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St Francis Links - a great South African golf course

by Simon Murphy - February 2013

St Francis Bay is a unique and exclusive paradise on South Africa's Kouga coast. Now famous as one of the surfing hotspots in the world, St Francis is gaining more plaudits for a magnificent 'links' golf course designed by Jack Nicklaus.

Golf enthusiasts who have visited South Africa, will be more familiar with golf on the traditional Garden Route between Stillbaai and Storms River, having travelled to George, Knysna or Plettenberg Bay from Cape Town. But you should try and take the time to travel two hours up the N2 to St Francis, a beautiful drive up an almost empty road by the ocean. Leaving Plettenberg early you will be up to St Francis for an excellent breakfast in the luxurious clubhouse and on to the first tee mid morning. Alternatively, fly into Port Elizabeth and St Francis is only an hour away.

The perfect finishing hole: St Francis' 18th, under the windows
of the impressive yet elegant Clubhouse

Jeff Clause is the charismatic CEO and PGA Director of Golf at St Francis Links. It is in very good hands. Clause, who originally hails from Iowa in the USA, has been in South Africa since the early 90s and has become somewhat of an institution in the Southern and Eastern Cape where he has held three Director of Golf positions including at the famous Fancourt in George.

A week before I played at St Francis Links, I was at Rye Golf Club in East Sussex. Both courses are built on the natural 'link' between arable land and the beach, however playing at St Francis is 'links' golf with South African characteristics - making it completely unique. Before I go any further I must mention the weather. In Rye it was literally freezing and not even the famous lunch did much to improve matters for a last nine before darkness fell. In St Francis I was in shirt sleeves, the sun on our backs, a temperature of 25C and a gentle 10 mph breeze off the Indian Ocean.

In among the fynbos

St Francis Links is set in the 'fynbos' which forms part of the Cape floral kingdom. Of the world's six floral kingdoms, this is the smallest and richest. The diversity of fynbos plants is extremely high, with over 9000 species of plants around 6200 of which are endemic i.e they do not grow anywhere else in the world. Although the Fynbos comprises only 6% of the area of southern Africa, it has half the species on the sub-continent. Several plant families are conspicuous in fynbos including the Protea, the national flower of South Africa. St Francis Links is consequently a place of great natural beauty.

The golf course is beautifully laid out within the fynbos. From the tees it initially teases the eye on the early holes, particularly if you have never played the course before. With a breeze on the day, your initial shots need to be purposeful, confident that there is a little more room out there than you imagine. The shape of the greens comes from the natural contours of the land which have been placed on top of the sand. They are bent grass, undulating and firm. They are designed to receive a full shot, while repelling a short pitch. You can, in most cases, use the ground and play a chip and run – links style. The bunkers are a strong feature of St Francis Links, many of them deep with soft sand.

The 5th - 'Braveheart' The 7th - 'Wetland'

If I was to pick out a couple of holes on the first nine as outstanding, hole 5 is 'Braveheart', a short par 4 with the best views on the course and with the wind, just about driveable for the bigger hitters. Into a stiff breeze it was a solid driver and 9 iron. Hole 7, appropriately called 'Wetland', is a lovely looking par 3 requiring a good long iron over water to an ample green, though well protected by bunkers. As your partners play, look out for the Pied Kingfisher.

Following a break at the half way house (try the homemade chicken pie with chilli sauce – South Africa is famous for pies) the second nine opens out and from the 10th tee you are encouraged to open your shoulders a little. This is very welcome after the apparent constrictions of the first nine, culminating in the tee shot at Hole 8, the 'Eye of the Needle' where I reached for a rescue club in a cold sweat.

L: The 8th - 'Eye of the Needle' R: The 10th - 'Up and Down'

I have been playing golf for many years in different parts of the world, however I can say without hesitation that the second nine at St Francis Links is among the best consecutive nine holes I have ever played.

The 11th at St Francis Links - Wow!

The relatively short, though nuanced par 4 10th leads you to the most demanding par 4 on the course called, appropriately, 'Eish!' or 'Wow! A solid driver over the left hand bunker into a stiffening breeze left me a 3 wood up the fairway between the dunes, that finished 10 yards short of the putting surface. I was happy with the bogey 5 missing from 6 feet.

Top: The 12th - 'Illusion'
Bottom: The 14th - 'Get Up'

The 12th with its ample fairway justifies it's moniker 'Illusion'. A 3 wood and wedge to the invisible green placed between two sets of bunkers left me uncertain as to its fate. On this occasion I was fortunate to be short of the fynbos and deep pot bunkers up close to the back of the green. Holes 13, 14 and 15 are an aesthetically delightful stretch of holes bringing the Wetland into play on all of them. The par 3 14th is especially appealing, played over water into the prevailing wind. A little jewel.

For nature lovers you will soon be aware you are in a bird sanctuary when you walk St Francis Links. Take your time to look out for the distinctive Blacksmith Plover, the Red Bishop, African Darter and the variety of Sunbirds.

The 16th - 'Split Image' with its two fairways

The 630 yard par 5 16th 'Split Image' is an intriguing golf hole. Whereas Hole 4 'Double Vision' offers two greens, here two fairways are available. From forward tees, a Tiger line down the left side may give the longest hitter a position to go for the green by keeping his shot left of the creek. The more conservative play is to the right fairway with a third shot from about 100 yards out.

A long downhill par 3 has St Francis Bay town in the background courtesy of Jack Nicklaus's design. Because of the nature of the sloping green, do not despair if you push your tee shot right. Assuming you have the length, the ball will appear as if miraculously from behind the front bunker and finish close. There have been several holes-in-one at the 17th.

The beautiful 17th, overlooking St Francis Bay

The 18th plays from a high tee with water on the left to a welcoming fairway right, and is the perfect finishing hole. The more you chew off with the drive, the shorter the second to a green that sits up requiring one more club than the card tells you.

Time for a Rock Shandy and perhaps just one more pie!

St Francis Links is a great golf course. Links unique to South Africa.


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