By Mark Sampson
This beautiful course in KZN has turned the corner after some dark days, and a round played there will not be forgotten
Located in the rolling hills of Hillcrest between Durban and Pietermaritzburg in KwaZulu-Natal, Cotswold Downs needs little introduction. Many remember it for its challenging layout, and the Bermuda grass fairways one which the ball would roll for ages and inevitably into trouble. But that is history. The course and estate has come of age in more ways then one.
Since its opening in 2005 the story of the 222-hectare property has not always been one of success. In the economic recession of 2011, the estate found itself in serious financial difficulties. But, under the control of the High Court-appointed receiver, and with the economy slowly starting to recover, it made steady progress. Towards the end of 2014 it was rated as the fastest-selling residential golf estate in KZN.
Coming with it is a new clubhouse. Actually, it’s more than ‘just’ a club house: it is labelled a ‘leisure centre’, incorporating a gym, squash court, tennis court, swimming pool, café and restaurant. It is designed to make the estate one of the most sought-after destinations in KwaZulu-Natal.
The course, built by Peter Matkovich, is best described as ‘no-holds barred’, designed with USGA specifications, beautiful bentgrass greens and an array of spectacular holes draped over the rolling landscape. The changes in elevation, whether a steep uphill, a plunging downhill or simply a raised green, will test your course management. Each hole is unique in character and challenge.
The opening hole is one of the more memorable: a long par five, at just under 500 metres, its sloping fairway and bunker down its entire left flank are key features. A large tree near the hole, however, is the dominant feature which will influence your approach to the sloping green.
As far a Cotswold greens go, it is slightly smaller then most of its 17 siblings, but still has the ubiquitous slopes to keep you guessing. Only the really long hitters or gung-ho golfers will go for the green in two.
The following three holes are all par fours, ranging from 365 to 396 metres with low stroke-ratings.
The second has a strong downward trajectory to a water-protected green, while the third goes back up the hill, featuring numerous bunkers that need to be avoided from the tee box and around the green.
The fourth, having a stroke-index of 2, has two fairway bunkers that threaten the drive. On approaching the elevated green, three bunkers left await a pulled shot while anything too long or too far right will roll down into a grassy swale.
Having just played strokes 6, 4, 8 and 2, you have a reprieve on the easiest hole on the course. But the 60m-plus fall, over water, to a large green protected left and right by bunkers is what will linger in your memory. At 163m, it is not short, but taking the drop into account, it is very manageable. The par-four 6th is short at 294m, but the 13 sand traps on the right leading to the hole, as well as one huge bunker on the left of the fairway await any wayward shot. A short par three, followed by a sweeping left-to-right par four will bring you the par-five ninth and the clubhouse. At 504m off the club tees it is a stamina-testing hole that winds its way down to the green. You need to be accurate off the tee and approaching the lay-up to avoid the dense coastal forest running all the way down the left of the fairway.
The back nine is much of the same with the par-four 10th rising towards the green 296m. A water hazard must be cleared off the tee, but a driving iron is enough to reach the fairway, which has thick forest up the left. The large green is protected by just one bunker, but its slope from back to front requires a careful read.
The par four-11th continues the upward march as it sweeps from left to right to the raised green. It is not a long hole (328m), but the green is a difficult target, even with a short iron in hand, as it falls away steeply on all sides. The 12th is the highest hole on the course and, naturally, the most exposed to the winds. A number of bunkers on the right distract the eye from the generous fairway off the tee box. The long green has a number of different levels and is well protected by bunkers.
The par-five 13th turns back toward the coast and on a clear day the Indian Ocean can be seen glistening in the distance. This 484-metre track does not give up birdies easily. Off the tee box, the fairway, snaking its way into the distance, is protected by bunkers on either side. Going for the green in two requires a well-struck shot to avoid water left, while laying up is also dangerous, with more bunkers in the landing area. The green, though, is massive with two bunkers short and one over the back.
Two of the next three holes are par threes, giving some relief before taking on the spectacular 17th. (See our insert into playing this par four, on page ??, from local PGA professional Ross Dewes.)
Having survived that stroke 3, the 18th offers little respite. This monstrous par five is well deserving of its label as the most difficult on the course. It’s not necessarily the 476 metres that are threatening, but more the water hazard and bunkers that lie in wait on the way to the relatively small, raised green. The fairway is obtained only by flying the water hazard and avoiding the bunker running alongside the landing area. Cutting the corner will leave you a shorter approach to the green but it brings more water into play. Laying up is most advisable as the green has a hazard on the left and a massive bunker to the right as well as a pot bunker over the back. A par on this hole is worth mentioning when reviewing it from the clubhouse bar.
Cotswold Downs is a course that will test the very best of golfers, which is why it has hosted the World Amateur Golf Championship and World Club Pro Am.
Its massive undulating greens are one of its trademarks but then so too is the undulating terrain and natural feel it has, even though it runs through a massive estate.
Matkovich is known for his challenging well-bunkered courses and this is no exception. That aside, its stringent environmental management plan has restored the estate to harmony between nature and human inhabitation with abundant bird and wildlife now residing on the course. As an overall golfing and outdoor experience, it is hard to beat.