Links courses were the big winners in the SA Course Rankings when the final Top 20 was announced today. While The Links at Fancourt was again judged the No 1 course in the land, moving up inside the Top 10 were St Francis Links to No 4 and Humewood to No 7.
And further down the rankings there were upwards movements by Atlantic Beach Links (No 68) and Milnerton (80) in Cape Town and St Francis Bay (84) in the Eastern Cape. All these courses provide unique quasi-links experiences in the context of golf in this country.
Links golf is what many golfers around the world aspire to play when they visit the United Kingdom or Ireland on tours or golfing pilgrimages. Some of the best links on the planet are in these countries, and they are numerous. Golfers are spoiled for choice.
In Scotland alone they could have a ranking of the 100 best links, while here in South Africa we couldn’t reach 10, even if we included the likes of Ebotse Links (No 46) in Benoni on the Highveld which, while having a links-style design with mounding and undulating fairways, does not meet the True Links criteria. For those who like a links experience, though, a round at Ebotse is something you should make happen.
But perhaps we in South Africa shouldn’t be too exact in our definition of a links compared to those golfing purists in the UK. Firstly, even our very own true links at Humewood in Port Elizabeth does not have the natural fescue grasses you find in the northern hemisphere which are essential ingredients of links play.
The bump and run shot, or a putt from 50 metres short of the green, doesn’t behave on kikuyu or cynodon or poa quite like the experience you would find at St Andrews in Scotland, Ballybunion in Ireland, or Royal St George’s in England. And drives don’t bound away down firm fairways as if they were running on tarmac.
If we were to stretch our definition of a “South African links” we could include the likes of wonderful seaside courses like East London (No 12), Royal Port Alfred (98), Pinnacle Point (16), Mossel Bay (89), Langebaan (unranked) and even Oubaai (52), where Ernie Els has incorporated links-like greens and bunkering into his design.
Maccauvlei was once regarded as an inland links in its early years. Today you might see slight resemblances of one in the styling at Gowrie Farm (No 50) in the KZN Midlands, Kimberley (unranked) in the Northern Cape, or the 9-hole Vulintaba layout in Northern KZN.
WORLD RANKINGS SOON TO BE ANNOUNCED
The Fancourt Links has been No 1 since 2014, taking over the mantle from Leopard Creek, which itself had a long run of 9 years in the top position. Leopard Creek is back at No 2 this year, and as a bushveld layout it occupies a special niche in a category uniquely African.
Both are exceptional experiences, commanding high-end green fees, and it will be interesting to see how both fare when Golf Digest USA soon announce their biennial ranking of the World’s 100 Greatest Courses outside the United States. Fancourt Links was No 56 in the 2020 rankings and I believe it has never looked better such is the attention to detail continually applied to its look and feel. Most of the initial flaws have been ironed out.
Leopard Creek was No 69 in those rankings. It possesses one of the most iconic modern holes in golf, the par-5 13th with its fabulous green standing on a high bluff over the Crocodile River. It’s such a spectacular spot for visitors that perhaps consideration should be given to having a quarter house there, where you can have a cool drink and a bite while admiring the view. The 13th is not just a scenic hole, it’s a brilliant design where strategy and risk-reward are intertwined from the tee shot to the last putt.
St Francis Links is another world-class destination, but much easier to access for Joe Public, and at a fraction of the price of the others. While Fancourt Links is a man-made design, although you wouldn’t think that today if you had no idea of all the earth-moving trucks required for its construction, the holes at St Francis Links have been folded naturally into the dunescape of the Eastern Cape.
It is a course that has taken 15 years to achieve acclaim. It has had many detractors, largely because of the challenging aspects of the layout and the fierce winds that can blow in the summer months. Yet it is not half as difficult to play as some of the fabled championship links in Ireland, Scotland or England, where it can also blow a “hooley,” as they say in Scotland. Some South African golfers are happy to contend with nasty bunkers, gorse bushes, narrow fairways and knee-high rough when they’re playing abroad, but protest when those same elements are imported here.
If St Francis Links was transplanted tomorrow to somewhere remote in Ireland or Scotland the Americans would be queuing up to play it, and paying a small fortune for the privilege.
CONDITIONING IS WORLD CLASS
One common thread running among our Top 10 courses is the impressive quality of Conditioning on display. They can hold their own against the best in the world. The Fancourt courses lead the way in this area with The Links and the Montagu, which are both now in the Top 5 for the first time since the Montagu was redesigned by David McLay Kidd in 2004-05.
St Francis Links is No 3 in Conditioning in South Africa, with 16 points out of 20, which is impressive for a links subjected daily to the vagaries of the local weather. Humewood’s fairways at times look brown and dusty from the scouring nature of the wind on the shores of Algoa Bay, yet their bent grass greens are among the best I’ve encountered. What superb putting surfaces they are.
Another course which can experience some heavy winds at times is Arabella, close to the ocean on the Bot River Lagoon in the Western Cape. It moves up two places to No 8 following a magnificent bunker renovation project in 2021 which has transformed the appearance of every hole. Once a regular in the Top 5 it had slipped back to No 10. The region has experienced excellent rainfall for some time, and the conditioning has moved up a notch.
BLAIR ATHOLL REPLACES GARY PLAYER CC
Blair Atholl is the only newcomer in the Top 10 this year, although the Gary Player design in Gauteng has been there before, as high as No 4 in the 2014 Golf Digest rankings. Problematic issues at this exclusive golf estate resulted in the course being neglected for a while, which resulted in it falling back to No 15. However, it was always going to make a comeback.
Situated in scenic rural countryside, there’s an aura at Blair Atholl comparable to those at Fancourt Links and Leopard Creek where the complete experience and ambience envelops you. It’s like entering another world once you pass through the entrance gates.
The course itself is stunning in terms of Aesthetics, Design Variety and Memorability, but it is long and most golfers should put their egos to one side and play off the appropriate tees according to their ability. The bunkers and greens are mostly on the vast side too.
Blair Atholl’s elevation to the Top 10 will have been welcomed by Gary Player, particularly as this property was his former Gauteng home for many years, yet it will be tempered by the news that the Gary Player Country Club has fallen out of the Top 10 for the first time in its history. It was Golf Digest’s original No 1 back in 1998 and never left the Top 3 for 20 consecutive years. Many will find this unimaginable, such has been the impact of the Sun City venue on the public consciousness since it first hosted the Million Dollar Challenge 40 years ago, yet its absence is also an indication of how much quality there is in our other golf courses.
UP IN THE RANKINGS
Blair Atholl up 6 from 15 to 9
Pinnacle Point up 4 from 20 to 16
Elements up 3 from 17 to 14
Fancourt Montagu up 3 from 8 to 5
Simola up 2 from 19 to 17
Arabella up 2 from 10 to 8
Humewood up 2 from 9 to 7
St Francis Links up 1 from 5 to 4
Leopard Creek up 1 from 3 to 2
Fancourt Links no change
Sishen no change
DOWN IN THE RANKINGS
Durban CC down 7 from 12 to 19
Royal J&K East down 4 from 6 to 10
Gary Player CC down 4 from 7 to 11
George down 1 from 14 to 15
Highland Gate down 2 from 16 to 18
Fancourt Outeniqua down 2 from 18 to 20
East London down 1 from 11 to 12
Pearl Valley down 1 from 2 to 3
Glendower down 2 from 4 to 6