• December COTM: Graceland

    A unique golf experience

    A links layout in Secunda? Wind on the Highveld? These factors, combined with the golfing and casino facilities, make for an interesting experience, writes BEN KARPINSKI in Compleat Golfer.

    Living in South Africa’s major city centres means you are spoilt when it comes to golfing choices. So much so that you will seldom feel the need to venture out of your immediate surrounds unless you are holidaying at the coast, or on your annual golf tour with your mates somewhere special, like Sun City.

    This is particularly true for golfers in Gauteng, but a comfortable one and a half hours from Johannesburg, just off the N17 highway, is a course you may not know about, but is certainly worth playing. It’s called Graceland.

    The mention of ‘Graceland’ in golfing terms in South Africa would sooner elicit a confused Elvis-themed response than that of a golfing nature. But larger than life, on the outskirts of Secunda in Mpumalanga, sits this course, which is the jewel of a four-star casino resort.

    Originally a mostly unknown nine-hole course for local golfers, Gary Player was tasked with turning it into a championship layout as part of the first fully licensed casino resort to be opened in the ‘new South Africa’. It was officially opened to play in 1998 as the links-style gem we know today.

    Overlooked by the imposing American Victorian-styled 98-bedroom hotel, it makes a rather bold first impression when you arrive. The striking links aesthetics of the course aside, another coastal golfing element that hits you straight away is the wind. Though rare for conventional Highveld golf, it’s an integral feature of the course, and one that is perhaps necessary as an extra defence for a layout that measures just over 6 200m from the club tees at 1 620m above sea level.

    Another unique feature of Graceland is that once you arrive and walk towards the course from the pro shop, you can see virtually every hole. The front nine to your right and the back nine to your left certainly gets the excitement going for the round ahead as you stroll down to the 1st tee.

    The first thing you think with Graceland and its open nature is that you can just bomb driver all day, giving yourself a solid chance at beating your handicap. In theory that is true, especially over the first three holes. But in reality, the moment you stray from the fairway and find yourself in the rough, that mindset will quickly change.

    Though the rough is cut relatively short to help the pace of play, you have thatchy shrubs and patchy areas that will punish you all day long. You may have a clear path to the green when you end up here from a mis-hit drive, but being able to make clean contact is another thing entirely.

    After an interesting start, with three par fours, your first real challenge (and taste of water) comes on the par-five 4th hole. There are many risk-and-reward holes on the Graceland layout, with this one being the epitome of that from tee to green.

    With the hotel now in direct sight, the front nine well and truly steps up a gear. The first short hole of the day again brings water into play on the tricky par-three 6th, before the stroke-one, par-four 7th hole tests all of your abilities while you strive for par.

    If you haven’t lost a ball to a watery demise at this stage, count yourself lucky or exceptionally talented. Many a good golfer has come unstuck at this point in the round, and the wind has almost everything to do with that. Though wind is tough to play in at the best of times, in this part of the world you experience some particularly tricky gusts that keep you guessing throughout. From finding the fairways to judging your approaches to the greens, your patience may well be tested.

    The par-five 8th hole presents a welcome birdie opportunity that must be taken at all costs. That’s because the front nine comes to a close with a par three, which is certainly one of the tougher short holes you will have the pleasure of playing. Though only 158m on the card, you could easily be taking a few clubs extra while trying to land safely on a green surrounded by a Scottish-type burn. The wide, yet shallow green adds to the difficulty and confirms once and for all that this course is hardly a pushover.

    The halfway house offers a welcome sanctuary where you will get to enjoy another of the course’s defining elements – super-friendly and helpful staff.

    All set to take on the next nine, the 10th hole eases you into it with a relatively straightforward par five. With the wind at your back you may feel confident enough to try to take on the par-four 11th from the tee, but the now familiar streams and staked areas will make you reconsider, with a well-placed iron into the fairway.

    The next couple of holes take you to the furthest reaches from the hotel and the course begins to take on a more gentle appearance. But that is short-lived as you turn to play the par-five 14th and gaze upon the familiar site of the Sasol refinery, perhaps Secunda’s most recognisable (or somewhat infamous) landmark.

    The par-three 15th is simply a brilliant short hole. From the tee it looks rather unassuming, but with swirling winds and another deceptively shallow green, your ball can soon come to rest in an area you may not have expected. Short right presents a devilish drop-off area that is somewhat challenging to navigate, and can quickly turn a good round into an average one.

    The 17th hole presents a brilliant driving opportunity from a raised tee as you now well and truly head for home, with the welcome sight of the hotel ahead of you.

    The 18th hole produces an exciting finish, comprising all the elements that make this course so uniquely enjoyable – risk-and-reward features from the tee, penalising bunkers on the landing areas and a last flirtation with the water that guards the front of the green.

    Sure, Graceland won’t be among the big courses people talk about when it comes to enjoying an out-of-town golfing experience. Its mere location in Secunda may be enough of a deterrent to some in search of something a little more picturesque. What it offers, however, is an undeniable premium golfing experience.

    The fairways are tight and the rough can be a little taxing, but the general conditioning is superb. The greens are pleasingly pure, albeit a touch on the slow side. But this is to be expected with the persistent winds.

    If nothing else, it is one of the few places in South Africa where you can combine the casino and golfing experience at one destination and which can be enjoyed for good value in a wonderfully unpretentious setting.

    My only real gripe with the course is that I felt a little beat up after playing it for the first time. A little more course knowledge would have gone a long way in improving the experience. It’s a good reason to make a weekend of it when Graceland becomes a destination you consider for your next golfing getaway.

    After a couple of drinks in the Augusta Lounge after your round, you will indeed be pleased that you decided to make it a longer experience.

    Restoring the charm of the Gary Player design

    All courses in South Africa encounter occasional fluctuations to their desired condition and appearance. Under the control of golf director Heinrich Britz there have been pleasing improvements at Graceland, though, with the natural aesthetics as designed by Gary Player given a return.

    Two streams wind their way through seven of the holes, playing an integral role in shaping the course. To better define this natural feature, extensive work has been done in removing weeds and opening up the waterways. The same operation has taken place in the numerous dams across the course, attracting a great deal of bird life to the property.

    Regular efforts to keep the rough at a manageable level have provided a uniformity to the peripheries of the holes, which has also succeeded in defining the course’s tight fairways. Upgraded irrigation systems have ensured the playing surfaces are in top condition all year round. The manicured kikuyu is well suited to the area, with crenshaw bent grass creating a putting surface of terrific consistency.

    Though penal in nature, the bunkers have been restored to the original Gary Player specification, ensuring a fair test from the grass-faced hazards that are strategically placed throughout the course. There have also been upgrades to the cart paths to ensure the social golfer can take things a little more leisurely, with the driving range and chipping areas also rebuilt to tournament standards.

    All these measures, along with the natural lay of the land, provide a unique links experience in an unexpected setting. This means golfers of all levels can enjoy a round of golf that is memorable, and more importantly, enjoyable.

    WEBSITE: graceland.co.za

    – This article first appeared in the December issue of Compleat Golfer

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