Published by : Stuart McLean - 29 January 2021

After an innovative, lengthy and suspenseful week in the history of announcing the Top 100 rankings, today produced the long-awaited crowning of another No 1 course. There was also the revelation of another outsider breaking into the Top 10, plus plenty of surprise movement inside the Top 20.

The Links at Fancourt was again judged to be South Africa’s premier layout, for the fourth consecutive occasion, while the Humewood Links entered the Top 10 at No 9 at the expense of Durban Country Club, which fell eight places to No 12.

fancourt-links-SA Top 100 Number 1
The natural beauty of The Links at Fancourt is captured in this image by
Grant Leversha.

When the rankings began in the late 1990s there was just one course in South Africa that acknowledged itself as a links, and that was Humewood. This week we have three links designs in the Top 10, with St Francis Links slotting in at No 5 between Fancourt and Humewood. Other courses proud to have added the Links name to their titles are Atlantic Beach in the Cape and Ebotse in Benoni. While the purists might blanch at a golf course on the Highveld being described as a links, the design at Ebotse does capture the natural linksy style which is in vogue around the world.

This week also saw the long-awaited return of Leopard Creek to the rankings, after being absent in 2018 following major renovations to the legendary Mpumalanga layout. Leopard Creek was No 1 in six consecutive rankings from 2005 to 2010, so there was considerable speculation that it might well usurp the crown from Fancourt Links. That didn’t happen, but Leopard Creek nevertheless returned majestically to the upper reaches at No 3.

Leopard is still “the bucket list” destination for South Africans, and it fulfils everyone’s expectations. Golf Data’s design changes to the course, plus the new grass planted on fairways and greens, has resulted in a significant improvement to the look of the layout. Several holes have emerged for the better, although I personally feel it still has a 17th hole which lacks the strong character of the rest of the course.

The grasses have enhanced Leopard Creek’s all year round playability, whereas before it struggled with conditioning in the humid heat of summer, when it hosted the Alfred Dunhill Championship on the European Tour.  

The last time Leopard Creek failed to make the Top 2 was in 2002 – when Gary Player CC was No 1 and Fancourt Montagu No 2 – and on this occasion it was narrowly beaten to the No 2 position by Pearl Valley, the Jack Nicklaus design in the Cape Winelands.


Pearl Valley’s elevation to its highest ever position (it was No 3 in 2011) was one of the shocks of the day’s announcements, yet confirmation that it is one of the best designed and conditioned golf courses in South Africa.

Pearl Valley in the heart of the Cape Winelands moves up to No 2. This is the par-5 14th.

In a close contest, Pearl Valley possibly sneaked ahead of Leopard Creek because of its policy to promote walking ahead of “cart golf.” At Pearl Valley golfers have the choice between walking or using a cart, while Leopard Creek firmly backs the use of carts for safety reasons on a property where wildlife is prevalent.

The ease of walking courses is covered in the Playability criteria used to rate courses. We believe that walking is an essential part of playing golf, and would be distressed if that disappeared from the game. In the past 20 years the use of carts has grown exponentially in South Africa to the extent where courses are built today that virtually eliminate the prospect of walking altogether.

Golf carts are here to stay, as they not only allow older golfers and those with disabilities to keep playing the game, but generate considerable income for golf clubs. However, clubs should be careful where this trend will lead. Walking golf courses every week has been proven to extend a person’s life by as much as five years. We commend Pearl Valley therefore for introducing reduced green fee rates for walkers at all times, where previously their green fees were based on golfers sharing a cart.

The Links at Fancourt, the reigning No 1 since 2014, is a walking experience, and one cannot imagine playing this magnificent course any other way. Only by walking can you properly enjoy the beauty and walkways of a pristine property where no expense has been spared to capture the best Aesthetics possible, inside and out. There are cart paths hidden away on The Links, for use when walking is not possible, yet that happens infrequently.

A feature of playing there is that caddies are compulsory, a similar policy to many private courses in the United States. As a golfing society in South Africa we have lost many traditions over the years, and one of those was having a caddie. Caddies still thrive at some clubs, but they are a dying breed, and good caddies, as are found at Fancourt, add immensely to the enjoyment of a round.

Standing on the first tee at The Links, where a traditional starter is in place to dispense information and complementary goodies as a fourball gathers to begin their round, is to experience a long lost culture that the modern game is missing. It gives you a different perspective on what golf is really about, retaining traditions. Only at the highest level, though, a Top 10 course, is this usually possible.


Humewood has been out of the Top 10 for far too long. It was ranked No 3 in the inaugural Golf Digest rankings in 1998, and its last appearance in the Top 10 came in 2001, exactly 20 years ago. It hosted a successful SA Open in 2006 when the course was brilliant for one glorious week in December, yet that was an anomaly.

The first hole at Humewood looking out over Algoa Bay.

Today, Humewood returns on the strength of exceptional conditioning in recent years. Its greens were rated among the best in the country, an average of 8.3/10 only being slightly behind those of The Links at Fancourt. The turning point for Humewood came 12 years ago when their old greens, shabby in appearance and poor putting surfaces, were replaced by modern complexes designed by Golf Data. They were a revelation, as was the idea that bent grass rather than cynodon or bermuda varieties, would thrive in the dry and windy Eastern Cape climate. Humewood dropped to as low as No 20 on the rankings at one stage, and have been clawing their way back ever since.


The Top 20 sees the return of two remote courses which once occupied higher positions in the rankings, Sishen in the Northern Cape, and Elements in Limpopo. Getting to either course is an undertaking not to be taken lightly. Sishen, in the town of Kathu, is 460 kilometres away from another Top 100 layout (Bloemfontein). It’s a six-hour drive from Gauteng, double that from the Cape. Elements is closer to Gauteng, but the dirt road to the Waterberg estate is an arduous one, although worthwhile.

Elements lies deep within the rugged bushveld of the Waterberg region of Limpopo.

Sishen, one of Bob Grimsdell’s last designs, jumps 8 places to No 13 from its previous position of No 21, while Elements, by Peter Matkovich, is a 12-place improver to No 17. Both these courses have reached these heady heights before. Sishen was No 12 in early rankings, while Elements briefly had a stint in the Top 10 soon after its opening in 2009-2010.

Their remoteness undeniably makes them beautiful places to play, having been built in areas of great natural beauty. Both can be described as bushveld courses. Sishen may be on the edge of a bustling town, but is ensconced within a remarkable forest of kameeldoring trees which played a huge strategic part in Grimsdell’s design of the holes. They are often referred to as sky bunkers.

Sishen is in an arid part of South Africa – the contrast between the terrain outside Kathu and that within where there is irrigation is astonishing. The biggest surprise is finding a golf course almost as magnificently manicured as Fancourt. The bent grass greens were resurfaced two years ago by Southern Turf Management, who maintain the layout, and they are awesome in every respect. In fact, the greens now rank No 4 in South Africa behind Fancourt Montagu, St Francis Links and Blair Atholl.

Elements, in the rugged bushveld of the Waterberg, is a course that has struggled since day one to get sufficient water in a notoriously dry area. An example of how dry it can get there is that Matkovich designed two interesting finishing holes on each nine, with adjoining greens, built around a large water feature. For several years now that has been a deep dry hole. The par-3 ninth green sits incongruously high above the land.

The turnaround for Elements in recent years has been to obtain additional water rights, and thus been able to irrigate parched fairways. Elements was blessed with exceptional greens from the beginning, and they have now returned to their former quality.

Elements is one of Matkovich’s best creations, with interesting movement in the terrain, rugged holes of every description, and eminently playable with its reasonably wide corridors. One of the joys of playing there is the tranquility of the surroundings, in midweek most likely having the course virtually to yourself. It’s a pity there is no lodge on site which could cater for visiting golfers. That would certainly make it a more inviting proposition as a weekend getaway.

View today’s rankings here:

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