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South Africa

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Text by John Botha.

Source: This article was taken from the June 2011 issue of Compleat Golfer

Simola Golf and Country Estate is situated in what is unquestionably one of the most picturesque areas of the country, and the course, after an inauspicious beginning, has deservedly become a major golfing landmark on the Garden Route.

The par-three, stroke-nine 6th hole, measuring 199m from the championship tee, will punish any player who strays right, with the ball likely to roll down a steep embankment into some very thick rough.

I have an abiding memory of visiting the original farm where the Simola course would be built. At the invitation of the farm’s owner and project developer Ola Grinaker, a small group of us travelled up the rutted, slippery road to the property that would become home to the first Jack Nicklaus-designed course in South Africa. It was immediately clear that whatever the great man might come up with on this dramatic property, it was going to be rather special. The views of the Knysna River and the famous Heads from various vantage points were awe-inspiring, and although the construction of the course in the mountainous and heavily wooded terrain would present more than a few challenges (and indeed it would take 10 years before the course would be opened), it was certainly worth the wait.

I was privileged to walk the property with Nicklaus when he was putting the finishing touches on the original routing plans, and during subsequent visits I saw the course slowly take shape.

A major conundrum for the designer was not only dealing with the steep slopes, but the fact that the layout would be split by a ridge – a “hog’s back” as Nicklaus described it.

Ideally this would have separated the two nines, but as it worked out there was only space for seven ‘valley holes’, with the balance being built on the other side of the ridge, i remember thinking that I wouldn’t fancy being a bulldozer operator having to negotiate this terrain, and had visions of these leviathans teetering on cliffs before plunging down into the river. Grinaker was certainly a great host, and at the original farm residence it was a treat to sit in front of a roaring log fire with the developer and designer (who had acguired the taste for fine South African wine) and talk golf, course design and anything else that came to mind. Grinaker’s enthusiasm for this project was boundless; the relaxed Nicklaus supplied some entertaining anecdotes, and the supply of Knysna oysters and wine seemed inexhaustible.

The short par-four 2nd, measuring only 338m from the back markers, features a massive change in elevation from the tee down to the fairway - and impressive views too.
The short par-four 2nd, measuring only 338m from the back markers, features a massive change in elevation from the tee down to the fairway – and impressive views too.

The effort that Nicklaus and his designers put into this creation cannot be overstated, and the Golf Data team that transformed the vision into reality certainly had their work cut out, but succeeded in doing an amazing job. It is well known that after all the major earth moving and shaping had been completed (and even the seeding had been done), a major flood washed away much of the work -a tragedy of epic proportions. It seemed that Simola was doomed to failure before getting off the ground, which would have been a travesty. But fast-forward 10 years, and the Simola course finally did open, and the rave reviews were well justified.

It is probably fair to say that this layout is somewhat quirky, but no less enjoyable to play.The configuration of holes, which features a quintet of par fives and par threes, begins and ends with a par five, which is unusual. Just as unusual is the opening hole, which is rated as stroke one, and the following hole, which incorporates a massive drop in elevation from the tee to the fairway. Any student of course design would realise that it was never going to be easy to find a way of routing 18 holes here in a logical sequence, but this was managed quite admirably.Typical of the Nicklaus design philosophy, there are no really penal holes where the player is forced to carry the ball unreasonable distances, nor is too much of a premium put on accuracy off the tee.

Simola's finishing hole, an uphill 454-metre par five, plays to a stroke index of 12 and is a real birdie opportunity, provided you can avoid the many fairway and greenside bunkers.
Simola’s finishing hole, an uphill 454-metre par five, plays to a stroke index of 12 and is a real birdie opportunity, provided you can avoid the many fairway and greenside bunkers.

But in order to make a respectable score, canny course management is critical. Considerable thought has gone into the positioning of the fairway bunkers – and there are many of them – and some of the greens complexes are nothing short of works of art. The greens might be smaller than most, certainly by modern standards, but this makes sense considering that the course is also shorter than most, and even at full stretch it measures a little more than 6 300 metres. Add to this the fact that this course is consistently kept in superb condition, and it is easy to understand why golfers love playing here. Most designers will try to find the balance between presenting a challenge without frustrating the high handicapper, and this has certainly been achieved here. Over the years, the course has also been made more playable, through the widening of landing areas and the clearing of rough, yet the wide variety of tee-box options allows the course to be set up to test different levels of golfer.

But Simola presents more than just a great golfing experience, and just visiting this unique 19th hole is well worth the trip. There can be few more impressive views from any drinking hole, and the adjoining gourmet restaurant is guaranteed to please the most discerning palates.

Full marks must be given to the staff here, all of whom are friendly and attentive – this is a five-star golf experience, and whether visitors come for the day or stay over in the 40-suite hotel or golf lodges, they will always want to return.

The grand clubhouse, which was built a few years after the golf course, is itself something to behold.Towering over the course and with some of the finest views money can buy, there seems to have been little expense spared when constructing this building, which is also home to the Simola Hotel. Here you will find a restaurant, spa, gym, function room, boardroom and even a hair salon should the need arise.

Simola's large clubhouse and hotel complex is an impressive structure, with huge glass windows opening to a spectacular view of the Knysna Heads.
Simola’s large clubhouse and hotel complex is an impressive structure, with huge glass windows opening to a spectacular view of the Knysna Heads.

It is perhaps understandable that the International Association of Golf Tour Operators has voted the Garden Route the ‘Best Golf Destination in Africa and the Middle East’ in the past. The town of Knysna has also claimed to be ‘South Africa’s favourite town’, and it does have a rather endearing charm, particularly out of season.

No golfing trip in this area is complete without experiencing Simola, and although Pecanwood, near the Hartbeespoort Dam in the North West Province, can claim to be the first Nicklaus course to be completed in South Africa, this was the first in our country to be designed by the world’s greatest golfer, is this that big a deal? Perhaps to some, and certainly the life-sized statue of Nicklaus in the opulent clubhouse would suggest this.

More info on the town of Knysna More info on the Garden Route area

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