There is an authenticity to St Francis Links that comes from its ever-changing moods and layout, combining every element of shot-making with its undulating terrain and testing greens, writes Mark Sampson.
The contours of the greens flow with the natural movement of the land and are complemented by classic links-style bunkers that serve as a reminder of the great links courses around the world. The true, smooth greens surfaces, infused with subtle breaks, is part of the DNA that makes this a fine course.
The collaboration between the Jack Nicklaus design team and Golf Data produced one a wonderful marriage between modern course construction and Mother Nature. Since its opening in December 2006, it has grown in stature and it is now considered as close to a ‘real’ links experience as any found outside of Scotland or Ireland. Windy conditions on exposed dunes are an integral part of the links’ personality. This is the Eastern Cape after all, so it is not unexpected. Apart from Nicklaus’ talent for embracing this remarkable location and maximising its potential, St Francis Links has, over the years, gathered many accolades for the quality of its personnel, its residences and its clubhouse and facilities.
The short opening par-four hole sets the tone: think before you hit. Finding the fairway and avoiding the large milkwood on the corner of this dogleg is the objective. The approach to the elevated green, into the prevailing wind, makes club-selection tricky. On making your way to the par-four 2nd, prepare to experience Nicklaus’ magic. Initially you may struggle to work out where the hole is; hence the name ‘Which Way’. The aiming pole is there to help. At 363m this hole can be difficult when the wind is up. A number of greenside bunkers must be avoided to find the large, undulating target.
Next up is a ‘delicate’ par five, weighing in at just over 500m. The landing areas for the average hitter are generous, but the longer hitters need to check their ego if a birdie is the goal. The green is squeezed between unforgiving bushes, so a mis-hit will take you from a potential birdie straight into the bogie zone. Apparently, this is also the first hole Nicklaus birdied on the course.
The magic continues at the par-three 4th named ‘Double Vision’, due it to having two greens. It’s one of the reasons this course displays a variety of personalities that change almost daily. With numerous links-like bunkers splattered around – some tiny and others massive – the hole’s beauty must not distract one from the club selection.
The relatively short par-four 5th is riddled with bunkers along its entire length. Cutting the right-to-left dogleg gives the longer hitters a chance to reach the green. The more prudent play is to take a long iron and avoid the beach. Hitting the approach off the fairway is a must as the diminutive green makes a difficult target, especially in windy conditions.
The 487m par-five 6th is named ‘Checkmate’. As you walk off the green the name will make sense. A zigzagging fairway, which narrows and widens periodically can be difficult to find with all the bunkers flanking it. More bunkers protect the green from those hoping to run their approach up on its narrow surface from front to back.
The stroke-17 par three which follows has a certain intimidation factor, similar to that of its creator back in his heyday. Water draws your eye toward the green with a massive bunker complex protecting it bailing out over the back.
The 8th, although short for a par four, is incredibly tight, even on a still day. When the wind is up the elusive fairway becomes a must-hit.
The stroke-one awaits in the form of a 398m uphill par four, and it is not just the length that will test you. While there is huge landing area for the drive, the fairway progressively narrows to the green, which is partially hidden by coastal bush and the entrance protected by bunkers left and right. A par here will make the halfway house all that more enjoyable.
The 10th slings from right to left and is not long at 321m; but its stroke rating of 10 shows that it is not straightforward. Staying on the left side of the fairway leaves a shorter approach to the relatively small green. Push your drive to the wider part of the fairway and the approach is lengthened.
‘Eish’ is what awaits you at the par four 11th. Big dunes on either side of the fairway and a hollow left of the large green, means the ball must be kept on the straight and narrow. The ‘Eish’ does not refer to the difficulty of the hole but rather the exclamation as you spot the green and surrounding views from the fairway on your approach.
The short par-four 12th is clever by design, with the green neatly placed between bunkers front and back in what looks like a confined space, but it’s more an optical illusion then anything else. Finding the fairway and trusting the distance is key on this hole. The 13th is a classic Nicklaus hole, screaming risk and reward. Wedged between a coastal thicket on the right and water all the way down the left flank, birdie or bogey is on the card.
At 143m the par-three 14th is a straightforward hole until you add water, bunkers and a prevailing wind into the mix. Club selection and keeping the ball out of the wind are the main objectives off the picturesque tee box.
The 15th is a challenging par four requiring a solid drive to reach the top shelf of the fairway. This is the ideal position in order to reach the green, which in itself has a number of challenges based on its size and rather large ridge that runs through it.
Having no bunkers to protect it, don’t regard the par-five 16th as easy. This long hole has a generous fairway split down the middle by a creek, which makes its way all the way down to the green and can lead to a dropped shot or worse. Even the longer hitters must take heed as only the most accurate of golfers should go for this green in two, although it is not recommended. Its stroke-two rating is well deserved.
CEO and PGA professional at the Links, Jeff Clause, give us some insight into playing the par-three 17th on page 64.
The closing hole is a final reminder by its designer that fortune favours the brave. The more you bring the water down the left side into play, the shorter your approach. And you don’t want a long iron into this elevated well-bunkered green.
Like all great links course, it will make sure you use all clubs in your bag and leave you wishing you had some others. Above all it will test your imagination and shot making and regardless of the bottom line on the scorecard it will leave you salivating to return. When all is said and done it is a course that will challenge all who play it and reward those who respect it.
With lifestyle facilities being vital component of estate living, the developers thought through every detail in constructing the magnificent clubhouse that greets you on return from the course. It has so much more to offer then just a drink after your round: from afternoon tea to weddings and conferences – and with total health being such a priority in modern life, there’s also a world-class aqua spa and skin clinic on site.