This monster of a course will test every level of golfer with its length, providing the ultimate challenge, writes SIMON OSLER.
A decade ago, The Els Club Copperleaf in Centurion had the distinction of being the longest course played on the European Tour. It’s still a monster.
You’re in exclusive territory playing an Els Club course, as South African golfing legend Ernie Els has his name on only four of them worldwide, the others being in Dubai, Singapore and Malaysia. This one has a special personal connection for Els, as the land it is built on used to be his grandfather’s farm.
It opened in 2007 and was known at the time as Gardener Ross.
At more than 8,000 yards (7,340m) it is a beast by any stretch of the imagination. Luckily for us mere mortals, there are five sets of tees to choose from and it’s a wise plan not to get too cocky about your abilities when choosing which ones to play from.
To help players even more, the fairways are generously wide so you can bomb your driver to your heart’s content – but it’s around the greens where your skills will most be called into play.
For an idea of the size of the course, from the seniors tees it is as long as Durban Country Club or Beachwood are from their championship tees at around 6,200m. But given that Copperleaf is at 1,400m above sea level, let’s take a look at working our way round from the club tees, at 6,616m in length.
A fairly straightforward 400m opening hole gives you a chance to open your shoulders right from the start. Bunkers guard your landing area on both sides of the generous fairway which plays slightly downhill. The green is well-protected by three large bunkers, but a shot played towards the middle, or even back of the green, will take all three out of play. If you are between clubs, take the longer one and trust it.
The 2nd hole is some 30m shorter, and with a row of four bunkers staggered out towards the middle of the fairway, you need to focus on strategy. Can you clear them all and leave a wedge in, or do you play deliberately short with your tee shot and leave a mid-iron to the green, which is relatively unprotected with just a solitary bunker near the front left providing any trouble?
If you have cruised through the opening two par fours, you are about to have a wake-up call. The first of the par threes is a crushing 240m from the club tee. It also requires great accuracy. The green is protected by a big bunker front left (and water left of that) and a trio of bunkers dotted across the back of the green. The best place to miss would be pin-high and right and leave yourself a chance to get up and down. This hole is stroke 5 for a reason and a bogey here is not a bad result.
The 4th sees the first of the par-five beasts. It’s 565m from the club tee, and another 60m further back to the championship tee box (that’s longer than the longest hole in US Open history, the 12th at Oakmont, where coincidentally Els won his first Major back in 1994).
In addition to the challenging length, there are 11 bunkers in play and water down the left from your second shot on. All the way down the right the hole is framed by large residences.
A good tee shot should see you past the five fairway bunkers and on to a wide landing area. Your second shot should avoid three more fairway bunkers and leave you around 120-150m to the green. That water on the left is definitely going to affect the target for your third shot.
The par-three 5th is a more ‘normal’ length at a mere 170m and if you can hit a straight 5-iron or 4-hybrid you will be on the dancefloor and in with a birdie chance.
See below for the 6th hole.
The 7th is another shortish par four at 340m and a well-struck 3-wood to a fairly generous landing area on the fairway will leave a wedge to the green. A definite scoring opportunity.
Your second par five is just over 550m. Man, Ernie loves his bunkers. This hole has 10 of them, only one of which is at greenside, which means accuracy off the tee and from the fairway is at a premium.
The stroke-1 9th closes out the opening loop. It’s a fairly open hole but will require a fairly long approach to the very long green which offers up plenty of pin placement options. It’s protected by three bunkers, which you could take out of play by bailing out just short of the green. Getting up and down, or using that stroke that 99% of players will have, is not the worst option.
Taking a quick break for a cold drink and a sandwich to recharge your body for the second nine, and let’s get to it.
The 10th is quite similar in style and length to the previous hole and is appropriately rated as the second-hardest on the card. At least there is a bit of a bailout area on the right at greenside … if you can get there in two. Otherwise, your strategy should be exactly the same as how you played the 9th.
The next is another long par five played down the hill and there’s sand galore down the fairway – are we playing Copperleaf or The Els Club Dubai? There’s a desert-load of sand to avoid.
To be fair, there are generous landing areas short of the fairway bunkers and again beyond them, so anyone who’s planning a three-shotter to get to the green some 530m away should have no problem avoiding the bunkering complex in the middle of the hole.
Changing direction on the 12th, you have an opportunity to hit a solid draw down the left half of the fairway and take the trouble out of play. Following which you will want to keep the ball down the left-hand side as you approach the green and take the water on the right totally out of play.
The 340m 13th has water down the left at landing distance for your drive, but you will have a short-iron in hand for your approach. Definitely a chance to walk off with a straightforward par, or even a birdie if you get the yardage right.
At 185m, the par-three 14th offers another chance to score well. It’s relatively open and for a change there’s not a single bunker in sight. Don’t go too far right, though, as there’s plenty of deepish rough there.
From one of the shortest to the second-longest hole, the 15th being a 550m par five. A decent drive will take you almost to the corner of the dog-leg to the left and a solid second to a wide-open fairway should result in a short-iron to the green. There are two large bunkers short of the green and then one on either side of the putting surface. Middle of the green is definitely a good option.
The 300m 16th is stroke 18, the easiest hole on the course. A driver will probably be too much for the big hitters who could airmail the green, but it’s still a par four for the rest of us. Four fairway bunkers and three greenside bunkers means it’s not as straightforward as people may think. A solid hybrid off the tee will leave a short-iron to the green and enables you to take all the trouble out of play.
The penultimate hole is a 150m par three. Flying the water down the right is no problem but you have to avoid the three well-placed traps around the green.
On to the closing hole, a 422m par four which has a wide fairway offering a mid- to long-iron approach to the large green which offers up enough pin placement variety to ensure a grandstand finish for spectators, too. You can see the attraction of staging championship events here, as the course offers a real challenge from the back, and it’s still a tough ask for shorter hitters from the forward tees, too.
The course, in Centurion, is about 20 minutes south-west of Pretoria and half an hour north-west of Fourways.
6th hole, par four, 375m
The par-four 6th hole is widely regarded as the signature hole on the course. It’s certainly one of the most picturesque.
At 375m from the club tee, your opening shot should be played down the right-hand side of the fairway which slopes quite severely from right to left.
It’s probably not a hole where the driver should be pulled out, with a 4-wood or hybrid being enough to find the ideal landing spot. Go too far left and you risk bringing the large expanse of water into play. You might also have to play with the ball below the level of your feet, so why risk making the game harder than it already is.
At least in the middle of the fairway you will also have the ball at feet height, which will make your next shot a little easier.
Your second should be a mid-iron played diagonally over the water to the kidney-shaped green which is protected by two large bunkers, front and back. And you really want to avoid them, unless you have a short game like Ernie Els.
If your tee shot was caught up in the rough and you don’t feel comfortable going for the green, there’s a decent-sized bailout area short and left of the green, which will also take the bunkers out of play.
It will offer you a decent chance to get up and down for a par.
Make no mistake, this hole is tough – it used to be stroke 1 and is still stroke 3.
Play it judiciously and you could walk off with a par. But a bogey here is not a bad score.
R130/9 holes R260/18 holes
Member’s guest: R250/9 R500/18
Student/junior: R140/9 R190/18
Affiliated: R280/9 R555/18
Non-affiliated: R600/9 R1 200/18
From OR Tambo International, 26.9km: Get on to R21. Continue on R21. Take Danie Joubert Freeway to R55 in Olievenhoutbosch, Centurion. Exit from N14. Follow R55, R114 and Ernie Els Boulevard to your destination
Ernie Els Boulevard
Cape Town: 1,439km
Email: [email protected]
Phone: (012) 668 8901 & (012) 668 8900
– This column first appeared in the January 2024 issue of Compleat Golfer magazine.