The COVID 19 lockdown has been a very trying time for business and social life throughout the world.
All sporting codes have suffered from frustration and inactivity, so when the opportunity presented itself, yours truly, decided to break the shackles, and set out on a golf tour within the Eastern Cape, East London, South Africa.
We set out early on Monday morning and traveled by road via the beautiful scenic coastal route that crosses over eight rivers. Most of the rivers are tidal and navigable upstream for about fifteen kilometers.
The established resorts on these rivers are very popular holiday destinations and offer all categories of accommodation.
On arrival in East London, which also boasts the only river port in South Africa, we set out to play the East London Golf Club Course.
The course is centrally situated and carved out of the dune and sea bush on the coast. Although not a links course it has that feel about it and the views of the sea are nothing short of spectacular.
Tame antelope, buck in our language, have been added to the course, and being close to these beautiful animals, adds to the experience.
The total length of the course is 5960 meters and is relatively short by modern-day standards, with a par rating of 73. The card shows four par- 5s and three par- 3s to go with very interesting risk and reward par- 4s.
The front and back nine holes are practically equidistant measuring 2981 and 2979 meters respectively. The main difference is the front nine is much tighter.
Having stated the above, the course record was 68 until a few years back when one of the Pros played a tournament in ideal conditions and carded 63 (McKenzie).
Playing the course requires accuracy off the tee and precise approach shots to the strategically placed bunker protected greens.
The course’s greatest protection is the wind and fairly narrow undulating fairways. Trees and sloped lies will test the ability of most golfers.
If this sounds daunting to the average golfer, the bush has been cut back recently and the course is much more user friendly.
Depending on the tee box selection the course plays far easier from the forward markers.
The second hole is one of the feature holes and the tee box is fifty to sixty meters above the well-bunkered green. Adding to the deliberation about club selection is the out of bounds fence seven meters behind the green.
The length is 165 meters, but depending on the wind direction, the golfer can move from a nine iron (east wind) to a four iron (west wind).
The tee shot is over the bush with only the last thirty meters in front of the green giving some respite for an imperfect shot.
The tendency from visiting players is to under club.
The par-3 seventeenth hole is also worth a mention and is just 145 meters long, but protected by well-positioned bunkers.
The wind is either behind (westerly) or directly into the golfer (easterly) and depending on the velocity, the club selection from the raised tee box can vary from an eight to a three-iron.
In calm conditions, it is relatively straight forward.
Some local advice when playing this hole: Do not hook your tee shot or the ball will end up where the mowers go.
The back nine is more exposed to the elements and the semi-rough is very sandy.
The feature hole at East London golf course is the par- 4 twelfth. It is a slight dog-leg to the left and the fairway drops downhill off the tee box.
The second shot is to a raised green and mostly played from a downslope.
The wind tends to swirl at the green which makes for indecision on the shot.
Into a westerly wind, it becomes a monster, with only the longer hitting golfers capable of reaching the green in two shots.
Picture having to hit a three- wood, one, two, or three- iron off a downslope into the green and you understand the difficulty. It is stroke 4 on the card and making par is an accomplishment.
The hidden reward after completing this hole is the spectacular view from the back of the green.
It overlooks the white-sanded beach, blue water with breaking waves, and takes in the port and a section of the sea boulevard.
The sea is less than 200 meters below from this viewpoint.
I walk to this viewpoint every time I play this hole.
Most golf courses that are this close to the sea, invariably have an easy or tough wind, which influences the last few finishing holes.
East London is no different and into the easterly wind, the thirteenth, fourteenth fifteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth is a great challenge. Many medal rounds have disintegrated on this loop.
The eighteenth hole is played from the tee box to a raised fairway and the ball funnels into the “saddle” of the dog-leg to the left.
The second shot is a real test. A downhill lie, ball above or below your stance, into the green forty meters below. And of course, it is bunkered.
An added pressure is the hole runs in front of the majestic clubhouse and offers the members the opportunity to watch the action below.
Not all golfers are comfortable with this and over the years the “banter” has unnerved even the good players.
Note: I learned to play my golf on this golf course and achieved my lowest handicap of scratch and generally played off one, two, and three handicaps for many years.
I speak with authority when I say that this is a fantastic layout and a bucket list course in South Africa.
We completed our round by mid-afternoon and then proceeded to our accommodation at Crawfords Cabins, situated thirty kilometers from East London.
The entire area along the east coast of East London is saturated with seaside resorts and accommodation and joins the area called The Wild Coast (more about this later).
Our luxury rooms were one hundred and fifty meters from the shoreline and the vistas over Cintsa Bay and nearby resorts are stunning.
After an enjoyable English breakfast, we set off for our round at Olive Wood Private Estate and Golf Club, eight kilometers from our hotel.
The estate is relatively new and the forty two-bedroomed hotel and spa facilities were still closed, due to COVID -19 measures.
On our arrival, we were greeted by a herd of Impala antelope after entering the gated facility. They are beautiful animals and showed no concern for us at the time.
It is a common practice on many estates in South Africa to add various species of antelope that roam freely.
The course is crafted out of the natural terrain and bush and provides an interesting challenge to any golfer. The Cintsa River adds character to the lower valley holes, as it meanders through the course.
The selection of which tee box to commence your round, taking the wind and direction into account is important due to the long carries off certain tees.
The undulating layout and distance between the tee box and green require the use of a motorized golf cart.
The overall length is 6207 meters off the tips and reduces to 5682 meters from the white markers or club tee boxes.
The Par rating is 72.
The course has four par- 5s and four par- 3s. The par- 5s measure 500 meters on average from the tips but reduce by 50 meters off the white tee box.
All of them are challenging and a well-placed drive sets the tone for the rest of the hole.
The par- 3s elevation changes from tee box to green make them interesting.
The greens are fantastic and very fast, with undulations added to keep your nerves on edge.
The fairways are good but firm and offer plenty of roll on the shot. As they mature they will add distance and difficulty to the course.
We elected to play at 8:30 am in the morning due to the weather forecast prediction of a strong east wind, freshening as the day progressed.
The course is tough enough without the wind, so the decision was unanimous.
The opening par- 5 measures 476 meters from the white tee box, and is a risk and reward hole. The fairway slopes down towards a two-tiered green which is protected by water, bunkers, and a fairway hazard.
The third shot, after a decision to play short of the green for two, is tricky.
When the hole location is on the front edge, leaving the shot short of the green, puts you back in the water.
Leaving it long on the back of the green then requires a deft touch to roll the ball down the tier and stop it close to the hole.
Three of us took three putts to get the ball in the hole and our fourth player ended up scoring a seven.
The eighteenth is a magnificent par- 5, with a fairway that slopes from left to the right.
A good drive sets you up for an opportunity to attack the green with your second shot, but a bunker protects the left side of the landing area, which is also the shortest route to the green.
The green is long and narrow and still requires a precision shot whether it be the golfer’s second or third shot.
A feature of the course is the undulation changes as you move through the round.
Holes ten to fourteen take you down to the Cintsa River and standing on the top tee box looking down into the valley below is another spectacular sight.
The tenth hole is a tough par- 5 and the drop into the valley at least one hundred meters
Holes three, four, and twelve are the pick of the par- 4s on the course. They are not long but the challenge is to position your drive.
The wind did increase in velocity during the round, but we enjoyed the experience so much, that we opted to tackle the course again on the following day.
It would not do the area justice if we did not explore and take in the many other resorts in the vicinity.
Cifani and Cintsa West are within five kilometers of our hotel and both offer riverside and seaside accommodation. Chalets, camping sites, and rented homes are readily available at a very reasonable cost.
There are many others nearby, but we only managed the two, as we found a small pub overlooking the sea and spent time chatting to a few of the locals.
After breakfast, we bid farewell to our hotel and arrived at Olive Wood for our last round in East London.
Our second round on Wednesday morning, even with a testing breeze, proved most enjoyable.
Understanding the requirements from the tee box and a better feel for the greens makes the course a pleasure to play.
We had a small bet riding on all three games on this leg of the tour, and incredibly each game was decided on the eighteenth green.
I had struggled with my putting, but on the final par- 5, after a good drive, hit an iron for my second shot, to eight-foot from the hole, and made eagle.
This, however, did not win the hole as one of my opponents also hit the green for two shots, but I had to concede a stroke to him. He lipped out for his eagle putt and finished with a birdie.
All Square. Can it get any better than that?
Our return trip to Port Elizabeth took us through the beautiful coastal town of Port Alfred.
This is home to Royal Port Alfred Golf Club, another links type golf course, and is a favorite destination for the Port Elizabeth and East London golfing fraternity.
It is one hundred and fifty kilometers from both and clubs from each city meet here over weekends to challenge one another.
I play the course often and the accommodation and hospitality are first class.
The course is undulating and the holes running through the valley close to the sea present the golfer with some challenging sloping lies.
Pleasant experience and the wind keeps golfers honest.
Natural grass covers the fairways and greens, but the putting surface is generally very good.
The last few holes present a particular challenge if the golfer is walking his round.
The two steep uphill par- 4s, the fifteenth and seventeenth will test the golfer’s stamina and the final par- 5 finally brings you downhill to the clubhouse.
Port Alfred is a sort after retirement destination and has grown exponentially over the last fifteen years. People tired of the big city life, relocate here.
Ten years ago a marina was established on the Kowie River, which runs through the town.
One of the advantages of Port Alfred is a game of golf is always available with the many social societies within the club.
The golf club is financially sound due to the large influx of visitors over the holiday season. Occupancy more than trebles over these periods and in summer the first tee time is five am.
We had initially planned to play a round of golf here, but Olive Wood won the vote.
On Thursday morning we traveled west to another seaside hamlet, St Francis Bay, which is one hundred and twenty kilometers from Port Elizabeth.
This village has grown phenomenally over a few years and is possibly the best-kept secret in South Africa.
Unbelievably it hosts two golf courses within three kilometers of one another
The Bay Course is the eldest and was originally a nine-hole layout. A few years back they decided to develop the second nine on a piece of swampland and very close to the sea.
The course is always in immaculate condition and the greens exceptional.
The fairways are local grass and the greens are mainly “winter” grass. This species is very prevalent in the coastal areas but normally dies in the summer months.
St Francis Bay has developed a technique to keep the grass alive in summer and it provides a smooth putting surface and receptive greens.
The course is a firm favorite to all the golfers in the Port Elizabeth area and very user friendly.
The community and golf members are typical of a small town and will accommodate practically any request when associated with golf.
The Covid-19 rules are very strictly adhered to here in South Africa, and all golf courses use one starting tee.
On Thursday the weather forecast was not too favorable with a cold front and a gale-force wind expected in the late morning.
The fairways are narrow and the sea bush awaits any stray shots from the tee box.
The course is exposed to the wind and a few of the par- 4s on the front nine are unreachable for two shots into the wind.
As it turned out the wind did not arrive and we had a very pleasant golf day.
The length from the back tee boxes is 5647 meters and 5213 meters from the blue.
The par rating is 71 and this is made up of four par- 5s and five par- 3s.
The feature holes are the par-4 fifth and twelfth holes. Added to this the back to back par-5 sixth and seventh present a serious challenge to all golfers.
The par- 3 eighth hole, at one hundred and thirty meters is short but the carry is over water to the green.
A very pretty hole but always a relief to get the club selection right.
The day was enjoyable and the final green again featured in the outcome and R20 finally changed hands.
St Francis Links is a new development and the gated estate has slowly grown in stature. The upmarket homes blend into the course, without dominating the golf course.
The golf course itself is a tough layout and slight changes were implemented to enhance the playability for the average golfer.
More on St Francis Bay village
More and more people are relocating to the smaller towns throughout South Africa, and the Eastern Cape and surrounding areas present a safe and peaceful alternative to the large inland cities.
The sea is an attraction on its own, but when the quality and quantity of golf courses is taken into account, it is no wonder people are moving into these towns.
St Francis Bay is a holiday destination for many and the population increases fivefold during the season.
The golf courses are filled during this time and rounds become very slow.
A five am starting time is normal in December.
Our tour group traveled three hundred kilometers east to East London on Monday morning and started our round at 11.30 am.
After golf, we traveled another thirty kilometers further east to our outstanding accommodation at Crawfords Cabins.
We enjoyed the finest hospitality, service, and food imaginable right at the sea.
On Tuesday and Wednesday morning we played the spectacular Olive Wood golf course.
In our free time, the group toured and visited resorts and met with the locals.
We left East London and traveled west to St Francis Bay for our golf on Thursday morning.
Finally, we returned to Port Elizabeth on Thursday afternoon and the group vowed to repeat the tour before the year-end.
It would be remiss of me if I did not mention the wildlife parks with the Big Five that abound in the area we traveled.
These parks are malaria-free and also offer first-class accommodation.
One can play a round of golf in the morning and complete a game drive on the same day within five kilometers of the golf course.
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Nick Lomas is the founder of GolfSpan, an avid golfer, not quite a pro but has over 15-years of experience playing and coaching golfers from all over the world. His mission is to bring the golfing community a better experience then it comes to choosing the right golf gear, and finding the right set up for your game.