Home to some of the most iconic Cape views, Milnerton Links has emerged as a must-play Cape Town layout, writes BRENDAN BARRATT in the March issue of Compleat Golfer.
Few courses in South Africa come close to matching Milnerton Links when it comes to its prime oceanfront location. Threaded between the crashing waves of the Atlantic Ocean on the one side and the more serene Rietvlei Lagoon on the other, the course offers numerous vantage points of what many consider to be the finest views of the Cape Town: the postcard vista of the city bowl framed by the harbour and Table Mountain.
Yet it takes more than a collection of attractive beachfront views to keep serious golfers coming back regularly enough for the club to more than 50 000 rounds a year. At the heart of Milnerton’s success is that it gets the basics right and seemingly harbours no delusions of grandeur.
‘Our focus has been on consistency when it comes to the course and the club,’ explains manager Mark Schacht. ‘We don’t want the course to be immaculate one week and below average the next. Instead, we want visitors to know what they are going to get when they come to Milnerton and that is a great golf course that is always in good condition.’
Just 15 minutes’ drive from the city centre, Milnerton offers all of the above, along with a friendly, relaxed atmosphere and a wonderful 19th hole that looks out over the ocean.
A couple of anecdotes from the Sunshine Tour during the late 1970s highlight the unique positioning and playing characteristics that the Milnerton Links layout offers.
The first involves George Schwartzel, father of 2011 Masters champion Charl. George was not having the best of days during the 1978 South African Masters tournament and, given his infamously short fuse, he quickly tired of the slow pace of play and endless searching for his own and his partners’ golf balls. So George abandoned his clubs in the fairway and made his way down the sand dunes to the adjacent beach. There, he stripped off his golf kit and dived into the ocean for a leisurely swim, before returning to play his next shot.
Another story involves Calvin Peete, the American star who would go on to win 12 times on the PGA Tour and become a member of the winning Ryder Cup team of 1983.
Peete was renowned as one of the straightest hitters on tour and took full advantage of benign conditions in the first round of the 1979 SA Masters to shoot a stunning round of 63. Unimpressed by the Milnerton layout, Peete referred to it as ‘a Mickey Mouse course’ but was forced to have a rethink when, faced with a howling south-easter the following day, he bumped round in no fewer than 83 strokes.
Those benign days may be few and far between during the Cape Town summer, but when they do come about there can be few better advertisements for the sport than 18 holes at Milnerton Links.
Even on a windy day, the course seems to offer as much as it takes and the traditional links layout, where one plays nine holes out and nine holes back, offers players plenty of scoring opportunities, particularly when playing downwind.
These days the course is considered rather short at a little over 6 000 metres when played from the tips, and the first signs that it may be succumbing to the battle against the modern elite golfer came when 18-year-old amateur Wilco Nienaber shot rounds of 62, 69, 64 and 67 to win the Western Province Stroke Play title here in 2018.
Yet between 1978 and 1985 Milnerton was home to the SA Masters and produced a vintage list of champions, with Gary Player, Nick Price, Mark McNulty (twice), Tony Johnstone and Dale Hayes all lifting the trophy on the links layout.
Player, the champion in 1979, would also go to win the South African Open and South African PGA Championship to become the first golfer to win the Triple Crown in the same year.
The Milnerton of today is somewhat different from the Milnerton that hosted the superstars of the ’70s. For starters, there’s the name change to Milnerton Links, which acknowledges that this is one of only a handful of genuine links courses in the country.
There was also a significant change to the layout in 1995, when the club sold off a portion of its land to the developers of the Milnerton Links housing estate. While the sale brought significant and much-needed revenue to the club, fans of the old layout argue that the course lost some of its links integrity in the process.
During the rebuilding process, however, much of the natural seaside bush was cleared and, as a result, golfers are now treated to more spectacular views on the numerous holes that run alongside along the coastline. On these holes, the course runs so close to the sea that wayward shots could easily end up on the sandy beach – although it is mercifully considered a penalty area.
Milnerton Links, with its captivating views and consistently good conditioning, is understandably popular among visiting golfers, who will walk away having enjoyed what is an authentic links experience, particularly especially if the wind gets up.
The Cape Doctor, which tends to make a regular, yet unwelcome, appearance around lunchtime during the summer months, blows in from the south east and, as such, is at the back of golfers for most of the opening nine holes. This may make for a more comfortable outward loop but can make things rather testing when turning for home into the full force of the breeze.
The clever mix of short and long holes results in a golf course that remains playable in all but the worst weather conditions. And, should the wind change direction overnight, the long holes of today, such as the par-four 3rd, 9th, 12th or 18th holes, could just as easily transform into comfortable two-shotters tomorrow. Therein lies much of the charm of this seaside track – that on any two given days, conditions can be so contrasting that it can feel like two completely different golf courses.
And for those who might not have enjoyed the best of scoring days, there is always plenty of birdlife on the course to serve as a welcome distraction, particularly near the lagoon. For others, the Sunset Lounge offers the perfect location to take a moment to reflect on a round at one of South Africa’s few genuine links layouts.