Lady of the Vines
When one mentions the town of Stellenbosch, immediately wine, vineyards and university spring to mind The not so small town with its oak tree-lined narrow roads is no longer small. Some major players in the industry like Distell and Simonsberg choose to call this ‘small’ town home. Another underestimated entity is that of Stellenbosch Golf Club.
It may not be the first course that springs to mind when the area is mentioned, but arrive there unannounced for a round and you may be surprised by its overflowing car park. This course with its parkland layout, bordering some of the most famous vineyards in the country at the base of the majestic Helderberg Mountains is under siege. Its popularity seems to be shared by locals and foreigners alike and this with its open arms attitude, memorable layout and long history has resulted in some serious foot traffic recently.
Dating back to 1904 with a number of nip and tucks along the way, the layout now boasts a good balance between enjoyable and challenging. As the fourth oldest golf club in the country is has a lot to be proud of including reaching its 18-hole status in 1953 under the design of Ken Elkin. Since then it has seen a makeover with upgrades by Mark Muller in 2004 and more recently Peter Matkovich redoing the bunker complex in 2012.
Coming in at just under 6 000m, the par-72 layout is no pushover with the first four holes, all par fours, having a stroke of nine or less to start the round. Immediately noticeable is how the fairways – not overly generous in width – become tighter with the numerous mature trees shaping the way to the green. Although the first hole appears to be a sliding dogleg left to right, it is actually the orientation of the fairway to the tee box. At 379m this stroke-three’s main protection is length and a large bunker left of the putting surface. Much of the same can be expected from the 2nd, which is straighter and shorter, indicative of its higher stroke of nine.
As you turn down towards the 3rd, and the lower end of the property, another personality of the course reveals itself, in the form of some holes being quite steeply up or down hill. The numerous changes in elevation, linked to a predictably breezy course, means club selection and course management become even more important. The drop in elevation makes the 351m 3rd more manageable, with the first goal being to miss a bunker in landing area. The approach must find the large up-turned saucer of a green with bunkers front right and back left. The relatively straight 4th turns back up the hill and, although not long, accuracy off the tee suggests leaving the driver in the bag. Avoid the large greenside bunker front right at all costs to help secure par.
The par-five 5th, again on flat land, runs adjacent to the Libertas vineyards, with a history dating back to Simon van der Stel, one of the original owners in 1680, they make for a stunning backdrop. At just under 500m the par five has length and as well as numerous bunkers along the way protecting par. Don’t let the stroke 11 fool you. The stroke-one 6th hole is unique in design and location. Its fairway runs along the edge of the vineyards and then simply stops. Elevated over the corner of the vineyards lies the green protected by a number of wild olive trees reputed to be 100 years old. On finishing the hole, take note of the beacon rock at the edge of the Libertas vineyards acknowledging the edge of the property and the release of Simon van der Stel from prison in April 1707.
The par-three 7th is the signature hole of the course. Director of golf Louis Destroo talks us through how best to play the hole on page 62. The 8th is a straightforward par five protected by the vineyards to the left and numerous trees with bushes on the right, hence what members affectionately referred to it as ‘Snakes and Grapes’. Before arriving at the excellent halfway house the short par-three 9th requires one pure short iron shot. The two-tiered elevated green with bunkers left and right dictate the need for a well-chosen iron to find the elusive surface.
The back nine is a seesaw experience with the opening holes leading you back down to the bottom of the course and then slowly working your way back up to the clubhouse. The par-four 10th has out of bounds down its left flank and a fairway bunker left that must be avoided as well as a number of bunkers greenside. The 11th is much of the same without the fairway bunker. The 12th is a moderate par five at 442m sweeping down to a water-protected green and the estate of De Zalze in the distance. A good drive will allow the longer hitters to go for the large sloping green in two, avoid the water left and bunker right and a birdie is on the card.
Turning back up towards the clubhouse a short par three awaits. A mid-to-short iron is needed to find the narrow putting surface sloping from back to front. A number of trees leading to the hole with bunkers short are best avoided. The uphill par-five 14th is a testing hole, especially if the wind is up. Its difficulty lies in the green, which is hidden by a number of mature trees. Leading up to the hole be sure to leave your shot on the left side of the fairway to allow a direct line to the green.
The 15th is a ‘short’ hole with a small green protected by two bunkers, its stroke eight is well deserved. Turning back down the hill for the last time the par-four stroke-two 16th is a clever design with tall trees on either side of the fairway in the landing zone. Miss the fairway and going for the large green with its two bunkers will most likely be blocked. The 17th is a short par four bending from left to right. Favouring the left side of the fairway with a three wood is advisable.
The closing 18th is a short par four where the driver can stay in the bag as finding the fairway is imperative. The green with water left can make for a difficult target in windy conditions. The 19th is a must visit, with balcony overlooking the course and mountains a perfect end to the round. The wood fired pizza oven is an ingenious carrot to keep many a golfer returning.
The mature layout has hosted a number of prestigious events including the SA Masters (five times), the 1999 SA Open and 2006 World Amateur Team Championships (co-hosted by De Zalze).