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Into Thin blue Air – Drakensberg Gardens Golf Course
Text and Photographs: Mark Sampson. Article from the April 2014 issue of Compleat Golfer Magazine.
In an idyllic setting in the shadow of the mountains, Mark Sampson discovered a resort course punching well above its weight
Drakensberg Gardens Golf and Spa Resort is situated in the Southern Drakensberg region of KwaZulu-Natal – a location full of history, both geological and archaeological. The crisp blue air and towering mountains create an aura of mystical enchantment and add to the impressive fact that the resort is located on 860 hectares of World Heritage Site.
The course is found at the far side of the property, closest to the mountains, and has a buffet of holes – from monster par fives to drivable par fours and some remarkably beautiful par threes – making for an enticing round of golf where fortune favours the brave, and the rough and numerous water hazards engulf the foolhardy. One of the initial goals during construction here was to use the lie of the land as much as possible, allowing for natural viewpoints and enjoyment of the surroundings. This goal has certainly been achieved and with some recent cosmetic changes and the addition of new tee boxes, a round of golf here comprises a combination of mountain views, a variation of holes and, if walked, a respectable amount of exercise.
When the hotel was bought in 1968, a nine-hole course existed; however, it was not until 1989 when the chairman of Gooderson Leisure Group, AW Gooderson, and the man responsible for building most of the resort, Dave Barnett, decided to upgrade it to a full 18 holes. Under the scrutiny of consultant Rob Scott and after much deliberation and discussion, all that was kept from the original course were the 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th holes and the green of the 3rd. The final piece of the puzzle was the design and orientation of the clubhouse, which, as legend has it, was first sketched on the back of a cigar box. Compared to modern budgets, the R1.5 million invested in the course, clubhouse and lake delivered a massive result for such a paltry budget.
The opening par four sets the tone for a classic risk-and-reward scenario, as the carry from the tee over the hazard is not easy but leaves a short-iron in. Missing left means you will find yourself in the rough with grass up to your knees, whereas a block to the right means the gumboots are necessary. Even with just a short-iron left to the elevated green, par is not guaranteed. A narrow target sloping steeply from left to right makes for a difficult approach on just your second swing of the day.
The par-four 2nd, having water on the right and a sloping right-to-left green, prolongs settling into a comfortable rhythm. The 3rd, a par three of 163 metres, completes the difficult opening trio. Although it is not excessively long, the narrow green from front to back and a forced carry over a water hazard make it a difficult target to find. The 4th is the first par five on the course and continues the trend of water hazards being commonplace on this course, and a good drive could well reach the red stakes. A well-positioned tee shot will leave you with over 200 metres to the green – which has a false front, meaning that this hole does not relinquish birdie as easily as first inspection may suggest.
After the short par-four 5th, you arrive at one of the most scenic holes, or more specifically tee boxes, you are likely to encounter. Raised well above the fairway and set among rocky outcrops, the tee box of the par-four 6th has a spectacular view of the hole and golf course below. In fact, for some, this layout is worth a visit simply to spend as long as possible enjoying the view prior to the following fourball moving you along.
Drakensberg Gardens is certainly not the longest course at 5 559 metres in length – at altitude – but it is some of the shorter holes that are the most demanding.
The 8th is one such hole, which despite being under 300 metres, gets your full attention each time you play it. Walking off this hole with a par, you will have a glimmer in your eye and a skip in your step. At first glance this short par four is straightforward – until you notice the narrow fairway and intruding row of pine trees on the right, which always attract your eye and affect your decision of what club to use off the tee box. The narrow green is a completely different story; positioned at a 60-degree angle to the fairway and protected by water, it is a demanding target even with a wedge in hand.
The course comprises two very differing nines, with the front nine played on far flatter ground than the roller coaster of ups and downs that make up the back nine. The par-four 10th sets the tone with the slightly right-to-left fairway well below the teeing area and protected by trees on either side. Hitting this fairway is a must, as the green is also protected by water. The par-five 12th hole is the longest hole on the course and off the championship tee measures a daunting 540 metres. The tee shot to this ramrod-straight fairway is not the issue, but rather the small green protected by water short and left that discourages players from trying to reach it in two.
The short 13th and par-four 14th are rather innocuous holes, not offering too much difficulty in terms of distance or accuracy, but they are followed by a pair of par fives of varying difficulty. Both have water in play, but it is the steep incline on the 15th and decline on the 16th that sets them apart. The 15th offers you two landing areas off the tee, both of which are relatively narrow and protected by water. An elevated green awaits but the fairway slopes down towards a rivulet, making this a daunting second shot regardless of whether it is a lay-up or a go for glory.
While the 15th can rightfully claim its status as the hardest hole on the course, the 16th provides a green light for birdie. A well-struck 3-wood down the fairway will leave you only a mid-iron to the green, while adventurous players who take the driver might only be left with a wedge approach.
The short par-four 18th makes for an interesting finishing hole. Measuring just 285 metres, with the tee positioned well above the fairway and Lake Kwanyoni running down its left flank, this hole can be a real score spreader.
When tallied up, no fewer than 12 of the 18 holes have water hazards.There is a good balance of holes that won’t overpower the mid-handicapper, but will keep the good golfer interested. Its location, slightly isolated in the Southern Drakensberg, forms part of its charm, making it a perfect weekend destination with activities for the family to enjoy.
The resort is three hours’ drive from Durban. On the N3 highway, after Pietermaritzburg coming from Durban, drive to Underberg. Passing through Underberg on the R617, turn right after four kilometres. After 29 kilometres along that road you will find the resort.
Built in 1993. Mountainous parkland, par 72 with a stroke rating of 68. Length of 5 559 metres.
AW Gooderson and Dave Barnett
Hotel guests: R170 Affiliated: R280 Members: R140
- The mountain scenery takes some beating.
- The excellent variation in the difficulty of holes, from real birdie chances to tough battles.
- The greens can be a little hard and unreceptive.
- A lack of caddies – visitors could do with an experienced bagman to help them find their way around the course.
|More info on the town of Underberg||More info on the Drakensberg area|
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