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Jack Nicklaus's course in South Africa's Western Province provides a remarkable golfing experience and more than lives up to the reputation of its architect
IT'S easy for any new golf course to say that it has its sights set on being among the best of the best, but it's much more difficult to put that statement into practice.
Yet, the Pearl Valley Signature Golf Estate & Spa in the wine region of South Africa's Western province, which opened in 2003, ticks most of the necessary boxes when coming to fulfilling that stated potential.
Designed by Jack Nicklaus and opened by the Golden Bear himself along with golf's most famous South African, Gary Player, Pearl Valley took 13 months to construct and is quite a remarkable experience.
Bordered by vineyards and set in the shadow of the imposing Drakenstein Mountains and within an hour's drive of Cape Town, Pearl Valley has become a must destination for golfers visitng the wine trail around Stellenbosch, Franschhoek and Paarl. And, after playing it not long after it opened, the only unfinsihed feeling you got was from the buildings (a hotel, clubhouse, and on-course homes) that were still under construction. The course itself, by contrast, felt fully bedded in and provided both a great test and great scenery.
On the day of my round, the temperatures were in the high 90s and the south-easterly wind was gusting above 30kph. Playing off the members' tees (between 10 and 30 metres in front of the championship ones), the 6,085-metre (6,693 yards) test looked within my 11-handicap abilities.
So it was a bit of a shock when I hit off at the opening 365-metre par-4. Here was I dinking a driver up to a reasonable distance before I realised that it was actually driveable for the big hitters (especially the group behind whose ball shot through the green into the rough behind us). Local knowledge really counts.
And the wind was to be a factor throughout the round. With no buildings and relatively few trees yet fully grown, you can feel a constant blast at Pearl valley (however, in such hot temperatures, the wind is a welcome relief from total stillness.
The next hole of interest is the fourth - a classic Nicklaus challenge. It's a shortish par-3 at 157 metres, but the hole bends wickedly left to right with water all down the right and, of course, the wind coming off the left. Yes, a slicer's nightmare. And just to make things perfect, a massive bunker is situated along the left edge of the green in case you bail out too far. Hitting a six-iron into the catch-all bunker and then a thinned sand iron into the water, it's not hard to see how I was thrilled to walk off with a five.
Pearl Valley may look as inviting as any resort course, but it has plenty of ways to bite back.
The two par-5s on the front nine (especially the 450-metre fifth with its massive desert-type bunker on the approach to the green) are birdie opportunites if played sensibly while the par-3 eighth has the only real saucery-looking green. At 205 metres, it's really long enough without the tricky putting surface, so a four here was acceptable.
The ninth uses water to the left of the green as a knee-twitcher, but a front-to-back sloping green helps calm the nerves and I don't know how I missed the par putt. Using my customary unusually-generous gimme scoring system, I was happy with 16 stableford points.
And this was achieved while putting on very firm and fast greens. With most sloping back to front, there was some help for us poor hackers, but they were not easy to read and very fast on the day even though they read 9.7 on the stimp metre (how nice to be told the green speed, for a change!).
It is also customary on most South African courses to take a decent break after nine holes, so repairing for a beverage and a snack (and in this kind of heat, any break is welcome) is a great idea.
And so to the back nine. It's slightly longer than the front nine and has much more water to contend with. But I wasn't really aware of that and the 10th, with another of those massive bunkers, gave no signal. At 312 metres, this hole provided another gentle start to nine holes - a nice feature, I must say, for the first-time visitor. And I got my par (just like at the first).
Then comes the 11th. With 358 metres of fairway and an equal measurement of water down the right side, this hole required more care. But Big Jack was kind to place only one small bunker in driving range and another tiny one at the back of the green. A bogey five was not a bad result (it's stroke index 4, after all) and with a par on the tricky par-3 12th (again, water on the right and bailout bunkers all around the green), I was starting to get the feeling that amateurs often get - an alarming sense of golfing zen.
The atmosphere at Pearl Valley can do that to you. More than 60 per cent of the course-side homes were sold within months of the opening with buyers dreaming of splashing the cash to get a daily dose of the healthy sun, the gourmet food, the adjacent wine country and the soft clouds sitting on the backdrop mountain ranges. Then you stand on the tee of the 13th. Wake up time!
Beautifully evil is the closest description I can give this 477-metre par-5 (537 metres from the back tees). You have to cross water twice (a stream winds across the fairway at about 312 metres and again just next to the green), but the narrowness of the landing area for your drive means a three-wood should be the club of choice. How many middle handicappers would think of that after going par/bogey/par? Not this one, anyway. And so one bunker and one visit to the water later and I had an unwanted seven on my card. It's the kind of hole you live to play again.
The 14th and 15th were spent still seething from the seven and they were passable tests.
However, the 16th and 17th re-focused my attention. The 383-metre 16th is another bunker-or-water driving challenge and, for once, I hit a brave driver ramrod straight. A short iron, two putts and it was par time again.
The 17th was a different story. A 360-metre par-4 back along the other side of the lake (it's on the right hand side of the fairway this time). You also need to hit your second shot over an extension of the lake and onto quite a small green. A double-bogey six was always on the cards after a poor drive.
However, Jack again allowed me a chance to leave another of his courses with a semblance of glory. The 18th is a 474-metre par-5, dead straight and with little trouble at all (no water and small bunkers). It felt like a pretty impressive par, but I'm sure Jack was intending me to walk off with something akin to respectability (17 using my generous stableford-style scoring system on this half of the course).
So that was it. I knew then that Pearl Valley was set to become a golf estate and spa that would rival any in South Africa's wine region. The whole experience was classy - the hire clubs were brand new Mizunos; the menu and food was very well presented and tasty; and the whole atmosphere was one of quality.
For more information on Pearl Valley, visit www.pearlvalley.co.za