NONDELA
ON TRACK
TO OPEN

ERNIE ELS DESIGN IN CENTRAL DRAKENSBERG
IS BEING REHABILITATED AFTER 15 YEARS.

Published by : Stuart McLean - 19 September 2023

On a quiet Central Drakensberg road between Bergville and Harrismith a sign catches my attention. Nondela Drakensberg Mountain Estate.

The name takes me back two decades to a prosperous era when the golf estate business was booming in South Africa. Around 2006-2007 there were dozens of exciting course construction projects in the pipeline in different corners of South Africa. Then came the 2008 global financial crisis. This hit the golf industry especially hard. The design of new courses nearly ground to a halt around the world. Most of those SA projects were abandoned.

Some were further advanced than others, residential phases having been launched. Nondela was one of them. It was the KwaZulu-Natal “twin” of Highland Gate in Mpumalanga, both courses by Ernie Els Design, marrying majestic mountain settings with second-home lifestyle destinations.

Nondela is in the Central Drakensberg, 340 kilometres from Gauteng.

Out of curiosity I take the turnoff to Nondela and cruise along a smooth, pothole-free tar road for five kilometres before arriving at a grandiose security entrance, fronted by attractive landscaping. I wasn’t expecting much sign of life, let alone gain access. However, the entrance area was a hive of activity, and a security person greeted me at the barrier. A few minutes later I was being ushered into a back office, and hearing that Nondela was back to being a live, breathing project.

Ernie Els and his American designer Greg Letsche, plus the course construction crew, had completed their work at Nondela by 2008. The course was growing in and due to open for play in 2009. But with the global economy in turmoil, and limited prospect of selling homes in a remote Drakensberg location, the property was mothballed by its developers.

Investec, WBHO and Moti property group were the main investors of what was reported to have been a R600-million project, incorporating a boutique hotel, conference facility, golf academy, spa and wellness centre. All sectional title stands had been sold. Security measures were said to include 24-hour horseback patrols.

Towering presence: The entrance gate to the Nondela estate.

Time has stood still at Nondela for 15 years. A dozen houses were built before the closure, but never lived in. And no one has played a round of golf. I was taken in a car to view the 18th hole, the green set in a beautiful valley with a waterfall said to be a feature in the wet season. The clubhouse was to have been built on a hillside overlooking it.

The estate roads have been laid out, cart paths built. The fairways were naturally brown for the time of year, but well covered. The bent grass greens provided a contrast in colour, closely mown and in good condition. There is a greenkeeper and maintenance team on site. The bunkers are empty holes, sand having never been added. Near the first tee we pass a vast driving range stretching hundreds of metres. Due to the course’s location in a narrow valley, the routing is different from Highland Gate, being an out-and-back layout, rather than the front nine returning to the clubhouse.

My visit turns out to have been a timely one. The estate is owned by the Moti Group, which has its head office in Sandton, Gauteng, and their project manager, Michael Langlois, informed me that the rehabilitation of the golf course began this year. “By the end of 2024 we hope to have the course in top shape,” he said. “But it won’t be open to the public. While we do have private proposed projects being started nothing publicly has been approved.”

So, no golfers will be playing there soon, other than invited guests. But all the signs are pointing to a future golfing destination in the Berg. It is 68 kilometres from Champagne Sports Resort.

Nondela’s 18th hole sits in a beautiful valley, framed by bushveld trees.

ERNIE ELS DESIGN COURSES WORLDWIDE

South Africa: Oubaai (2005), The Els Club Copperleaf (2007),
Highland Gate (2011)

Mauritius: Anahita (2008)

UAE: The Els Club Dubai (2008)

Malaysia: The Els Club Teluk, Langkawi (2014);
The Els Club Desaru Coast (2016)

USA: Hoakalei, Hawaii; Whiskey Creek, Maryland

Bahamas: Albany (2010)

China: Mission Hills Savannah

UK: Wentworth West (redesign 2010)

Three new Els Clubs are under development in Texas, Florida and Portugal. Plus projects in Mexico, Dominican Republic, Indonesia, Cambodia, Saudi Arabia, Croatia and Egypt.

ERNIE’S WENTWORTH IS CELEBRATED

The most famous course in the Ernie Els Design portfolio is the West Course at Wentworth near London, for 43 years the setting for the World Matchplay Championship, and for the last 40 years what is now the BMW PGA Championship.

Els, a 7-time winner of the Matchplay (1994-2007), was commissioned in 2009 by then Wentworth owner Richard Caring to transform a much-loved but old-fashioned Harry Colt heathland design known as Burma Road into something more in keeping with how tournament golf had evolved in the 21st century.

Work on the rebuild of all 18 greens began in 2009. The course was closed for a year. The new West was unveiled for the May 2010 BMW PGA Championship, flagship event of the European Tour, now DP World Tour.

Els played in the 2010 PGA and no course architect has possibly faced in person the critical reviews and abuse he received that week and subsequent 2011 event from several prominent British players, notably Ian Poulter, Lee Westwood and Paul Casey. “They have turned it into an American course,” moaned one. “The fun of the last few holes has been taken away,” said another. “It has been stripped of its character.”

The tour pros were particularly scathing about Ernie’s redesign of the par-5 18th hole, with its wide burn fronting the edge of the green which added a high element of danger to what had previously been a routine birdie opportunity. The burn was said to be Caring’s idea, and Ernie evidently not initially in favour of it. Some thought it karma when Els, in the first round of the PGA, went for the green in two and failed to clear the burn.

Looking back 13 years later, Ernie’s renovation work has been justified and proven to have been the best thing that could have happened to the West Course. After further design tweaks it has become one of the finest championship layouts, fraught with danger, yet packed with birdie opportunities. The BMW PGA might even have moved away to another venue had the course remained unchanged. The much-maligned 18th has become compelling viewing for galleries and TV audience, and witnessed wonderfully exciting finishes over the years due to its risk-reward element.

Lido Lake is a spectacular almost-completed Ernie Els Design at Bogor in Indonesia.
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