The Garden Province’s latest golf course experience lies as a geographical bullseye between Durban, Johannesburg, Nelspruit and Bloemfontein, writes SIMON OSLER.
While the past two years have been very tough for the golf and hospitality industries, the owners of Vulintaba Country Estate have grabbed the bull by the horns and are developing their nine-hole grassland links course into a stunning 18-hole destination.
The upmarket estate belongs to the Ni-Da group of companies which started out in the trucking business with a single truck and is now one of the biggest operations in the country with more than 600 ‘heavies’, two hotels and a hunting lodge.
Vulintaba lies in a stunning pair of valleys in the north-west corner of KwaZulu-Natal, less than 20km from Newcastle. The name translates as ‘open the mountains’ from isiZulu and is the nearest Berg resort to Gauteng. The Vulintaba logo is coincidentally similar in shape to the horns of the Ankole cattle which are reared on the company’s farm adjacent to the ‘hidden valley’, which will be included in the course.
The jewel in the crown of the sprawling estate is a four-star hotel with 69 rooms, quality dining facilities including a chilled wine cellar and bar, a beauty spa and a wedding chapel and conference facilities for up to 500 people. The hotel overlooks the new 18th green, and the views of the surrounding northern Drakensberg mountains are spectacular.
The Jackson Brown restaurant adjacent to the pro shop has a wraparound deck which offers views across the driving range, with its 11 target greens, all the way down the length of the valley. If it’s very windy, you can sit behind floor-to-ceiling glass doors to enjoy the view.
The estate opened in 2013, but it has taken a while to reach this need for expansion and there is scope for about 600 houses. The 18km district-level road was tarred by Ni-Da to make the resort more accessible.
Vulintaba’s central location makes it the geographical ‘bullseye’, between Durban, Johannesburg, Nelspruit and Bloemfontein. As such it should be seen as the perfect destination for a golfing weekend or midweek break for a few days.
With a variety of hole configurations, there’s reason to tackle the course a few times without getting bored or complacent.
The course, redesigned by DDV Design Group, will have the potential to host top amateur and professional championship events. The expansion is being overseen by a management team which includes golf course architect Dino De Abreu, civil engineer Roger dos Santos and course shaper Joe Smith.
And it caters for more than just golfers – there are 50km of mountain bike trails, as well as walking and running trails. For the fly-fishing fraternity there are several dams and rivers, while twitchers can mark off about 320 bird species. Away from the estate, there are also historic battlefields.
While the hotel exudes an aura of calm, out in the valley it’s a hive of activity as the additional nine holes take shape.
So how did the current nine-hole course shape up in terms of its challenge? The first point to be clarified is that it is not a ‘pitch and putt’ venue … it is a shade under 6 700m from the 18 unique gold tees and not a course for the faint-hearted. It’s worth taking a cart too.
There are 14 hectares of wide fairways and target areas with kikuyu grass, and while some holes have decent bail-out areas, there are some greens you must hit if you are to avoid penalty drops and lost balls. If you are a fan of Gowrie Farm, Cotswold Downs or Ebotse, your imagination should make you feel comfortable about tackling Vulintaba.
Prudently, we tackled it from the white tees, especially as there was a 40km/h north-westerly to contend with. If you add 25-45m to all the figures used here, you will have a good idea of how long the course plays from the gold tees. Distances are typically to the front of the greens, other than on par threes where they are to the middle of the green. Overall the greens, which are seeded with Mackenzie creeping bentgrass, are on the large side and the difference between a front flag and one at the back could be 30-40m.
The opening hole is a gentle dogleg right of around 370m but you are hit by the left-to-right crosswinds which drive your ball towards the rough. Even a good drive leaves you with a longish iron or hybrid to the middle of the green. Welcome to your challenge. Later, when you play the hole as the 10th, your tee shot is from a different angle which straightens up the hole, but it becomes 20m longer.
The 2nd hole takes you up the hill towards the mountains and it takes two decent blows into the headwind to reach the green which is protected by a bunker short and left. And when you play it as the 11th, again your angle from the other set of tees changes slightly and you can add 25m to the length of the hole.
The 3rd is another left-to-right dogleg and this is stroke two for good reason. It is a bit of a beast at 425m as you continue your trek up toward the mountains. You have a chance to hit one of three landing areas, so chasing the big drive is relatively safe, while your lengthy approach needs to clear a mid-sized gully to a raised green. It’s a totally different challenge from the 12th tee, playing a lot straighter as a 460m par five. If you have to play it as a three-shotter the gully may come into play as your second shot’s landing area. So your strategy either has to be to lay up and leave about an 8-iron in, or attempt to fly the gully and take a lob-wedge.
Turning to play down the valley, you can take a little bit of a breather as the stroke-18 4th is just a solid drive and a wedge at 318m. But when you tackle it the second time round as the 13th, the hole is a monster at 444m, rated the hardest hole on the course.
The 5th is your first par five on the front nine and after two solid shots you should be left with about 120m over a ravine to a raised green. Coming up short is not an option. It is played as a par four on your back nine and there is scope for the long hitters to have a go at the green which is ‘only’ 327m away. Alternatively you can play straight down the valley and then over the ravine with a wedge or 9-iron in hand. With a premium on accuracy because the green is so narrow, the hole is rated three.
Finally we have reached the first of the par threes, the 6th hole. The elevated tee is only 120m from the middle of the green but club selection plays an important role. Short is a no-no because of the hazard but long puts the big bunker at the back in play. It gets even tougher to pick a club on your second nine because it plays even shorter, at only 89m.
The 7th continues the trip down the valley, with your mid-iron approach shot needing to carry a stream at an angle. It’s fairly straightforward. When you play it as the 16th, though, there’s a real risk-and-reward factor that comes into play as the hole shortens from 404m to 282m from the white tees (the gold tees are a further 75m back) and you have a very different angle in to the green. The bunker at the front of the green will most likely become the target for the bigger hitters.
The 8th is the second of the par threes and in contrast to the short 6th, this is a beast at 190m straight back into the headwinds. Even with 3-wood I came up 20m short of the green, but luckily there is plenty of space to bail out there. When you play it as the 17th, the tee box is about 20m further left and only 5m closer to the green but by then the wind had become even stronger and hitting a driver left me still a metre short of the green.
Your closing hole is a 520m par five with the wind coming across from the right. Avoid the bunker in the middle of the fairway and one further up on the left-hand side and you leave yourself a short-iron to carry the gully to a raised green. When you play it as the 18th it is of similar length but it is visually easier.
Overall, a very challenging course and the new additions are going to make it quite spectacular. A stunning destination which is perfect to a T … or even a V!
Hole No 9, par five, 568m
While there are a lot of great holes on the current Vulintaba course competing to be the signature hole, the best would appear to be the 9th. A big par five to close out either nine, it’s going to find itself challenged for that honour by a few others once the construction of the other nine holes is completed.
As the 9th hole, its 550m length just to the front of the green will challenge the best of the big hitters. A back pin position could add another 35m to the hole’s length. Then take into consideration that the strong prevailing wind plays from right to left across the fairway and you begin to see what a big task it is just to make a regulation par.
The long bunker which jags down the centre of the landing area creates two distinct fairways about 40m apart.
Both are wide, though, and the bigger hitters will probably go for the slightly further right-hand side, while us mere mortals are more likely to take on the left fairway as it offers a straighter line towards the green.
Your second shot should be aimed to the right of the left-hand pot bunker which should be about 175m in front. The apex of the hotel atrium’s roof is a useful sightline in the background.
Being 30m to 40m past this pot bunker will leave you short of the water hazard and with no more than a wedge to the lengthy green. Being short with your third shot is no good as the hazard will come into play, and being slightly long will see your ball rolling down into the swale.
Big hitters might consider taking on the green in two if there’s not much wind and they can control their distance well, but most regular players will feel a definite sense of accomplishment making par at this hole.
Club members: 18 holes R120, 9 holes R80 (midweek); 18 holes R150, 9 holes R100 (weekend)
Student members: 18 holes R90, 9 holes R60 (midweek); 18 holes R130, 9 holes R80 (weekend)
Hotel guests: 18 holes R150, 9 holes R100 (midweek); 18 holes R170, 9 holes R120 (weekend)
Students: 18 holes R100, 9 holes R70 (midweek); 18 holes R140, 9 holes R90 (weekend)
Seniors 60+: 18 holes R120, 9 holes R80 (midweek); 18 holes R140, 9 holes R100 (weekend)
Golf carts: 18 holes R220, 9 holes R150
East London: 930km
Cape Town: 1,513km
(FROM NEWCASTLE CBD)
Head north-east on Murchison St towards Allen St. Continue to Airport Industrial. Turn left at the first cross street on to Allen St. Turn left on to Memel Rd/R34. Drive for about 19km to Vulintaba.
D 96 District Road, Vulintaba Estate 2940
Tel: 087 310 4564
Email: [email protected]
– This article first appeared in the January 2022 issue of Compleat Golfer magazine. Subscribe here!