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Babu laid the foundation for a great, South African golf course

Tim McDonaldBy Tim McDonald,

DURBAN, South Africa - Perhaps the best advice you can get before you play the Prince's Grant Golf Course is before you tee off on this wind-whipped layout by the Indian Ocean - make sure your windows are closed.

Marauding monkeys are a problem, you see, which will swoop in an open window of your room and eat your fruit, or whatever other edibles you happen to have lying around.

You might see the monkeys on the course, too, but you're more likely to see them hanging around on the roofs of the houses that perch on the hills of this part of the KwaZulu Natal region, located in the heart of South Africa's Zulu nation.

To the locals, they're like stray dogs - more nuisance than exotic wildlife. You see them loping along the cart paths like casual and slightly arrogant intruders.

It's their home, after all, and they were here long before the course opened about 10 years ago - well after Zulu chief Shaka was murdered by his two half-brothers in the nearby town of Stanger.

Princes' Grant is consistently ranked among the top 25 South Africa golf courses and it's an apt accolade. It's a strategically interesting course that plays down, around and through the valleys of the North Coast, circling through wild plum trees and flame lilies.

An hour north of Durban, the wind whipping off the ocean makes the long, green stalks of the sugar cane fields hiss like a thousand snakes and strange bird calls come from somewhere deep in the bush. You often find yourself jerking your head around to see what's behind you.

Architect Peter Matkovich built a course that provides a variety of appearances, from wide, wind-swept vistas to low-lying holes with narrow chutes through thick vegetation.

"It's an undulating, coastal course with a number of links-like holes," said Derek Paxton, the South African owner of the lodge on the property. "The wind is a factor, but the course is imminently playable."

The course is indeed playable, but Paxton was being charitable toward the wind, which can howl during the hot and humid summers. When it gusts up to 30 mph, it can make a two- or three-club difference. And of course, it always seems like the wind is in your face.

Prince's Grant isn't a particularly long course, but the fairways roll and tumble, twist and turn and the greens are small and usually surrounded by some sort of mischief.

No. 15, for example, tees off sharply downhill, with a spectacular view of the ocean off to your left. Thick, coastal vegetation is between you and the water, and a large fairway bunker awaits to your right. Your second shot is up to an elevated green: Beware, some spots in the fairway are so deep you can't see the flag.

No. 7 is another trickster. It starts with a carry over a ravine and the fairway narrows to a trickle. You wind up shooting for the green, which thankfully turns out to be large and receptive to long irons, through the narrowest of openings. There is brush to the right and a hill to the left that slopes down to the fairway, nearly blocking your view.

It's a course that somehow manages to blend in coziness with spectacle. The back nine, in particular, gives ocean panoramas with the exception of the three closing holes.

There are all sorts of interesting sights along the way, front or back, with historical interest to go with the uniquely African features. The course was built on what used to be the Hyde Park Farm. A South African named George Prinie bought the land from Queen Victoria in 1856 for two pounds, five shillings and four pence, sterling - whatever that is in U.S. money, it's cheap.

An indentured cane cutter who turned out to be an ambitious businessman, named Babu Bodasing, acquired the land and used much of it to plant rice. In fact, No. 16 is called "Paddyfield," where Babu made some of his income.

The current owners have kept the former cane cutter's original beach cottage, which was the first building on the property. It has been re-designed, but the original foundation still stands.

The Verdict

This is an extremely fun course to play - even if it weren't for the monkeys - well away from the frantic goings-on of Durban, a chaotic port city that is the third-largest in the country and known for being South Africa's party town.

"I go there to play when I want to get away," said Sean Plasing of Durban. "Plus, it's a great course with terrific views. I happen to like all the dips and valleys. Keeps it interesting."

The course was designed and built well before they started building houses in the Prince's Grant gated housing community, and it shows. The houses never really intrude on the golf, although there is the possibility that could change - only 107 homes have been built with another 40 under construction. With 462 "stands" or home sites on the property, there is considerable room for development. Oddly, there are only 20 full-time residents to date.

Gated golf communities may get a bad rap in the U.S., but here in South Africa, where crime reaches from the urban areas well into the hinterlands, it tends to give a welcome sense of security. The grounds are hemmed in by an electrified fence and guards patrol 24 hours a day.

The course is well-maintained, no easy feat considering South Africa is going through one of its worst droughts in recent years.

Green fees are $150 South African rands, which is a little more than $30 U.S.

Dining out

There are no restaurants nearby, so it's fortunate that the lodge has good food. There are two restaurants at the lodge, one formal and one informal. Try the waffles and ice cream with butterscotch sauce, or the lamb curry served in a poppadum flower. For a serious treat, try the chocolate panna cotta with pineapple dusted with icing sugar.

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.

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