• COTM: Fish River Sun Country Club

    COTM: Fish River Sun Country Club

    Some of South Africa’s finest golf courses suffer due to their location being somewhat off the beaten track. Were these courses somehow transplanted a little closer to metropolitan areas, they would not only be widely acknowledged as some of the country’s finest layouts, but also packed with happy golfers on a daily basis.

    The likes of St Francis Links, Wild Coast Sun, Elements and Fish River Sun fall firmly into this category, and while they may be far from the hustle and bustle of city life, this doesn’t make them any less worthy. On the contrary, getting to these fine layouts to tick them off your ‘have played’ list is well worth the effort.

    Fish River Sun, located midway between East London and Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape, opened in 1989 with much fanfare. Designed by SA’s greatest-ever golfer, Gary Player, the course formed part of Sun International’s grand strategy of building entertainment, conference, hotel and leisure facilities around a central casino in idyllic locations.

    Unfortunately, the changing political and economic climate of the 1990s resulted in a reallocation of casino licences and Fish River Sun’s casino was terminated in 1999. This left the resort with something of an identity crisis and forced it to repackage itself to cater for the family, sporting, leisure and conference markets – something it has done with some success.

    Along with the golf course, the nearby beach and swimming pool are the most obvious attractions at Fish River Sun, but the resort has added a number of activities to its menu, including fishing, squash, health spa treatments, night drives and a riverboat cruise. There are also plenty of bird-watching and walking opportunities in the resort itself.


    The Old Woman’s River requires a lengthy carry for the approach shot on the par-five 15th (left) and the tee shot on the par-four 13th (right).

    But it is the golf course that is likely to hold the most interest for visitors. While it is set just behind the sand dunes that form the only barrier between the course and the Indian Ocean, Fish River Sun makes no attempt to be a links layout. Instead, you are presented with a seriously good, testing golf course that is particularly tough when the wind gets up. Long considered one of the best-conditioned courses in the province, it offers a superb ‘walk in the park’ feel with some spectacular views of the Indian Ocean along the way.

    At only 6 300 metres off the championship tees, it is clear that this is by no means a long course, but Player has achieved a great balance in his design here, with no fewer than six of the par fours measuring under 350 metres in length. Given the coastal wind that often whips through the course, these relatively short two-shotters can transform from easy holes downwind into beasts when played into the breeze.

    The par fives range between 450 and 500 metres in length, and play in different directions to each other, thereby offering at least one realistic opportunity to reach the putting surface with two well-struck downwind blows.


    Fish River Sun features a good balance of long and short par fours.

    The course opens up with a very gentle downhill par four of just 336 metres, offering the opportunity to get your round off to a good start, while perhaps luring the first-time player into a false sense of security. Two par fives in the next four holes offer further scoring opportunities, but the key to this course is keeping your shots on the fairway. Long grass and dense coastal bush make up much of the rough areas, so wayward shots at Fish River can be penal.

    A highlight of the front nine is the challenging stroke-1 6th hole. The tee shot on this 388-metre par four is particularly daunting, with a narrow landing area surrounded on both sides by deep bush. Take a deep breath before pulling the trigger on this hole, because anything off line is likely to require a reloaded tee shot.

    Unlike the front nine, the back nine opens with one of the most intimidating tee shots in golf. Although the 10th hole is just 347 metres long, it is well deserving of its stroke rating of 2, having ruined many a promising scorecard. The tee shot is semi-blind, with players hitting over a rise in the narrow fairway onto an obscured downslope. To the left is deep bush and out of bounds, with equally dense coastal bush to the right. The sensible play is to hit a long-iron or fairway wood off the tee, but when the wind gets up, anything less than driver leaves a little too much to do for the downhill approach shot to a shallow green.


    The 347m 10th is one of the trickiest par fours in the game.

    The 12th hole at Fish River Sun is arguably the course’s signature hole. A par five of 456 metres, players need to avoid the Old Woman’s River that hugs the fairway all the way along the left of the hole, which doglegs left as it nears the green. Players going for the green in two will need to carry the river in front of the putting surface, with a sucker pin position being on the left side of the green.

    From the elevated 13th tee, players are required to cross the Old Woman’s River for the first of two times. Into the wind, this can be quite a severe carry for the short hitter, as is the return carry for players approaching the green on the par-five 16th hole.

    Two interesting design elements dominate the 354-metre par-four 14th hole at Fish River Sun. The first is a large tree slap bang in the middle of the fairway, about 30 metres short of the green. The second is a tree that grows up out of the middle of the back bunker. Getting too close to either can turn this hole into a real challenge.

    Two short par fours bring to an end your round at one of the most interesting, yet underrated courses in the country. The final hole is a sharp dogleg right, giving big hitters one last chance to go for glory by cutting the corner with their drives.


    The par-four 14th hole is unusual in that it features a tree in the back greenside bunker.

    ‘The Fish’ played host to the 2008 Africa Open, where Shaun Norris lapped the field with a six-shot win. That fewer than 20 players managed to shoot under par over four rounds here is testament to the challenge the course offers, despite its relative lack of length. Although the Africa Open has since made East London Golf Club its permanent home, Fish River Sun remains connected, being the qualifying venue for the co-sanctioned event. And this month it plays host to the Sun Fish River Sun Challenge on the Sunshine Tour, as part of its Eastern Cape swing.

    It’s also home to a number of top amateur events and is a fine venue for a golfing weekend away, offering superb stay-and-play packages for families, groups or golf tours. The Royal Port Alfred course, just 30 kilometres away, is an excellent alternative track for those seeking some variety on their golf tour.

    It may be a bit of a drive to get to Fish River Sun, but those staying over for the weekend will not be disappointed – and can look forward to uncovering the secrets of this dramatic and memorable layout.


    GETTING THERE: Located on the R72 coastal road between East London and Port Elizabeth, 30km from Port Alfred.

    GOLF COURSE: Coastal parkland, par 72, 6 010m (championship rating 73), kikuyu fairways and tees, bent-grass greens)

    DESIGNER: Gary Player

    GENERAL MANAGER: Jabu Maseka

    DIRECTOR OF GOLF: Francois Marais

    GREENKEEPER: Tim Ridden

    GREENFEES: Affiliated R195, non-affiliated R350, students/residents R150

    CONTACT: Tel 040 676 1101

    WEBSITE: http://www.suninternational.com/fishriver-sun/


    • A good design, with a great balance of short and long holes. Average hitters will feel they can plot their way around this course.

    • An honest course that rewards good shots and punishes poor ones.

    • Generally this is a very well-conditioned golf course.


    • It’s location – far from everything. Such a good course needs to be played by more people.

    • Some of the bunkers are hidden from the tee. First-time golfers here might be in for a few nasty surprises.


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