More than half of South Africa’s courses are 9-holers – we are unique in world terms in having as many as 53% of our total – yet remarkably few golfers appreciate just how interesting, enjoyable and great value the best of them can be to play.
It’s possible to still discover that old cliché of “hidden gems” among the 9-holers. I’ve uncovered several on my travels visiting the various regions, and regularly continue to find courses that delight me. An additional attractive aspect of playing 9-holers is that you may often have the course to yourself. They are commonly deserted in midweek.
Big city 9-holers are rare, so they are predominantly associated with country towns and remote rural areas. That’s why the bulk of rounds on Handicap Network Africa are registered on 18-holers.
Mpumalanga is the province to find many of our finest 9-holers, and I’ve had fun visiting them for the purpose of establishing a ranking of SA’s Top 9-holers which will be published on the Top 100 Courses website.
Making a name for itself in the Lowveld is Kambaku, such a well-chosen name for a bushveld course that stands opposite the Kruger National Park, on the confluence of the Crocodile and Komati Rivers. It occupies scenic heaven; the clubhouse deck overlooking the Crocodile has become a tourist destination.
Kambaku was one of the Magnificent Seven bull elephants which graced the Park from 1930 to 1985. His tusks, each weighing 64 kilograms, are in the elephant hall at Letaba rest camp.
This course, opened in 2006, leads the way in South Africa in the diversity of its 9-hole offering. There are 11 greens, and golfers play to them in a variety of novel ways. Tee to green conditioning is superb. The best time to visit is during the winter months. Temperatures can soar in the height of summer. A high of 52C has been recorded.
The Lowveld, with its warm climate, is an ideal region for a winter tour of 9-holers. My other recommendations in addition to Kambaku would be Kruger Park Lodge at Hazyview, Malelane next door to Leopard Creek, Skukuza inside the Park, and Pilgrims Rest in the old gold mining town. They are all stunningly scenic and in relatively close proximity.
SHORT CUT THROUGH KRUGER PARK
A short cut with a difference entails travelling through the Park (elephants galore on this route) from Malelane Gate on the southern border to play Skukuza, exiting at the Kruger Gate to reach Kruger Park Lodge. This Gary Player Design from the early 1990s is a superb experience, with several memorable and challenging holes. In contrast to the others it is notably undulating. Big greens, water hazards, creatively shaped bunkers are all evidence of it being a proper professional design.
One oddity, however, comes in the shape of an island green on the par-4 ninth. This wasn’t in the original design, according to Phil Jacobs, who laid out the course working for Player Design. There is another green further along the hole, used for the 18th. The island green is so small that even a Sunshine Tour player might find it difficult to hold. I’d give it a miss and play the conventional green twice.
Malelane is a bushveld beauty, its fairways lined with magnificent mature trees of varied species. The road to the Malelane Gate and Leopard Creek bisects the course. On the left are three holes and the clubhouse; the other six holes, each outstanding, are hidden away on the right. There’s a camp site at the clubhouse, and a free-spirited way of playing this set of courses would be with a camper van or caravan as your accommodation, lighting a fire each evening. Sounds inviting.
The clubhouse at Skukuza was upgraded in 2022, and the new restaurant and pub facilities have transformed the popularity of this unique golf experience inside the Park, where encountering wild animals on the course has long been part of its attraction for those with a brave disposition. Much of its charm though lay in its previous emptiness. Animals were more likely to venture out on the fairways with no one around. That’s when you had to be alert.
Now the course is teeming with roaring golf carts and you might have to wait for an empty table on the clubhouse deck. It remains a special experience though, and the terrible greens of old have been rebuilt with smooth putting surfaces. I like the layout, and there’s a wonderful par 3 finishing hole played over Lake Panic to a green in front of the patrons and submerged hippos.
The course at Pilgrims Rest is one of the oldest in the region, its 9 holes attractively laid out in a narrow tree-lined valley alongside a stream and rocky hillside. The immediate area is where SA’s first gold rush took place in 1873, prospectors recovering alluvial gold from the gravel of river beds, and the original name of the golf club was TGME (Transvaal Gold Mining Estates). The small stone-walled clubhouse is thought to be 100 years old.
THE COURSE WHICH HOSTED MOVIE LEGENDS
A favourite road trip is the day-long drive from Mbombela to the KZN Drakensberg resorts (530km), taking the alternative R40 route towards Barberton, then climbing the escarpment to the Highveld, on the twisty R38, filled with dramatic vistas. About 90 minutes from Mbombela, tucked away in a picturesque mountain valley five kilometres from the main road is a quirky 9-holer at Badplaas Golf Club & Lodge. It was the vision of Leon Rorich, who designed and built the course, and has personally maintained it since without much assistance. He bought the property at an auction in the early 1990s, and over the years added accommodation and a delightful pub. Sadly, he’s sold up and is moving.
That pub hosted American movie legends Michael Douglas and Val Kilmer, who lived in the area in 1995-96 during the shooting of The Ghost and the Darkness in Songimvelo Nature Reserve on the border with Swaziland. “Douglas, who played a wild game hunter in the movie, loved his golf, carrying a small bag and walking my hilly course,” said Rorich, who later on was the chief executive at Graceland when that casino and golf resort opened in the late 1990s. “He would hire a helicopter to fly us to play golf at Sun City.”
The terrain is extremely undulating, so a feature of its design is a succession of elevated tee boxes. Rorich did exceptionally well to create nine interesting and thrilling holes, including three par 3s, the last of which is more like a short par 4 to a treacherously sloped green.
MAJUBA AND VOLKSRUST
The R38 continues climbing from Badplaas to Carolina. A detour to Ermelo (the town has an 18-holer) and the N17 south to KZN. On the border between Mpumalanga and KZN lies Volksrust, a town overlooked by the majestic Majuba mountain where the Boers won a decisive 1881 battle over a British force in the Transvaal War of Independence, also referred to as the First Anglo-Boer War. Volksrust was established after the battle. Translated, it means Nation’s Rest, a reference to Boers resting here after the battle.
Later, it became a key station on the railway line between Johannesburg and Durban. Steam trains pulled the Trans Natal Express up Laing’s Nek pass into the town.
Hiking the steep slopes of Majuba to view battle memorials on the summit actually takes less time than walking nine holes at Volksrust Golf Club, a quality “hidden gem” with some well designed holes on undulating and tree-lined terrain. It was the home course of Sunshine Tour star Nico van Rensburg and his brother Adriaan, a long drive champion. Nico represented the Eastern Transvaal golf team when he was at school in Volksrust, before Mpumalanga existed. His course record of 65 was later shattered when another local who played the Sunshine Tour, Barend Wessels, shot a 61. And this is one of SA’s longest 9-holers, 6 399 metres from the tips.
The club and course has its origins in the early years of the last century, and an ancient giant tree which resembles a redwood is a striking feature in the middle of the fairway on the downhill par-4 second hole. From the back tee, golfers must either fly their drives over the top of the tree, or find a way around the sides.
HENNING’S OPEN TRIUMPH AT KRIEL
Allan Henning was one of our finest golfers. The youngest of the four Henning brothers won the SA Open at age 19 and several Sunshine Tour trophies. He was the first to shoot a 61 on tour, at Glendower. He later won the SA Senior Open three times, and the last of these victories came at a 9-hole Mpumalanga course where you would least expect the event to be held.
Kriel Golf Club hosted the 54-hole tournament in June 2001, and competitors faced gusty winds. Henning had rounds of 74-71-74 for a three-over total to win by three. Visiting Kriel today I was impressed with the challenging nature of this parkland layout, and attractive clubhouse facilities. The number of staff on duty, plus the busy 19th hole, suggested an 18-hole facility. It’s just over an hour’s drive from Benoni, and there are several routes from the N12. My advice is to stick to the one via Ogies on the R545, to avoid any chance of getting lost amid the power stations and collieries. This is an area where signposts don’t exist.
The Greyling family, farming in the area, were involved in the early development of Kriel, and Iaan Greyling’s son Christo was a promising junior golfer. He might have become a star locally, but the Greylings emigrated to Florida in 1997 when Christo was 14. He became the top-ranked junior in the United States (at 17 he qualified for a PGA Tour event), and while his pro career failed to take off, he did have a Sunday pairing with Phil Mickelson in the 2011 US Open at Congressional.
While I didn’t encounter any wild animals at Skukuza, I did steer well clear of two resident ostriches prowling around the fifth green at Kranspoort Golf Club, a modern 9-holer on the Limpopo border at the Loskop Dam, 45 kilometres north of Middelburg. It was built in the first decade of the new millennium by Louis van der Walt, design associate with Peter Matkovich. Good, solid layout, although the opening holes are disappointingly plain and featureless. Holes 6 to 9 in the trees are a big improvement on the rest and have more of a bushveld quality.
This would be worth pairing up with two Limpopo 9-holers in the vicinity, Marble Hall and Groblersdal.