trees fronting the green.
No. 5 is the highest "stroke index" or handicap, a long par-4 where an accurate drive left of the trees and fairways bunkers is essential - followed by a fairway wood or long iron to a well-guarded green - if you want to make par. No. 7 is a long, narrow par-4 with the green below the fairway, and No. 14 is the narrowest par-4 on the course with a green sloping hard to the right; if your approach drifts, your ball will roll off.
Still, it's a very playable course, since it gets mostly resort play.
"We're not catering to the pros, we're catering to the resort," Dunn said. "We have wide fairways, so if you start losing balls, you're not playing well."
The course is a little more than 7,400 meters from the tips, has 10 meters of short Bermuda lining most of the fairways and has four water holes.
About a two-hour drive from Johannesburg and Pretoria, this course is well worth the time it takes to get there, both for the wildlife and the golf. Mabalingwe was named the best new course in 2004 by the South Africa edition of Golf Digest, and it lives up to the title, although its flatness takes away some of the drama, despite the mountain range that is always in view.
Despite the fact it is situated in a game reserve, there are homes around the course. Many have thatched roofs, but these are no huts - they're big, expensive homes set back from the course. Goosen recently bought a house there.
There are 150 sites with homes still going up, but officials said none will be closer than 50 meters from any fairway.
Green fees are in line with most South African courses, ranging from 70 South African rands for juniors up to 250 for non-affiliated adults. One U.S. dollar is roughly equal to about six rands.
The country club consists of 20 private lodges, with views of the bush and the course, and the usual amenities. Deluxe rooms include a fireplace (South Africa evenings can be cool), jacuzzi and indoor and outdoor showers.
The estate sits on 1,200 hectares of bushveldt - a hectare being 100 acres - and borders the Mabalingwe Game Reserve, so the big cats are nearby if you want to see them.
There's also hiking, fishing horseback riding, clay-target shooting, tennis and squash courts, a pool and gym.
The country club restaurant is on the second-floor, looking out onto the dam near the 18th green, and wildlife can be spotted from here. The food is good, which is fortunate because you'll have a bit of a drive if you want to go anywhere else.
Aside from the lion cubs and young cheetahs, Mabalingwe manages a rehabilitative service for abandoned game animals. Recent rehabs include two Red Hartebeest, next to the clubhouse.
March 8, 2005
Veteran golf writer Tim McDonald keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.
Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.
Referred to by its hosts as a "hidden gem," the greens alone at Sterling Hills Golf Club in Camarillo, Calif. make this a stone worth turning over. Located an hour northwest of L.A., it's a pleasing, quiet and generally engaging round that will appease players of all levels.
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