As the helicopter climbs sharply, you see Africa spread out below you, literally and figuratively. Giraffe are tall enough to stand out, even from this height, and the landscape is a tapestry consisting of thick stands of forest, open grasslands, and the manicured fairways and greens of Legend Golf & Safari Resort. But most of all, you see the world's most unusual par-3, its huge green shaped as a perfect outline of the African Continent.
Today, the pin placement is benign, right around the centrally located spot where you'd find Victoria Falls, one of the modern Seven Wonders of the World. "That's one of the easier placements," remarks Pete Richardson, Legend's director of golf, his voice crackling through our headphones. "You don't want to play it when the hole is near the Ivory Coast." Before boarding the helicopter, we got the usual safety briefing with one odd twist—the pilot double checked to make sure all of us had our clubs.
We are on our way to play the world's highest and longest par-3, and the only one that requires a flight to reach the tee box. Dubbed "Extreme 19," it has a single tee perched on the edge of a cliff near the summit of Hanglip Mountain, 1,300 feet above the Africa-shaped green below. The 10-minute drive from the golf clubhouse to the jungle helipad is a mini-safari of its own, with views of zebras, sable and even the occasional leopard. The package to play the 19th is an add-on to the regular green fees, but just about every visitor does it because, like most things in South Africa, it is spectacular. (It's also a bargain, less than $150 a head, including flight, pro and forecaddie). We bring only drivers, as this par-3 stretches 400 yards. Thanks to the elevation—a drop about equal to the height of the Empire State Building—you need only drive it about 235 to put it in play, and 260 to hit the green. Anyone who can manage to make par on their first ball (you get six tries) gets the experience for free and has their name added to an honor roll begun by three-time major winner Pádraig Harrington, the first to make a three. The $1 million jackpot for first hole-in-one remains unclaimed.
If you decide to go on an African safari, you have lots of tough decisions to make, because opportunities are vast and varied. However, if you decide to go on an African golf trip, there is only one reasonable choice—South Africa. The wildlife is certainly the country's calling card, but even if you never set foot in a Land Rover for a game drive, the golf alone is worthwhile and world-class. After the United States, the British Isles, Australia and Japan, it vies with France as the world's next premier golf destination, home to more than 500 courses—more than Ireland, Spain or even China. Many of them are standout spots, and there is a litany of top-tier luxury resorts, hotels and game lodges unrivalled anywhere in the world. Four courses here make either Golf or Golf Digest's World Top 100. South Africa also has amazing wine country, beautiful beaches, luxury trains, incredible food, unique culture and one of the world's greatest tourism cities, Cape Town. With inexpensive internal flights, and the rand, its currency, at near-historic lows compared to the U.S. dollar, it is also one huge bargain, whatever your budget or style.
"Playing in South Africa is an extra special experience," says golf-centric luxury travel agent Chad Clark, of Chad Clark Travel Ventures in Phoenix. "Not only are you able to play top-rated courses, but combine the African sun, the wildlife and the coastal views, and you'll quickly see why it is one of the world's greatest golf destinations."
"You don't need to fly 17 hours to play golf," says Lloyd Martindale, general manager of golf operations at Fancourt, South Africa's top resort. "But there is no other place you can play great golf with the kind of wildlife we have."
Some courses in South Africa are wilder than others, and you certainly will not see giraffe, zebra and hippo everyplace you tee it up, but wildlife is pervasive. The chances are good that you will glimpse monkeys, birds and antelope such as impala pretty much wherever you go.
With a lot of coastline, and every imaginable inland terrain, from vineyards to mountains to desert, South Africa accordingly has every kind of golf. But a few things are common to every course in the country, things that are unique among the world's top golf nations. First, no course is so private that it is more than minor hassle to get on. Second, even the very best golf, along with similar quality food, drink and lodging, is relatively inexpensive, with greens fees averaging $120 (or less) at top-tier courses. Third, everyone you encounter on and off the courses is almost unfailingly friendly, and there's a huge sense of welcome wherever you go. Fourth, and most odd, is the local insistence on a full meal between nines, a lunch known as "Halfway House" that is never skipped, even if it falls well outside lunchtime.
"Americans can come here, play all the best courses, live like kings, and feel like it cost nothing," says Richardson of Legend. "The only golf club in the whole country that is remotely difficult to get on is Leopard Creek, and still, any top tour operator can do that."
There are two main ways to plan a golf trip to South Africa. Avid golfers or course collectors can move around and cherry pick the nation's top-rated courses, which are geographically diverse, while those seeking a more varied South African golf vacation with other sights will want to focus more on a few key areas that also allow access to other top attractions. So while Durban offers the nation's best urban golf, Cape Town is its most alluring city, and has more than satisfactory golf offerings close by. Which one you visit depends on your priority: the very best golf or the very best vacation experience. Fortunately you do not have to make many of these compromises, as the nation's true must-visit golf resort, Fancourt, is centrally located and easily accessed, and the most seemingly remote pilgrimage course, Leopard Creek, ties in beautifully with what is far and away the country's top safari destination, Kruger National Park, and its surrounding bevy of ultra-luxury private reserve game lodges.
Thanks to its dramatic setting abutting Kruger National Park, this is the best-known course in the country after the Links at Fancourt, and it hosted the European Tour's 2016 kickoff event, the Alfred Dunhill Championship. It is also the most expensive and difficult to arrange a tee time on. Nine-time major winner and South African Gary Player, the only non-American golfer to manage a career Grand Slam, has designed more than 300 courses worldwide in the past 30 years, but this is arguably his best. For five straight years Golf Digest South Africa rated it the nation's No. 1, and also gave it tops for conditioning, while most impressively, London's Telegraph rated it the fourth best course on earth. It has what is easily the fanciest clubhouse in the nation, GPS-equipped carts, high-end rental clubs, and its unique and memorable signature, different large bronze leopard statues at every tee, which, when taken in sequence, represent a day in the animal's life.
The manicured course starts slowly with wide, tree-lined fairways, helping golfers who have traveled a long way get their rhythm, and then really hits its stride on the fifth hole, after which it just keeps getting better and better—the front closes strongly with a par-4 to a peninsula green from which you might see crocodiles in the water. The front nine has a parkland feel, carved beautifully from open land, while the back side is wilder, following the contours of the untamed river, all that separates the course from world-famous Kruger National Park. The signature hole, 13, is a 520-yard par-5 that plays down to a green complex set dramatically at the edge of the river, and while approaching or putting you can often see hippos, and in many cases elephants on the other side of the water. Player keeps the drama and eye candy building right to the end, finishing with another stunning par-5 featuring an island green. Despite its impeccable and award-winning grooming, one big allure of Leopard Creek is that Player carved the course from the wilderness, and managed to retain an ambiance of someplace that feels truly wild.
There is no better combination of great golf, great lodging and great wildlife viewing on earth than Leopard Creek. The club has partnered with 15 prominent safari lodges in and around Kruger, including the most luxurious and world-renown dream destinations (Royal Malewane, Singita, Londolozi) to offer guests golf privileges here. As a result, a day at Leopard Creek is no ordinary round of great golf: the most typical way to play Leopard Creek is during a stay at one of these luxe lodges, and while some guests charter helicopters, most have a ranger drive them to the course through the National Park and private wildlife reserves in game vehicles, with an extensive safari opportunity in both directions, for a unique golf day unlike any in the world. Leopard Creek also works with tour operators and will entertain direct requests from members of top-rated private clubs.
Rating: B to A+ (multiple courses)
This is the Pebble Beach of South Africa, the most storied and full-service luxury golf resort in the land, with the nation's most desirable course and two other very good ones. The resort famously hosted the Presidents Cup, and the lodging built for the event, villas for the pro golfing guests, are now available to everyone. There's a lavish spa, full golf academy, four-hole practice course (pars 3, 4 and 5), extensive kids' facilities, pools, shops, several bars and restaurants, but most of all there is the Links at Fancourt (A+), which vies only with Leopard Creek as Gary Player's top design in the world. It is an inland links in the mold of the Kings and Queens courses at Glen deagles, Scotland, or the Straits course at Wisconsin's Whistling Straits, but better than all those—it is quite simply the best links course in the world that is not on the water. Fancourt is in George, which has a convenient airport and sits on the 250-mile Garden Route, a famous scenic drive along the coast of the Western Cape that is in turn one of South Africa's biggest tourist attractions. Within easy striking distance of the resort are safari game lodges, coastal cruises and whale watching, and numerous wineries. There are also several more notable golf courses nearby, all rated in the country's Top 30, including St. Francis Bay (B+), a Jack Nicklaus Signature course; dramatic Pinnacle Point (B+), a breathtaking though convoluted peninsular course similar to New Zealand's Cape Kidnappers; Oobai (B), a coastal Ernie Els design famed for its island green par-3 set against the Indian Ocean; Pezula, a beautiful coastal modern links that was named Best New Course in the country when it opened in 2001; and the venerable George Golf Club (B), known locally as "The Old Course" after nearly eight decades of play.
On the first tee of the Links, a starter takes your lunch order to be enjoyed at the halfway house (you won't return to this spot until 18), you greet your caddie, and start the round with a ceremonial toast of whisky from a crystal decanter. The walking-only layout is the sole certified Audubon Sanctuary in the country, complete with resident mongoose and caracal, a rare small member of the big cat family. Because the kind of turf that lines the walls of Scottish pot bunkers doesn't exist here, Player used revetted walls made with shaped tubes of sand stacked on top of one another, making a stunning visual when viewed from the tee box. These memorable hybrid pot/fairway bunkers are everywhere, the course's defining characteristic, and while very scary are also surprisingly playable. The signature hole, 15, wraps around a lake and has gorgeous bunkering bleeding right into the water. It is the top-rated course in the country by South Africa's Golf Digest, and justifiably so. "Three years ago we had this group of American golfers come, they had booked to play all these other courses around, but they played the Links their first day, then canceled everything and just played it four more days in a row," says Martindale.
Fancourt has two other courses. The Montagu (A-), ranked sixth in South Africa, was extensively redesigned eight years ago by David McLay Kidd of Bandon Dunes and the Castle Course at St Andrews fame, and is an excellent parkland course, very playable, impeccably maintained, extensively planted with flowers, and built around several water hazards—in short, it's the Augusta of South Africa, with very strong par-3s and a dramatic par-5 finishing hole over water. The Outeniqua (B) is designed and promoted as an easier to play "introductory" golf experience, but it is a legitimate 18-hole course ranked in the Top 20 in the country.
Durban Country Club & Zimbali Golf Club
Rating: B to A (multiple courses)
While Durban Country Club (A) is generally considered the nation's second or third best course—and it's better than ever after recent renovations—this gem is often overlooked simply because Durban itself is often overlooked. From the coastal setting to the dunes to the social clubhouse, its walls lined with lists of past champions, DCC evokes the most Scottish feel in the country, and has a rich history: opened in 1922, it has hosted the South African Open 17 times, more than any other course. Gary Player won his first (and seventh) Open here, while Ernie Els won his third (and fifth). The signature hole is the risk/reward drivable par-4 18th, and one foursome memorably closed by making scores of one, two, three and four, something that has likely never occurred in any other round of golf ever played. Its rolling seaside dunes are covered with thick tropical vegetation, unusual for a links-style layout, and with swirling winds and pot bunkers, hitting fairways is essential. The city has enveloped the course over decades, so you hear revelers on the beach and a busy motorway during a round, and since the 2010 Soccer World Cup, several holes have prominent views of the architecturally impressive Moses Mabhida Stadium, which hosted the finals. In the 1990s, DCC took over the adjacent Beachwood (B) golf course, now its second 18, ranked in the nation's Top 30. This hidden gem is overshadowed by its big sibling, but is more of true links, on the coast, and uniquely situated at the end of a small airport with planes landing and taking off almost directly overhead. It's worth playing after or before the main event if you have the time for 36.
The Fairmont's Zimbali (B+) is one of the few top courses in South Africa designed by an American other than Jack Nicklaus-British Open and South African PGA Champ Tom Weiskopf. A hilly course set just inland, Zimbali is carved through really thick African bush, but its elevation offers some exceptional views of the Indian Ocean. Designed more like a private club than resort course, it has lots of elevation change, a fair amount of water, more than a few blind shots and enough natural real estate where you can rarely see another hole from the one you are playing, for a nice escapist feel. It's an upscale, well-maintained facility, and conveniently within the grounds of the deluxe Fairmont Zimbali resort. While this is an easy turnkey choice for golfers visiting Durban, it is worth noting that the city's finest lodging choice is the Oyster Box, a world-renowned gourmand boutique beach resort where the Princess of Monaco held her wedding reception.
Legend Golf & Safari Resort
This is a one-of-a kind property. In addition to the helicopter Extreme 19 par-3, it also is the only course on earth designed by 18 different legendary professional golfers, representing 16 countries. The design is excellent but the maintenance not up to snuff. It's the rare golf resort that is also a full-blown safari property with its own on-site game drives and the most desirable animals, including rhino, lions, elephants, giraffes, zebras and leopards. There are guided bush walks, hot-air ballooning, stargazing and more, with rooms laid out in cottages across the vast property. Legend is located within the vast Entabeni Game Reserve in Limpopo, South Africa's northernmost province, a 35-minute flight or easy 2 1/2-hour drive north of Johannesburg.
Cape Town & Wine Country
Rating: B to A- (multiple courses)
Sandwiched between Table Mountain and the coast, with a gorgeous peninsula drive to the south, an infamous former island penitentiary turned top tourist site in its harbor, and the nation's premier wine regions just inland, the comparisons between Cape Town and San Francisco are obvious, except Cape Town has much better weather and beautiful beaches. Most first-time visitors consider a stay here de rigueur, and while it is entirely possible to visit the two major wine towns, South Africa's Napa and Sonoma, Franschhoek and Stellenbosch, for the day, many find it preferable to overnight in the vineyards, home to many luxury resorts. The same goes for golf: Cape Town's best courses are sufficiently far from town (90 minutes) to bring overnighting into consideration, though the city's nighttime charms are many.
The top Cape Town area course is Arabella (A-), set at the foot of the impressive Kogelberg Mountains and overlooking a lagoon so vast it appears ocean-like. On just about everyone's Top 10 list for the country, it is part of a full-service luxury resort, the Arabella Hotel & Spa. The other top area pick is the Nicklaus Signature Pearl Valley (B+), which has hosted the South African Open three times and was inaugurated with a friendly match between the Golden Bear and longtime friend Gary Player. A parkland course with an imposing amount of water hazards set in a valley beneath the Drakenstein Mountains, it too makes most national Top 10 lists and is also part of an eponymous luxury wine country resort. A third self-contained resort of note is Steenberg (B), closest to the city (just 30 minutes) and the most wine-centric, with an onsite tasting room and several fairways flanked immediately by grapevines. While less highly ranked, it is a fun and good-looking course with a memorable peninsula- style island green hole, towering mountain panoramas, and a welcoming joviality that extends to the gracious resort and fine dining eatery.
Other top area choices include Erinvale (B) and Royal Cape (B), the nation's oldest club since 1885. Ebrahim "Ozzie" Osman, a licensed South Africa tour operator, runs Ozzie's Golf Guide, specializing in day play around the city, complete with transfers, rental clubs and introductions to playing with members, perfect for business travelers or vacationers looking to sneak in one round. Ozzie says, "We've got 26 golf clubs around the city, and 10 are within six miles." Within Cape Town, the top hotel choices are the downtown Taj, the waterfront One & Only and the boutique suburban Ellerman House, a sort of combination luxury resort and art museum.
Rating: B to A- (multiple courses)
Many top travel agents shy away from Sun City in favor of more luxurious resorts because it has an artificial, Disney-esque feel, similar to the Atlantis resort in the Bahamas, including a vast waterpark. But it does offer a casino and turnkey convenience with four hotels, tons of restaurants and bars, extensive outdoor activities, two nearby safari reserves with game drives and two notable golf courses. The walking-only Gary Player Country Club (A-) is one of the nation's very best, on par with Leopard Creek, and hosts the annual Nedbank Challenge, a big tournament. At nearly 8,000 yards it is one of the longer courses in the world, and the parkland design setup offers panoramic mountain views, lots of water and very good conditioning. The Lost City course (B), also by Player, is more-resort style, allows carts and has more varied terrain, with elevation changes and desert stretches. Its signature is a truly hazardous water hazard on 13—it's home to Nile crocodiles.
"I've always loved The Lost City Golf Course, and with it being the venue for our charity tournament that has done so much good over the years," says Player. Like Legend, Sun City is a 2 1/2-hour drive from Johannesburg, but there is no flying option.
Stetyn City, Johannesburg
Because it is the sole nonstop gateway from North America, most U.S. visitors arrive via Johannesburg, giving them a big time savings over changing in Europe. While it is neither the golf nor tourism attraction that Cape Town is, it does boast the Cradle of Mankind, a World Heritage Site that has yielded some of the most important discoveries in the study of human evolution, and is one of the nation's most popular attractions. Stetyn City is a new upscale suburban mixed-use residential community anchored by a top-flight golf course that opened in 2015, and is the top choice in the area. Another Nicklaus design, this is an American-style course with the highest maintenance standards, lots of rock-strewn streams and waterfalls, reminiscent of Las Vegas gem Shadow Creek, with first-rate clubhouse and amenities all around. It makes an especially comfortable welcome into South African golf for playing on day of arrival. The course is conveniently owned by the developer of the Saxon Hotel, the city's finest, complete with butlers, in the posh Sandhurst suburb, and the Saxon makes transfers and tee times easy for its guests, who have included President Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, Sir Paul McCartney and the late Nelson Mandela, who stayed in the presidential suite (which now bears his name) long enough to write his entire memoir.
Larry Olmsted is a Cigar Aficionado contributing editor.