There was a change of the guard in the Top 100 Course rankings today when Leopard Creek was named No 1. Leopard Creek knocked The Links of Fancourt off the pedestal in a surprise announcement. The Links had been No 1 since 2014.
It was a tight call between South Africa’s only two representatives in the World 100 outside the United States, both Gary Player designs, one of the closest contests in the history of the rankings, which celebrates its 25th anniversary in 2023.
What possibly swayed the issue in Leopard Creek’s favour was their hosting of the Alfred Dunhill Championship in December. The course shone like a beacon on the global TV broadcast. It was in impressive condition, presented magnificently, and proved an exacting challenge for the DP World Tour field.
No coincidence that Leopard Creek owner Johann Rupert had appointed a new course superintendent a year ago, Frikkie Potgieter, who in the previous few years had taken The River Club in Sandton to remarkable heights of conditioning. He did not take long to make his presence felt in the vastly different terrain and climate of the Mpumalanga bushveld.
Holding the No 1 position again justifies Rupert’s decision to close Leopard Creek in 2017 and upgrade the course with new turf planted from tee to green to replace the kikuyu fairways and bent grass greens which had long battled in the heat and humidity of the region. They have been replaced by more sustainable cynodon grasses which require less water, including Champion G-12, an ultradwarf Bermuda, on the greens.
Let’s compare the two courses in terms of the SA Top 100 rating criteria. The Links at Fancourt edged Leopard Creek in Conditioning by 16.6 out of 20 to 16.3. Leopard Creek took Playability by 15.2 out of 20 to 14.5, and Aesthetics by 13.8 out of 15 to 13.3. The Links was well ahead in Design Variety by 13.3 to 12.5. Memorability was tied on 12.4. In Shot Values Leopard Creek edged The Links by 12.3 to 12.1.
Leopard Creek scored a total of 82.5 out of 100 and The Links at Fancourt 82.2.
Full explanations about the rating criteria are available on the Top 100 website. Ranking Criteria – SA Top 100 Courses
There have only been four No 1s in the history of the rankings, all courses designed by Gary Player.
The Gary Player Country Club was the first in 1998, and has been No 1 on six separate occasions between 1998 and 2004. It has been a runner-up seven times. This year it was ranked No 11.
Leopard Creek made its debut in the rankings at No 4 in 1999, and been No 1 on 8 occasions. It was No 1 for six consecutive years from 2005 to 2010 (when the rankings were announced annually), and again in 2012. It has been a runner-up six times.
The Links at Fancourt, a six-time No 1, entered at No 8 in the 2003 rankings, and was then No 3 for seven consecutive years before triumphing in 2011. It has twice been a runner-up, in 2012 and 2023.
Fancourt Montagu was No 1 in 2001, a few years before its design makeover by David McLay Kidd. This year it was ranked No 5.
Other courses which have held the No 2 position but never gone on to No 1 include Durban Country Club from 1998 to 2000, Glendower in 2018, and Pearl Valley in 2021.
This year’s rankings saw a new entry to the Top 10 in Elements Private Reserve, coming in at No 10 from No 14 last year at the expense of Royal Johannesburg East. It has the best value green fee of any Top 10 course, at R400 a round.
Elements, a remote Peter Matkovich design in the Waterberg bushveld, was a Top 10 course in its earlier years in 2009 and 2010. Yet by 2018, battling drought and water issues, it had slumped to No 29.
Its recovery since then owes much to good rains in the last couple of years which have filled up the dam around the ninth and 18th greens and beautified this area. Its move will come as a surprise for many in South Africa, but then again most golfers haven’t visited Elements, and seen how spectacular it is, and what wonderful greens the course possesses.
Blair Atholl, host of the SA Open in December, took over as the No 1 ranked Gauteng course from Glendower with its move from No 9 to No 6. The Gary Player design has been in this territory before, having made its rankings debut at No 6 in 2011 and reached No 4 in 2014.
The biggest leap into the Top 20 comes from The Club at Steyn City, moving six places from No 23 to No 17. One of the newest courses in the rankings, opened in 2014, this Nicklaus Design (not a Signature) has matured and become more attractive with the growth of the Steyn City residential estate.
It was rated the fourth best conditioned course in South Africa behind The Links at Fancourt, Leopard Creek and Fancourt Montagu, and had the best greens in Gauteng. It was No 1 in tee boxes in SA, and there are many courses which would love to have greens that good.
Like Blair Atholl it is an exclusive experience, with a high-end green fee and limited times for visitors. But Steyn City does provide an outstanding course, clubhouse, undercover parking and a terrific practice facility.
Zimbali, a private Tom Weiskopf design at Ballito in KwaZulu-Natal, and Pezula in Knysna (a Ronald Fream/David Dale design) were other new entries into the Top 20, at No 19 and No 20 respectively. Zimbali becomes the No 1 ranked course in KZN for the first time in the history of the rankings.
WHAT IT COSTS FOR A VISITOR TO PLAY
A TOP 10 COURSE IN PEAK SEASON
1. Leopard Creek
(Have to be staying in an approved lodge to play.)
2. The Links at Fancourt
(Have to be a Fancourt hotel guest to play.)
3. Pearl Valley
R2 595 or R1 595 affiliated
4. St Francis Links
5. Fancourt Montagu
(Have to be a Fancourt hotel guest to play.)
6. Blair Atholl
R1 535 or R950 affiliated
R700 and R400 affiliated