With the trend in modern golf course design in South Africa leaning towards links golf, parkland courses are these days being somewhat ignored. But the moment you step onto Fancourt’s Montagu course, the thrill of the classic tree-lined challenge comes rushing back, and all else is forgotten, writes Jason Mylroie.
Twenty years ago, South Africa’s golfing landscape changed significantly when the first golf estate on the Garden Route opened its gates, and laid down a marker against which all of the country’s golf estates are compared.
With 27 Gary Player-designed golf holes open, the story of Fancourt Hotel and Country Club Estate began. The name Fancourt is a tribute to Henry Fancourt White, a Yorkshire man who was responsible for the construction of the Montagu Pass, the road over the Outeniqua Mountains between George and Oudtshoorn.
The original 27 holes on the Fancourt Estate were made up of three nines – the East, West and South nines. But thanks to the rapid development of the resort since 1995, when it was acquired by current owners Hasso and Sabine Plattner, an additional nine holes were designed by Gary Player, and the 36 holes were then split into two courses – the Montagu and the Outeniqua.
And with the majority of its holes being taken from the original 27, the Montagu quickly took the title of the premier course on the estate.
No fewer than 650 mature trees were also uprooted from a harvesting forest in Ceres and transported by truck to Fancourt where they were established on the two courses. This immediately gave the layouts a mature look and feel.
Over the next few years, during the construction of The Links and Bramble Hill golf courses, the Montagu went from strength to strength and in 2000 was voted as the best-conditioned course in the country by Compleat Golfer.
Once opened, The Links at Fancourt took centre-stage and became the course to play while staying at the resort. The Montagu maintained its high standards, but seemed to lose a lot of attention from the public eye.
So, in an attempt to restore the course to its former glory, Dr Plattner and his wife invested R20 million in a complete revamp of each hole on the course.
For this project, the reins were handed to Scotland’s David McLay Kidd, a leading course designer, who was also responsible for the creation of Bandon Dunes in the US. The reconstruction began in March 2004, and over the next 11 months, some 80 000 cubic metres of soil were moved around, with eight new water features being dug and 60 trees moved.
Suffice it to say that by the time the revamp was complete, Mr Player’s initial design was barely recognisable. The course had been lengthened by 350 metres and two new holes, the 1st and 9th, were added to the original layout. The new 9th hole was, in fact, created on land snatched from the adjacent Bramble Hill course (which has since closed), while the new 1st is the old 9th hole played in reverse.
And with every bunker remodelled, every green made larger and each hole having five different tee-boxes, it can be said that the Montagu is once again the true challenge it used to be.
Starting with the new 1st hole, a 354m par four from the club tee, you are immediately tested with the opening tee shot.
A driver is not necessary, as you only need to clear or stay right of a bunker about 190m away.
Anything from a fairway wood to a long-iron should suffice and will leave you a mid-iron into the green. The bunker to the left of the green poses a threat to anyone who misses to that side, but is fairly easy to get out of.
The real danger on this hole is on the green, where the slopes can be rather tricky especially with the shadows cast across the surface from the surrounding trees. Par is a good score to start with.
The next three holes work their way down towards the large lake separating Montagu from The Links. All three holes offer good scoring opportunities provided you avoid the strategically-placed bunkers on the fairways and around the greens.
Take some extra time on the 4th green and marvel at the surroundings with the large lake in front of you and Dr Plattner’s spectacular house to the right.
The journey then starts back up towards the clubhouse with the relatively short, yet tricky, par-four 5th hole. Course management off the tee is a must, as the three fairway bunkers to the right wait for stray drives and can make the short-iron approach far more difficult. Rather hit a fairway wood off the tee and deal with the longer approach to the easy green. Enjoy your par or better here and prepare for a tough stretch home.
Par is a great score over the next four holes. The par-four 6th hole is the stroke 1 and lives up to it. A good drive up the hill leaves a lengthy second shot across water to a guarded green. Again, the emphasis here is on accuracy off the tee and avoiding the fairway bunkers!
The 7th hole is no easier. The dogleg left through a valley is fraught with danger and requires a good drive and accurate second shot to a narrow green. It is stroke 5, so par is always a great score.
The par-three 8th offers no respite. Measuring 170 metres to the middle of the green from the club tee, your shot needs to carry the entire way as a large pond guards the front edge of the green with only a small bail-out area to the left.
The new 9th hole has taken a fair bit of scrutiny from the golfing fraternity, mostly due to the fact that it is so long and cannot be reached in two unless you have reached the 300-metre mark from the tee. Anything less requires a short-iron lay-up and another mid- to short-iron approach, taking all of the danger out of the hole. Nevertheless, the hole is superb and makes for a thrilling end to the first nine.
A brief stop at the halfway house gives you a chance to think back on the last couple of hours, and you will quickly realise that there was not a leaf or stone out of place and all nine greens rolled perfectly and all at the same speed. This is parklands golf at its absolute best.
The back nine then showcases the original developments on the Fancourt estate, with views of the classic-styled houses on every hole.
The par five 10th offers a decent chance of reaching a par-five in two, but again requires some accurate hitting, even when laying up with the second shot as bunkers guard that landing area too.
The next six holes are all fairly straightforward, but do need to be handled with caution, as even landing in certain parts of the fairways will still leave a tough approach shot. You will be satisfied with pars on all these holes, except the par-four 16th, which can be reached in one mighty drive, or just a short wedge if you decide to play for position off the tee.
The signature hole on the Montagu is definitely the par-three 17th hole, which has many similarities to the 12th hole at Augusta National, home to the US Masters.
The carry is 30 metres longer than the American hole, but the green has similar slopes, with the bunker in the front of the green and the two at the back offering the same scary shots that we see the world’s best playing every April.
The par-five 18th then offers one last opportunity for birdie, and that chance becomes increasingly better with a straight drive up the rising fairway. If it’s long enough, you can even have a dip at the green in two, but anything short finds a watery grave. Once again, take time to enjoy the vista in front of you as this is undoubtedly one of the finest finishing holes in the country.
It can be said that any avid South African golfer should have Fancourt on his or her bucket list.
As one of the country’s grandest golfing estates, with plenty of accolades to back it up, Fancourt provides a world-class opportunity for players to get the feeling of what it’s like to play estate golf in other first-world countries across the globe.
There is no such thing as an easy bail-out area on the 170-metre par-three 8th hole. But the green is rather large and flat so don’t be afraid to fire at the pin.
Swap out the bushes behind the green of the par-three 17th hole for magnolias, and imagine yourself competing for the coveted Green Jacket.
Looking across the lake towards the 4th green and 5th tee-box, you get the true feeling of the parkland design, at the foot of the Outeniqua mountain range.
The unobtrusive clubhouse behind the 18th green of the Montagu melts into the surroundings and really offers a grandstand finish for the golfers.
?Every hole on the course is challenging, but still rewards good golf.
?The service is excellent and staff are friendly.
?The professionalism of the caddies really adds to the experience and will almost certainly shave shots off your game.
… and Dislikes
?It is unfortunate that the course is only affordable to hotel guests and guests of members. The R795 fee for a day visitor makes it rather difficult for average club golfers to enjoy this marvel.
Getting there – From the N2, take the George Airport turn-off. Drive past the airport, continue straight after the stop sign. The resort is a further five-minute drive on the right-hand side.
Course – Par 72, 6 324 metres
Designer – Gary Player/David McLay Kidd
General manager – Lloyd Martindale
Club professional – Neil Walsh Tucker
Course superintendent – Gerhard van Rooyen
Greenfees – R250 (member’s guest), R500 (hotel guest), R795 (day visitor). Caddies and carts excluded.
Contacts – Tel 044 804 0000
Email – firstname.lastname@example.org
Website – www.fancourt.co.za