In pushing out the barriers, Serengeti Estates has found an intoxicating balance between traditional layouts and modern thinking, writes BEN KARPINSKI.
When Serengeti Estates came on to our golfing radar, it was as a bold new host to the SA Open Championship in 2011. Its Jack Nicklaus Signature Course was a monster of a layout, with larger-than-life features and an Instagram-friendly green appearance even during the harsh Highveld winters.
Putting it on the map was Henrik Stenson, returning from a career slump to capture the SA Open title by three shots in 2012 over George Coetzee. It’s a place that provides the spectacular, and when flying out of OR Tambo International Airport, you can’t help but notice the impact it makes on what is an otherwise unspectacular strip of farmland.
No longer the new kid on the block, Serengeti is constantly evolving its golfing and lifestyle appeal to a wide range of South Africans. And in 2019 it added something special to the local golfing landscape: the Whistling Thorn 18-hole Par 3 Championship Course.
Serengeti Estates’ developer, David Nagel, was inspired to create a golfing experience that could fit into the mindset and time constraints of the 21st century while still retaining the tradition and conventional appeal of the game.
Knowing the project had to be distinctive in every way, Nagel entrusted course architect Dino De Abreu to make his vision a reality. De Abreu knew it would challenge his expertise, but he relished the opportunity to build something truly unique.
When you hear the words ‘par-three course’, you usually think of the traditional mashie courses where people can ease into the game, or have a bit of fun with some wedges. Augusta National has a par-three course which the pros tackle before The Masters every year.
The Whistling Thorn course has the word ‘Championship’ in the title for a reason, so banish any thoughts of ‘short’ courses you may have played before.
When you stand on the 1st tee, you have all 14 clubs with you, and you will use them in much the same way you would on any full-length 18-hole course. Especially if you are brave enough to take on the challenge from the back tees.
The course opens up with the relatively benign stroke-seven 1st hole. A comfortable 155m off the tee, it gives you an idea of what to expect: water, wonderful wild grass areas and something that defines the course in more ways than one – vast, white bunkers and eye-catching undulating greens.
The 2nd hole is also a gentle length with bunkers to the left of the green to provide a challenge. But things change as you approach the 3rd tee. Every hole on Whistling Thorn has a name. At 280m from the back tee ‘The Judge’ is certainly not to be messed with. A large waste bunker and wild grass areas need to be carried from the tee, but at least a contrasting lush run-up area provides some comfort for any shot not quite reaching the green.
Three holes in, this course already shows what the hype is about, and its immaculate conditioning makes it all the more playable. The 5th hole has a set of tees that provides a completely different test depending on which one you use. From the left-hand tee complex you play slightly downhill to a relatively open green with bunkers either side. Set up on the tees to your right, though, and you have greater carry over a waste bunker and tricky greenside bunker. This really highlights the beauty of De Abreu’s design. The space is brilliantly used and gets the most out of the natural contours on offer.
As you make your way through the front nine, you realise that many of the holes would be standout par threes on any conventional course. This makes it all the more rewarding to score well, even on the slightly easier holes.
But there don’t seem to be too many of those. The 6th hole, named ‘Father Time’, demands a pinpoint tee shot so as not to come into contact with the contoured bunkers flanking the green. The 8th is a beautiful hole played from an elevated tee, with a green that favours someone with a right-to-left ball flight. Then the front nine comes to a dramatic end at the suitably named ‘Grim Reaper’. This is partly due to the small cemetery behind the tee, but also for what it can do to the scorecard, with a demanding carry to a green protected by water around the back.
Whistling Thorn’s back nine takes on a more gentle appearance, with natural waterways and dams coming into play more. Though pleasing to the eye, they also make for watery graves for miscued shots short and on the left on holes 10 to 15.
The 11th is a real showstopper, where you want to hit a good one and hold your finish. If played in the afternoon with the sun at your back, it is a terrific photo opportunity and hopefully a par, too, on a deceptively difficult green to hit. The same goes for the 12th hole, where you will encounter a two-tiered green that makes the hole significantly tougher if the pin is placed back-left.
At this stage the course starts to deliver hit after hit, with the stunning 13th also offering a green which is spectacular to stand on, but fairly brutal for a two-putt. The short 14th pays homage to the famed 12th hole at Augusta National. Thankfully, though, at just over 100m it allows you a little respite before making the turn towards the final stretch of holes.
The 15th is another brute of a hole that can be played as long as 247m. A large expanse of water makes up a great part of that distance, but once safely navigated, a deep green awaits with a distinctive front and back section. The 16th is another of the more manageable holes, but club selection can be a little tricky if there is any wind as the green funnels into a small hollow sheltering the flag.
As you would expect from any Championship course, Whistling Thorn provides a grandstand finish with two testing holes. The 17th has a large waste area leading into a shallow green that is well bunkered, requiring ultimate precision off the tee. The 18th, dubbed ‘Wee Laddie’, wouldn’t look out of place as a finishing hole anywhere. Though only 135m long from the white tee, water guards the green short and long with a vast bunker on the right, and one further towards the back. Any tee shots caught here will require a nervy shot to be splashed out towards water but, thankfully, anything on the green will be rewarded with one of the flatter surfaces on the course. It’s a chance to finish with a flourish and look back on a truly exceptional and memorable golfing experience.
Not only is this course different, it is also quality from start to finish. The beauty of it is that you can play all 18 holes in about two and a half hours, but the undeniable take-out is this round of golf will provide some wonderful moments for even the most seasoned of players.
There is often much talk in the golf industry of what is the future of course design. With this layout Serengeti Estates is past the talking phase and very much at the stage of showing what we can do with the game.
The only negatives are that golf carts are compulsory and teeing it up here will cost you a greenfee of R600. It sounds steep, but then again this really is a premium experience which shares the world-class clubhouse and facilities you will also enjoy should you play the Jack Nicklaus Signature Course just a stone’s throw away.
Clubhouse: (011) 552 7200
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