There are a handful of golf courses in South Africa which have long had a mystique about them, either because of their exclusivity or their remoteness. Sishen Golf Club’s distant locality in the Northern Cape makes it one of those places where only a small percentage of SA golfers have ventured.
I first heard about this exceptional golf course (ranked No 21) in the mid-1980s through David Frost, who married a Kathu girl and won a few amateur tournaments at Sishen while dating her. Then Ben Fouchee, who came from Sishen, won the SA Amateur at Glendower in 1987. For such a small town the club has produced a number of excellent golfers over the years. The nature of this course develops a wide array of shot-making skills.
In December 1989 a friend, Keith Simpson, and I drove from Port Elizabeth to Sun City for the Million Dollar Challenge, via Kathu through the great breadth of the Karoo.
We discovered a magical oasis of a town in one of the most arid and ugly landscapes. And a remarkable golf course camouflaged within an historic kameeldoring forest. Ben Fouchee’s father Jan gave us a braai with the finest lamb chops and the coldest beers. We remember the occasion to this day.
I reached Sishen on the Friday evening of the first week of my road trip. The town has grown prosperous due to the mining industry in the area, and there’s a large mall at the entrance.
A residential estate now surrounds the golf course, and I stayed in the Mongoose B&B on the first fairway, owned by club members, which I highly recommend for visitors. It’s a short walk from the clubhouse. Having houses on a unique course like Sishen seems like sacrilege, yet the development has been tastefully done in all respects, much like that at Leopard Creek. Most of the houses lie outside the perimeter of the course, and those few among the holes are discreetly hidden away. The architecture blends in with the surroundings. The development offers a tranquil lifestyle for residents.
I rate Sishen among the best 50 courses I have played around the planet. It could be in a world top 100. First of all there is the forest and the beautiful trees which frame every hole. The walk alone is special. It’s as flat as a pancake, and there are no views, yet the bushveld aesthetics are magnificent. And this part of Africa enjoys glorious sunsets.
Bob Grimsdell’s strength as a designer was in his routing and wonderful balance of holes. At Sishen he also created more characterful greens complexes than he was known for. So you have a golf course of infinite variety, holes continually switching direction, built within this fabulous forest. The closing holes on each nine are possibly the weakest, only because the others are so good. Yet there is a superb water feature which encloses the greens of both No 9 and 18 and can add drama to the climax of a round. The only other water hazard on the course is a large one fronting the green at the par-5 sixth.
The kameeldoring trees are known as “sky bunkers” and you have to play strategically to avoid them. They are impenetrable and solid. Some of my wayward shots would rebound fair distances, usually back towards me. It’s a course where you can be in plenty of trouble, yet it’s eminently playable for everyone. (The kameeldoring trees that die or are damaged by lightning strikes are left undisturbed. None can be chopped down or removed.)
Sishen’s conditioning did slide backwards during a recent drought, but the greens were upgraded with a new strain of bent grass in late 2018. Having settled they are now outstanding, firm and true. The work was done by Southern Turf Management and on the strength of that STM secured the maintenance contract. I was also impressed with the consistency of the bunker sand.
I didn’t set foot outside the estate for the three days I was there. I had to leave on the Monday, as the golf club and guest houses were welcoming hundreds of visitors for the annual Kalahari Challenge, a four-day social event for 220 competitors. They will have experienced the same wonderful hospitality I enjoyed.
A highlight was a braai in front of the clubhouse after golf on the Saturday evening. There’s a row of permanent structures under the trees, and golf director Theunis Spangenberg, a Kathu local who had a successful career on the Sunshine Tour, took charge of the fire. The local wood (not kameeldoring) made excellent coals. The meat was from the Angus butchery in Kuruman, a round trip of 90 kilometres from Kathu, and well worth the drive too.
The Kalahari Country Club, which includes the golf club, is an important hub for the local community. Interestingly there was a Save The Sheep charity golf day in February where R55 000 was raised for farmers in Olifantshoek suffering in the drought.
Sishen is a long way from the major centres, yet it’s a journey worth taking. You will always remember it and long to return.