Be sure to leave space for a camera in your golf bag because Simola’s stunning layout brings out the best of Knysna and leaves a lasting impression, write BEN KARPINSKI.
There is a great deal South African golfers can be proud of. The Garden Route in the Southern Cape is one such thing, with a stretch of superb golf courses offering world-class experiences all year round. Though maybe not spoken of as highly as other nearby layouts of this region, Simola in the town of Knysna is something special, and a contender for the title of being one of the country’s most beautiful golf settings.
This is what the image on the scorecard suggests, but after winding your way up the road to the entrance of the estate (famous for the annual Simola Hillclimb), you realise this is so much more than just another eye-catching SA golf destination.
It ticks the boxes of having a spa, a variety of accommodation options for visitors and other expected country club facilities. But where it exceeds expectations is in how this has been created in keeping with the tranquil surroundings. Set high in the hills, you can enjoy sweeping forest vistas and uninterrupted views of the Knysna Lagoon towards the iconic Heads. Then there is also the lesser-known panoramic view of the Knysna River valley. Is there even enough space for an 18-hole golf course among all this natural beauty?
Thankfully there is. Jack Nicklaus did a lot with a little, creating a golf course that offers something special in the rolling hills overlooking one of South Africa’s most picturesque towns. He used all his design smarts and love for the game to create a layout that does the location justice.
Your first impression at the start of your round is that Simola is so wonderfully different. You begin with a golf cart drive down the valley to the course. It’s a fair drop, leading to beautifully manicured practice facilities should you have time to enjoy them.
The path to the 1st tee prepares you for what lies ahead, opening up to the par-five 1st hole. It is the first of five par fives on the course, and a wonderful openingtee shot where you can set your drive against a lush background of trees and hillside en route to the fairway. It’s no gentle opener, though, with a difficult approach whether your strategy is two or three shots to the green.
From there you go up to the 2nd tee and the highest part of the property, where you have a breathtaking, uninterrupted 360-degree view of your surrounds. From being able to gaze out towards the Knysna Heads to surveying the next five holes on the course, it’s something you have to see to comprehend. Ordinarily, a vantage point like this on a golf estate would be sold off to a deep-pocketed home owner. But at Simola they truly value the golf experience and instead made it an unforgettable tee box, and the starting point for a brilliant, short par four back down the valley towards the Outeniqua Mountains in the distance.
Holes 3, 4 and 5 get down to things in a golfing sense with three par fours where the score of four is a real challenge.
The 6th tee presents another magnificent view, this time of the main river that leads into the Knysna Lagoon. You need to hope for a bit of luck with your tee shot. It’s a demanding long-iron to a par three that holds the title of being the stroke one on the course. Even though the surrounding forest makes for terrific scenery, a shot lost to the right here will see it acquire your ball and any chances of salvaging a par.
Thankfully, the par-five 7th provides some respite, but the front nine comes to a tough conclusion with the dogleg par-four 8th, where the position of your drive is critical. The par-three 9th hole also has a variety of bunkers looking to collect stray tee shots left, right and short of the green.
You will be hard pressed to find a more action-packed opening nine holes in golf, something you and your fourball can reflect on with a sitdown at the delightfully elevated halfway house overlooking the 9th, 1st and 18th holes.
Though situated at the coast, the setting of the course at Simola is mostly protected from strong winds. The 10th and 11th holes provide a brief exception to this, though, playing out towards the ocean, and with that you may need to club up on your approaches.
Here the course takes on a different personality. To be critical, the opening of the back nine presents the ‘weakest’ holes on the course from a wow factor. But when you think of them in isolation, they still stack up to be quality offerings, reminding you of what a brilliant course you are on.
Getting back to the wow, the 13th hole is a delightful dogleg par four which offers several options for your drive, depending on what tee you are off and how far you can launch a driver. This is the beauty of the Nicklaus design. You could be retired and find Simola to be a lovely, leisurely experience; or you could be at the peak of your game and enjoy a unique test of your abilities.
Technical brilliance is well balanced here with the unique aesthetics at every turn. The par-three 14th, set between tall pines, is a classic short hole, followed by the demanding par-five 15th which opens up to more panoramic views.
The final three holes then kick things up yet another level. When European great Tony Jacklin visited Simola, he said the par-four 16th was his favourite due to the options the golfer had on the tee. Looking down on to the fairway from all the teeing positions, it’s the kind of hole where you feel you can give it a good rip. Which you need to do in order to have enough loft to take on a challenging approach to the green.
The 17th is known as the course’s signature hole; a beautiful par three that embraces Simola’s finest qualities.
The saying that all good things must come to an end has never been more real, or cruel, than at Simola. Standing on the 18th tee, you feel a touch deflated that this is the last hole of an incredible experience, but thankfully it’s a finishing hole that wraps things up in style.
It’s a traditional brute of a tree-lined par five. If you are long enough to put it past the fairway bunker on the right, you give yourself a chance of chasing something up to the green in two. With a stunning natural backdrop, you will want to hold your finish no matter what you approach the green with, and hopefully roll in a birdie putt to conclude one of South Africa’s truly memorable golfing layouts.
You will run out of superlatives in describing a round at Simola. But with the ever-changing landscape you just have to try to focus on taking it all in. A drive up to the clubhouse reunites you with your initial viewpoint of the course, and you can’t help but think of playing it again.
In fairness, it is a course that has to be played more than once if you are visiting. First time out you will be distracted by the beautiful surrounds and you may fail to appreciate some of the subtleties of the course.
The fast and true greens will also take some getting used to. There are also some one-of-a-kind shot situations at which you will want to have a couple of goes.
The tee shots on the 2nd, 6th, 8th, 13th, 16th and 17th, in particular, will stick in the memory. To make the most of these holes and the rest of the course, it is highly recommended to play at least one round off the championship tees. Sure, this may add a few shots to your score and be a little daunting for the shorter hitter, but when you get out on the course you will agree that it’s worth it.
So see when you and your golfing crew can set aside the time and make the most of a world-class experience in one of South Africa’s most picturesque settings. And take lots of photos.
Visit simola.co.za for information