Out of the bush comes Elements Private Golf Reserve, a championship course that has had to overcome the worst nature has thrown at it, writes BEN KARPINSKI in Compleat Golfer.
Nature is one of life’s true wonders. Majestic in every way, but in the same breath a cruel and uncompromising place where life can cease to exist in a second. This holds true for Elements.
It’s one of South Africa’s most impressive new courses of the past 10 years; one that went from a wild wonder to a victim of a crippling drought in the Limpopo area. The drought threatened the future of this superb Peter Matkovich layout. Golf courses are extremely difficult to maintain at the best of times, but even more sowhen set in unconventional locations such as this course.
Situated close to the town of Bela-Bela, just over two hours’ drive from Pretoria, the course was crafted from the bushveld. A championship layout measuring over 6 700m from the back tees, it soon became the golfing pride of the region and a popular escape for the home owners and visitors who didn’t mind a bit of a dirt-road trek for something special in a golfing sense.
The lack of rain in recent years turned it into anything but a natural golfing paradise, though. In tough times, courses have to resort to watering the greens and tees only, and just hope for rain at some stage to keep everything else together. Only the rain never came. Water hazards dried up and it became a shadow of its former self in more ways than one.
Thankfully, that was then, and after some encouraging rains and progressive steps towards water usage on the estate, Elements resembles more of what it was intended to be.
The dusty drive navigated, the first impressions of the course are breathtaking. From the clubhouse terrace, you are immediately greeted by the sight of the sprawling bushveld layout, and the dramatic 9th and 18th finishing holes.
Though it looks a lovely walk, Elements is essentially a cart course, especially in the sometimes sweltering heat of summer.
Cooler box filled, you proceed to the 1st hole and an interesting opening. Unassuming on the scorecard by length, the dogleg-left in reality requires a precise tee shot. This sets you up for an approach to the green where you must find the right part of the slopes to give you a fair shot at par. It sets the tone for a course that requires some thought and an appreciation of the subtleties.
The tee areas are a feature and define the holes from the start. The par-three 2nd is a stunning example of this, embodying the bushveld experience and nature of the course, which has perilous rough and where wayward drives are written off long before the ball lands. The intended landing areas at Elements are fair, but for good scoring, knowing from which angle to approach the greens will be useful as the front nine meanders away.
The 3rd hole is a great risk-and-reward par five, but the par-four 5th contrasts that well, with the priority being keeping it straight and out of trouble. It is the stroke one, after all, and when standing on the tee with a little prevailing headwind you will see why.
The 6th and 7th are your best chances of birdie on the front nine. Both offer some latitude with your drive, and the slightly elevated tee positions will give you the confidence to hit a good one. The 8th again requires precision over power, with a par four that sneaks left with a slight blind approach to a green where left and short is the safe play.
From there the nine comes to a thrilling end with a par three. The carry over water increases with each teeing option, something that is positively daunting should you tee it up on the championship tee where a mid-iron needs to be hit with some authority to make it home.
Matkovich is a firm believer that his golf courses should enhance their environment, not detract from it. Elements certainly offers some frills and modern touches that you come to expect from newer courses. But this has been achieved by staying true to the ‘bush golf’ identity it started with. The trees are a feature throughout, with other vegetation creating a delightful continuity that makes the holes memorable.
Add all this to some of the purest putting surfaces you will encounter, and you can see why people talk about this course in the manner they do.
Speaking of memorable, the par threes on the course are a joy to play. All with their own appeal, the 11th in particular stands out. From a raised tee, the tilted green is well guarded on the right side by a broad bunker complex.
At 172m from the club tee it takes a decent hit to get there, but with the bushveld ranging as far as the eye can see, it makes for a great place to hold your finish. And perhaps even a little twirl of the club while hoping for a favourable landing.
The next three holes are quite similar in nature and favour those who hit it left to right from the tee. There’s a chance to gain some momentum scoring-wise, but the key is to not get suckered into any heroics on the par-five 14th. Measuring 531m from the club tee, it gets narrower the closer you get to the green, making you think carefully about your lay-up as your chances of reaching it in two are slim.
The joys of golf in a setting like this are not just confined to what you see in front of you. The quietness of nature is with you every step of the way, and with the trees often enclosing you at each hole, you feel well removed from everyday life. Although it is a housing estate, the residences at Elements are never noticed, unlike some golf estates elsewhere in South Africa.
On the tee of the par-three 15th, your surrounds resemble something more of a woodland glade than the bushveld you arrived at. With this being the easiest hole on the course, it is also the perfect softener for the move back to the clubhouse.
Fittingly, the 18th at Elements is a showstopper. Measuring 489m from the club tee, it is a par five with a real shot at glory to round off your experience. Driving back towards the clubhouse, it is important to keep your tee shot left of centre to avoid the fairway bunkers and maximise your run with the drive. Distance is the key here as a long drive will give the better golfer a shot of getting it home in two. Easier said than done, of course, as a watery grave is waiting for anything left or short of the hole. There is room on the right to err slightly, but you could then face a delicate bunker shot back towards the water for your third.
Whichever way you bring your round to an end, a look up to the sounds of laughter and jovial conversations from the clubhouse bar quickly remind you that your day is far from done. The view back over the course from this vantage point is the perfect place to reflect on a day well spent, and a destination that is special in many ways.
Whether you are in the Waterberg for game viewing or in search of some tranquility, packing the golf clubs along with the binoculars and camping chairs is certainly a worthwhile option with what Elements offers.
Ian Leech, general manager of Elements Private Golf Reserve, explains what the course has gone through in recent times, and Elements’ plan. ‘Water is the lifeblood of Elements. Without sufficient water neither the estate nor the golf course can be sustained. The Waterberg region of Limpopo’s annual average rainfall is in the region of 730mm.
But we had a drought in 2014 and 2015, with annual rainfall dropping below 600mm. As a result measures were put in place to improve management of our available water resources. Most importantly, successful negotiations were held with neighbouring farms to source water when required. In addition, Elements implemented a comprehensive water-management project to measure every movement of water, from rainfall and boreholes to water consumed on the golf course and for domestic purposes. Over the past two years this has allowed Elements to reduce domestic consumption by as much as 35%.’