An exciting project in Mpumalanga is the upgrade by Mark Wiltshire Golf of the unique 9-hole course and clubhouse at Skukuza Golf Club within the Kruger National Park. The new clubhouse is already in use, and the new greens will open on February 17.
The project has been financed by Indalo Hotels and Leisure, a third-party hotel operator, and the club’s new name is Indalo Wiltshire GC of Skukuza. It will take on a higher profile and actively seek more visitors.
Skukuza, which proclaims itself “The Wildest Course in the World,” occupies one of planet golf’s more unusual locations, unfenced inside the Skukuza village and rest camp, meaning a broad range of wild animal species roam the fairways.
Hippos and crocodiles reside in the waters of Lake Panic, a prominent feature around which the opening holes play. Fish eagles roam the sky and perch on the limbs of skeletal dead trees. Golfers teeing up on the first hole on the edge of the water are often conscious of submerged hippo watching them swing.
The final hole is a par 3 over the water to a green in front of the clubhouse. The dam acquired its unusual name soon after being excavated. A torrential storm saw it fill up so rapidly that park staff were convinced the dam wall would burst, but somehow it remained intact.
The golf club celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2021. The nine holes were built in the early 1970s to exclusively serve Park employees, and it was their private sanctuary for three decades, the only visitors being guests of members. A festival week was initiated in 1979. While Mbombela Golf Club has its famous Jock of the Bushveld tournament, Skukuza call theirs the Joke of the Bushveld!
Finally, in 1999, the club committee and SANParks agreed to open the course to the public. Today it has a wide-ranging membership.
Stories spread about sightings of lions and leopards, and it wasn’t long before international golf magazines began to include it in lists of the world’s most dangerous courses to play, due to the potential threat of golfers being attacked by a predator on its lonely fairways.
Yes, there were incidents and close calls. Golfers having to hotfoot it back to the clubhouse. However, while it has never been advisable for anyone to play at quiet times, the only kills on the course have usually been those of buck or warthog. The only person known to have died on the property was a young man, Jacques van der Sandt, who was waist-deep in Lake Panic trying to retrieve golf balls when he was taken by a crocodile in 2014.
First-time visitors to Skukuza can be excused for any apprehension they might feel setting off from the first tee. You’re in the middle of the bush and who knows what to expect. Miss the fairway and your ball is in rough sandy terrain. Venturing anywhere close to the reeds in the dam seems risky.
It’s an interesting and remarkably conventional layout, playing to a total distance of 5 830 metres from the back tees, framed by numerous large bushveld trees, strategically situated to block shots to the green if you’re out of position. Without any bunkers – a deliberate decision to discourage burrowing animals – the trees are the main hazards.
Former Sunshine Tour player Phil Simmons, golf director at Gowrie Farm in the KZN Midlands, holds the Skukuza course record of 64, sharing it with the late Wayne Westner. “I visited Skukuza often in the 1980s, accompanying groups of golfers from my old club Germiston. We had fun. I had the 64 in the Joke of the Bushveld event. I remember back then we finished the round on what is now the par-4 seventh hole, at the kindergarten school. It was a sharp dogleg from left to right and I drove the green.
“Many of the Sunshine Tour players from that era played at Skukuza, usually at the same time as the old Palabora Classic at Hans Merensky.”
Not surprisingly considering the hot climate and habits of the animals – herds of elephant have been seen crossing through the course – it has always suffered from indifferent conditioning. The greens were particularly poor on my last visit.
However, that will no longer be the case. In August and September 2022 the greens were reshaped by Mark Wiltshire Golf and replanted with Royal Blue cynodon grass. Electric fencing has had to be erected temporarily around the greens to deter animals from running over them. Mowing of the greens began in the first week of November.
A new eco-friendly automatic irrigation system has been installed to replace the old one as part of the upgrade, although it hasn’t always been necessary to use it thanks to good rains in the Park from the beginning of summer.
The course opens with a short par 4 and par 3, then come three long holes which are well designed and alternate between par 5s and par 4s depending which tee you use on each nine. Three medium par 4s follow, and there’s a hint of suburbia at the seventh green when you encounter the local creche.
The old thatch-roofed clubhouse was gutted, rebuilt, and re-opened on December 10. It has an excellent restaurant, staying open into the evening for the first time.
“Indalo has a 20-year lease on the property with SANParks,” said Indalo Hotels CEO Andrew Rogers, “and day visitors to Skukuza will be able to play golf in the afternoon, enjoy a meal afterwards, and be able to use a Late gate pass to exit through the Kruger Gate.”
The club has acquired a fleet of 30 new golf carts with lithium batteries and GPS.