Into the great wide open
There are more than 300 courses worldwide that carry the million-dollar signature of the best golfer ever and up until quite recently, Gauteng boasted just one – Pecanwood on Hartbeespoort Dam.
Little wonder then that when Jack Nicklaus hit the opening drive at the Masai Mara course on 19 June last year, Serengeti Golf and Wildlife Estate entered the Gauteng golfing stage to rapturous applause.
In its marketing material, the estate pegs itself as a ‘designer suburb’ and even a ‘new city’ in Gauteng. And to be sure, although imminently accessible, just 15 kilometres up the road from OR Tambo on the way to Pretoria, it is a fairly secluded piece of real estate, measuring a vast 780 hectares.
No, there are no migrating herds of buffalo on this particular Serengeti, but as the name implies, the estate has been designed with the intent that residents will feel as if they are at home in wide open, natural spaces with loads of room to breathe. At present, the developed areas seem to fit that bill and it will be interesting to see how the developers manage to bridge the gap between dream and reality as homes start springing up with the alacrity that one would expect on a primary residential estate such as this.
Towards the end of last year, the Compleat Golfer team and the country’s top PGA pros all had a first look at the course during the PGA National Champs. You don’t have to go much further than the impressive clubhouse balcony to see that Jack had a ball at the drawing board when he started plotting out the 27 holes that wind around the property.
We’re talking 280 hectares of indigenous grasses, rehabilitated wetlands, 20-odd kilometres of walking and horse-riding paths, a plethora of bokkies and birdlife – and a wonderful, gently undulating terrain that lends itself perfectly to just enough twists and turns to keep things interesting.
If you know Nicklaus courses, Serengeti will seem like an old friend. His turning-point theory is fully in play, so if you get it in the right spots off the tee, the holes open up perfectly and you know just what shot the Golden Bear is asking you to play.
Conversely, miss it to the wrong side and you could find yourself on the fairway, but a little confused. The landing areas are fairly generous – and much of the semi is cut short enough that you really have to hit a rank bad shot to lose a ball.
And the bunkering is typically ubiquitous – in this instance, Nicklaus has gone for a decidedly ‘free-form’ look and feel with large, jagged-edged traps in all the right places. It’s also worth noting that, in an age where ‘unique’ is a vital marketing tool, Serengeti can claim to be the first 27-hole Jack Nicklaus signature estate in SA.
The Masai Mara is the 18-hole course, characterised by rolling hills and a distinctive ‘dunescape’ feel, while the nine-holer, Whistling Thorn, is more classic in feel. I didn’t get to play it, but had a look at a few of the holes and it certainly seems to be in the same league as its big brother in terms of construction quality.
As for Masai Mara, there are three things that were instantly memorable. Firstly, the turf conditions. I can’t think of a better example of modern turfgrass technology than this track that has sprung up from nowhere into what appears to be an almost perfectly conditioned golf course.
The more technical golfer might notice the fairways are young and unsettled, meaning that it is difficult to take divots and play the attacking approach shots that are often required, but as time goes on, expect those surfaces to come into their own. It’s also worth noting that the exclusive use of winter turfgrass varieties at Serengeti is a first for the area, the intention being that as the Highveld frosts up and browns during the winter months, Serengeti will keep its supermodel looks.
Time will tell how successful this experiment is in the middle of the summer months when the grass will require half the Vaal Dam a day to keep it from expiring, but given the ‘signature’ nature of the development, they’ve clearly got a maintenance plan in place to satisfy both practical and environmental concerns.
The second ‘stand-out’ feature is the make-up of the nines – in particular, the combination of great short holes, challenging par fives and, in typical Jack fashion, a couple of serious risk-and-reward, drivable par fours in the 2nd (311m) and the 17th (304m) holes.
In a nutshell, whatever you might think of Masai Mara, ‘boring’ is not a word that comes to mind – and there’s a sense of a ‘signature experience’ encompassing all 18 holes rather than a number of ‘signature’ holes. If there is a Kodak moment, it’s probably the par-five 8th with its soon-to-be famous island green. Water down the right from tee to green, a narrowing fairway and an approach over soup to a fair-sized target makes for a true modern classic.
But it’s the third characteristic that will no doubt be the biggest talking point of Serengeti in the 19th: the putting surfaces. With more than 300 courses under his pencil, you’d expect Jack to try to mix things up a little as time goes on, and by all accounts, his latest theory on green contouring is that he wants a ‘bit of movement’ on the dance floor.
The result is not the waltz or ballet you’d expect from a classic parkland, nor the foxtrot or tango of a coastal track, but something rather more akin to a breakdance – at times, the Macarena. A decade ago, Danie Obermeyer was ridiculed for putting in half the buried buffalo and ski-slopes Jack has employed at Serengeti, which either means the 18-time Major winner has lost his marbles or Danie was a visionary! Either way, those greens will remain a talking point – and an exceptionally difficult challenge for the average player that can’t land it on a tickie from 120 metres out.
All in all then, a fascinating, tricky – yet playable – course with unique character, in superb condition and close enough to civilisation that you need not book a room for the night. Not a bad package – and we haven’t even got off the course yet.
The mammoth structure of the clubhouse looks like something out of Wallpaper magazine. It’s 6 500 square metres of clubhouse is home to several lounges, bars, two restaurants and banqueting facilities, as well as a pro shop and something that should become obligatory in every golf club in South Africa: a locker-room entrance that has a ‘free-draught-beer-while-we-clean-your-spikes’ policy. Yes please, I’ll have another…
For the rest, the balcony areas around the bars and restaurants stand out in particular, with awesome views out over the course – and adjacent to the clubhouse, there’s a driving range and academy that are truly world-class.
So although it’s early days for this superb new facility, it’s pretty obvious that the bells and whistles are all in place. My advice to Gauteng golfers: play it as soon as you can.
The par-five 16th is classic Nicklaus. At 561 metres, it takes two good hits to reach the green, but there’s always the option of laying up on the small strip of land between the hazards.
The signature hole? The island green of the 467-metre-long par-five 8th is arguably the most memorable approach on the entire course – and one of the more heart-stopping too!
At 175 metres off the club tee, the par-three 12th is no pushover. And there’s no better example on the course of Jack’s favoured ‘sprawling sandtrap’ design.
The par-four 10th at just 342 metres is just asking to be attacked by the longer hitter – then again, in typical Nicklaus fashion, there’s a lot of sand waiting for you if you don’t hit the perfect shot.
- Proximity to OR Tambo.
- Amazing views from the clubhouse balcony.
- The driving range – bent-grass tees!
- Occasional putting cups cut into par-three tee- boxes that run around nine on the stimp.
… and dislikes
- Proximity to OR Tambo.
- Some of the insane mounds on the greens.
- The clubhouse entry – clinical and hotel-like.
How to get there: From the R21, take the R25 Bronkhorstspruit offramp. Turn east towards the airport and follow the signs
Course: Masai Mara, 18 hole, par 72 Whistling Thorn, nine hole, par 36. Bent-grass tees and greens, fine fescue/rye fairways
Designer: Jack Nicklaus
Operations Director Ryan Reid
Directors of Golf: Dietrich Uys and Chris Bentley
Head Professional: Donald Boxshall-Smith
Greenfees: Affiliated R435/R395 Non-affiliated R575/R520 (halfway included)
Contact: Clubhouse: 011 552 7200 firstname.lastname@example.org