The Eastern Cape has been included as one of the world’s best undiscovered destinations by Today’s Golfer magazine in the UK.
The region does indeed have much to offer golfers. Three of the country’s best courses and excellent variety elsewhere. The only true links in Africa. One of SA’s oldest and quirkiest layouts. Beautiful uncrowded coastal settings. Friendly locals. Golf where you can wrestle with the elements. Outstanding value for money.
The Eastern Cape is a vast territory – twice the size of countries like Ireland and Scotland. Fortunately its premier courses are contained in a narrow coastal belt of 400 kilometres between East London in the east and St Francis Bay in the west.
There are various ways to explore its golf courses and my starting point would be to fly in to East London and head for Olivewood resort near Cintsa on the Sunshine Coast. Olivewood is the newest course in the region (2016) and an unconventional Top 100 experience in hilly bushveld terrain that would be equally suitable for a wildlife reserve. I like the surprising hole setups that await on so many tees, and the thrilling shots you are asked to play on holes that tumble over the expansive landscape. You will putt on astoundingly pure greens.
Olivewood offers tourists magnificent accommodation and cuisine, an ideal base to spend a few days or a week. It has a range facility and is a rarity in the Eastern Cape in offering 5-star stay-and-play on site. There are 24 spacious villa-type rooms with their own gardens – shared by resident nyala buck – and parking space outside the front door for convenience. It is quiet and tranquil, so don’t go expecting a Fancourt energy blast.
It’s inland from the coast, overlooking the Cintsa River, and a short drive will take you to Cintsa itself and a seemingly endless beach where you can swim or walk along the coastline.
From Olivewood it’s a 30-minute drive to East London GC, one of the finest layouts I’ve been privileged to play anywhere in the world. A unique rollercoaster experience in the coastal dunes overlooking the river port and Indian Ocean, created 100 years ago. I haven’t seen a better site for golf in SA that remains unspoiled in its natural surroundings. The first 12 holes here are breathtaking; the next four humdrum, before finishing on a high note at 17 and 18.
Don’t leave the area without playing East London at least twice, even that seems insufficient.
The Eastern Cape is where golf grew its strongest roots in the late 19th century. Many of our country’s oldest clubs were founded here. Centenaries have come and long gone. The rugged nature of the coastal terrain is responsible for the quirkiness of the course designs, and if that interests you then visit West Bank GC on the other side of the Buffalo River to ELGC. Again, a panoramic ocean-facing site. More could have been done with this old-fashioned layout with its own lighthouse to attract tourists, yet the club has never bothered.
From Olivewood my next move would take me inland, towards the Amathole mountains, a 3-hour drive to the remote Katberg eco-estate via the N6 to Cathcart and then the fabulous Nico Malan Pass. It was here in 1962 that an SA Airways Dakota, flying in low cloud, struck a mountain close to Katberg, and passengers survived.
Katberg having a quality 18-hole course, opened in 2008, is an extraordinary achievement. It’s a delightful escape. The course is short, hilly and challenging, fun to play with its imaginatively built greens and a backdrop of exquisite scenery. It’s a low-key estate, a small clubhouse, busy at weekends, quiet on weekdays.
Time to head back to the coast, via another new picturesque 18-holer, The Belmont (2015), in an attractive farming valley south of Grahamstown. Not too dissimilar to Katberg in terms of its undulations, creative greens, and having numerous short par 4s. However, it is tighter and straight shooters will love it. Five excellent par 3s, four close to the clubhouse, and two played from high tees.
It’s 50 kilometres downhill, passing through the village of Bathurst (home to the famous Pig & Whistle Hotel), to Port Alfred, a town popular with retirees and having an attractive marina on the Kowie River.
Royal Port Alfred, one of four Royal clubs in South Africa, is a unique seaside course, a venerable antique where golf has been played since 1907. It received Royal status in 1924 following a visit by the Prince of Wales.
On a breezy day, on sun-baked fairways, uphill and downhill, your inventive shot-making skills will be tested. Most visitors will come unprepared and leave mystified, which is why one round will not suffice. From the first tee you wander towards the horizon and only return to the clubhouse at the par-3 13th. With the 19th hole beckoning as you stand on the 14th tee, don’t be tempted to retire early. Some of the best holes are still to come.
Just 30 kilometres away at Fish River is a 1980s Gary Player design, a resort course neglected and deserted nowadays after the hotel lost its casino licence. Sadly, the course closed in September 2022 after struggling along for several years. Player designed it to be long and challenging – it hosted the first Africa Open in 2008 won by Shaun Norris – and ultimately, being in the middle of nowhere, that probably was its undoing.
We’ve visited six courses, and five remain. Three are in Port Elizabeth (Gqeberha), including the exceptional true links that is Humewood. It has one of the most alluring entrances of any golf club in SA. On the coastal road heading to Cape Recife on the edge of Algoa Bay you enter this magnificent linksland at the 17th green. In the distance in the centre of the course is the stunning double-storey clubhouse that is such an integral perspective of the Humewood experience. The 19th hole upstairs with its balcony reminds me of a bridge on a ship, from where you can survey the land and ocean.
Humewood underwent a radical upgrade to its greens in the new millennium which has added greatly to the course’s lustre. Today’s Golfer in the UK includes Humewood in its World Top 100 Public Access Courses, an incredible accolade for such a humble club where visitors have unlimited access. It is certainly the cheapest of them all to play. As for this championship layout of impressive long par 4s, it’s a Muirfield in design terms, having two nines which each return to the clubhouse. Mostly flat, but more defined on the back nine with its low ridges secluding holes.
Other decent local courses are the PE Golf Club, with its busy parkland layout on municipal land, and Wedgewood, on the route heading west to St Francis Bay. This is a new layout (2013) built on the bones of an original Bob Grimsdell design, now part of a residential estate. It’s a handsome layout, with astonishingly good greens, yet flawed by having a clubhouse lacking in atmosphere and a disappointing 18th hole.
Our journey ends in a seaside holiday resort which in the 1990s had just a 9-holer. The resort has tripled in size since then and St Francis Bay now has a pair of terrific and contrasting courses. St Francis Links is a Jack Nicklaus design (2006) which compares in stature with East London and Humewood. It ranks above them at No 4 in the SA Top 100 Courses list. Created among inland dunes and coastal bush it is a masterpiece of design and creativity, notably the rugged bunkering, and in time will surely come to be globally recognised as one of the world’s best modern links.
The course forms part of a secure residential estate which in recent years has become a desirable place to live. Happily, the growing number of houses don’t visibly detract from the natural beauty of the links. The Links opens and closes with two unforgettable holes which characterise the magic of this place. The ones in between aren’t too bad either. My advice is to spend extra time here soaking it all in. And walk the course to appreciate its splendour.
Windy days are common in summer along the East Cape coastline, St Francis Bay no exception. These courses were designed to incorporate the vagaries of the weather. The autumn and winter months provide the most favourable conditions. The best time for golf tours. Otherwise, wise golfers tee up early in the morning before the wind gathers strength. Or they choose to play at St Francis Bay GC in the heart of the village. Golfers find this flat links-style layout more comfortable to play in a breeze, and an easier and quicker walk than St Francis Links where golf carts are the norm.
The Bay, whose back nine holes meander close to one of the beaches, is popular because it’s all so uncomplicated, typical of what visitors love about the Eastern Cape, a small welcoming clubhouse, convenient starting tees, a buzzing 19th hole, and affordable fun golf.