Eye of Africa has been a leader among the high-profile signature golf courses that have been an established part of the South African golfing landscape, writes BEN KARPINSKI.
With the rise of golf estate living, greats of the game such as Ernie Els, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus have all lent their considerable expertise to some impressive layouts across the country.
Naturally, the drawcard of big-name designers is their name. They’re used to sell property and the estate in general. Eye of Africa Golf Estate, south of Johannesburg, is one such example, being the first design in Africa by former world No 1 Greg Norman, and the result is a golfing experience unique in a country already well known for quality and diverse offerings.
Home to the Eye of Africa PGA Championship from 2016-2020, the course is seen as a true championship layout; a big-course set-up in the modern sense, measuring over 7 200m from the championship tees. The beauty of the Norman design, though, is that it is as enjoyable as it is challenging, with four other conventional tee options to choose from, depending on your ability.
Upon arrival along pine tree-lined lanes, Eye of Africa has the feel of something special. The first indication of this is the world-class practice facilities, which make it the kind of course you want to arrive at well before your tee-off time.
As it is an estate course, often with large spacing between greens and tees, taking a golf cart is standard procedure. After a short drive up the hill away from the driving range, the 1st hole reveals itself as a gentle par four with a generous fairway. Most of the landing areas off the tee seem reasonably wide, but keep in mind that there are better sides to the fairways when playing the holes. Threading something down the left side on the 1st hole, for example, provides the best angle into the green, as the putting surface falls away to the left which could make for a tricky par save.
The 2nd hole is an uphill par five in two halves. Favouring the left half of the fairway again, this time using the fairway bunker in the distance as a reference, it is best to stay that side of the hole throughout as a hazard line with thick rough and regular bunkers make the right side more troublesome.
Speaking of trouble, we should point out that a round at Eye of Africa may require a fair number of golf balls depending on your abilities off the tee. The indigenous rough, which beautifully frames the holes throughout, is brutal, especially in the lush summer months. Together with the distinctive bunkers, this certainly makes it a course where you need to give some thought to your tee shots with placement often trumping power.
The par-four 3rd hole is a fine example of the importance of hitting the fairway. Failure to do so will make finding one of the smallest greens on the course, positioned over a small stream, a tough task. As a player, Norman’s flair set him apart from the rest, and this translates into his design at Eye of Africa. Not one for conformity, no two holes blend into each other.
The intricacies of the difficult 3rd hole are contrasted by the accessibility of the short par-four 4th. Which is then followed up by the beauty and treachery of the par-three 5th where water guards the left side, and a long green with a sunken middle section enables a multitude of pin placements. Then on the par-four 6th you play steeply uphill to a green that has a severe false front to penalise anything coming up a little short in approach.
Remarkably the 7th hole has no bunkers, but again a clever use of sloping around the green puts up a decent defence to par.
As frantic as this run of holes sounds, none of it is at all gimmicky. It just seems to flow well, and the superior playing surfaces from tee to green make the experience even more enjoyable. Cynodon grass has been used on the fairways which gives a little bit of extra roll and more of an international feel. Norman’s characteristic blend of A1/A4 bentgrass on the greens is a joy to putt on too, so for all the dangers that may appear when you go off line, good golf is hugely rewarded.
By the time you reach the 8th hole you should be well and truly in sync with your surroundings. And from a broad, elevated tee you are presented with one of the best driving holes on the course – a par five with a friendly stroke-18 index. As your ball enjoys a little more hang time against the backdrop of a distant hill, the allure of this layout becomes even more evident.
Another interesting aspect of this course is that you play ‘out’ and ‘in’ so to speak. So when you finish up on the par-three 9th hole, you are far from the clubhouse, but find yourself at a small yet able halfway house to enjoy some replenishments. Which you will certainly need as the back nine of Eye of Africa is where the design really comes to life.
Avoiding the sand at any stage on the 10th is the main goal, which is best done by trying to stay up the right side. This then brings you to another superb par five where the right side needs to be favoured to enjoy maximum roll on your drive, and to make the best approach to a relatively flat green and a decent birdie chance.
The 12th is the second hole on the course that could take you by surprise as, like the 7th, it has no bunkers. Similarly, slopes either side of the green put a paramount on accuracy to give yourself the best chance of a par. The Norman flair then gets dialled up again with the drivable downhill par-four 13th. Played at times with a friendly breeze behind you, a drive up the right half could roll out to something special for the longer hitters. But a deep front and cleverly concealed back bunker can also provide a bit of a bite.
From here the course seems to find an extra gear in more ways than one, providing a thrilling finish to the round. The par-four 14th has a stroke index of three and is a little narrower off the tee with out of bounds down the left side. The left side continues to pose a challenge all the way to the green with thick rough catching anything pulled slightly off line, and a deep bunker catching anything overdone on the right side. Par on this hole is certainly a score that will be deeply appreciated.
The par-four 15th is another eye-catching hole from the tee where again you send your ball in the direction of a picturesque hilly backdrop. Bunkers left and right of this hole throughout make accuracy a must, with club selection from the tee important.
The par-three 16th takes you to the far reaches of the property where you can spot wildebeest and impala at play on the neighbouring land, all while you deliberate on club selection to a tight short hole where again par is a score you will gladly take.
On to the final stretch for home, the 17th is a truly special par five where you play from a raised, tree-lined area to a hole with much to consider by means of strategy. Unless you are someone with a fair amount of firepower, the par fives at Eye of Africa are genuine three-shot holes, and the 17th is probably the best example of this. Interestingly, your lay-up here could encounter a rocky outcrop in the middle of the fairway. Again, something that sounds a bit odd, but it works and isn’t really that unexpected at this stage of the round.
The par-four 18th is a classic finishing hole. It earns the right of the stroke-one index and is broken up into two main segments. You will look to keep your drive down the right-hand side of the fairway, finishing to the right of a big circular bunker in the middle of the fairway. From there you need to cover a small stream and for one last time try to avoid a well-bunkered green.
This is a hole that saw many a thrilling climax during the Eye of Africa PGA Championship over the years. So hopefully you get to finish with a flourish here too and follow in the footsteps of local champions like Jaco van Zyl, Erik van Rooyen, Louis de Jager and Darren Fichardt.
17th hole, 524m, par five
The finishing stretch at Eye of Africa is as good a line of holes you can play in South Africa, with the show-stopping standout being the par-five 17th.
The club’s golf manager, Marc Alexander, describes this unique risk-and-reward hole, which encapsulates all the defining features of the course.
‘Our signature hole at Eye of Africa doesn’t just look great in photographs, it’s also an incredible hole to play in many different ways. For your average golfer it’s a genuine three-shot par five, and all three of those shots come with a particular challenge.
‘From the tee, the preferred side of the fairway is the left as there is a bunker guarding the right side. Apart from avoiding this bunker, playing your second from the left gives you a better angle to then play your next shot to the right of the rocky outcrop that appears ahead in the middle of the fairway.
‘The hole then begins to narrow considerably as you approach the putting surface, with water and large bunkers to be avoided on the left. The right side of the green is the prudent play then, with distance control being hugely important as the last defence of the hole lies back right, which is one of the customary Eye of Africa bunkers.
‘It’s a hole that certainly rewards a well-executed strategy, and for the more advanced player provides a memorable par five where the risk of taking it on in two shots will certainly get the blood rushing.’
Tues-Fri: 18 holes R340
Sat, Sun morning, public holidays: 18 holes R550
Sat afternoon: 18 holes R340
Weekdays: 18 holes R200
Weekends: 18 holes R250
Golf carts: R190 pp
East London: 952km
Cape Town: 1,387km
From Sandton: Get on to De Villiers Graaff Motorway/M1 in Bramley Park from Maude St, Linden St and Grayston Dr/M40. Continue to Ridgeway, Johannesburg South. Continue on the R82. Take Cayman Rd to Iberis Rd in Eikenhof.
From OR Tambo Intl: Get on the R24 in Isando from Exit 46. Follow R24, N12 and Sybrand Van Niekerk Fwy/R59 to Heidelberg Rd/R550. Take exit 39 from Sybrand Van Niekerk Fwy/R59. Follow R550 to Iberis Rd in Eikenhof.
33 Cayman Road
Tel: (010) 500 0300; 071 401 3127
Pro shop/lessons: [email protected]
– This article first appeared in the April 2022 issue of Compleat Golfer magazine. Subscribe here!