Lions and signature designers meet at new SA golf resort

Sean Dudley
By Adam Lawrence

Adam Lawrence visited the new Legends resort in South Africa and became one of the first golfers to play its Extreme Nineteenth hole, the world’s longest par three.

Golf destinations come in all shapes and sizes. For some, golf is the be all and end all, and they thus specialise in attracting customers who just want to play golf and socialise. Your non-golfing spouse, for example, would be fairly unlikely to accompany you on a trip to Bandon Dunes in Oregon. Bandon has conclusively proved that a golf-only model can be extremely successful: but few resorts have the luxury of two of the top 100 courses in the world, and a third that may yet achieve such exalted status.

For most resorts, therefore, having something to offer besides golf is a massive advantage. This is why spas, for example, have become de rigeur at high-end hotels and resorts the world over. Golf remains overwhelmingly a male-dominated game, and providing attractions that will appeal to partners of golfers is an important part of achieving financial success.

It’s hard to conceive of a more impressive set of subsidiary attractions than those that the soon-to-open Legend Golf Resort, situated two hours drive north of Pretoria, in South Africa’s Limpopo province. Led by the successful and highly rated Leopard Creek course on the edge of the Kruger National Park, South African developers are currently rushing to build mixed golf and safari resorts. Legend, though, located on the edge of the 22,000 hectare (50,000 acre) Entabeni Safari Conservancy, has accessibility on its side, and, crucially, is located in a malaria-free region.

The golf course – which is currently being built on what veteran golf development consultant and GCA editorial board member Richard Wax says is only the third ‘perfect ten’ site he has seen in his career, after Kingsbarns in Scotland and Vidauban in France – should prove a powerful attraction in itself, but if you’re bored of the course? Well, how about a quick game drive? In only three days at Legend, this writer saw a pride of lions devouring a wildebeest as the sun set, a mother hippo and her baby, rhinos, giraffes, and a host of other creatures. And if it’s a different kind of golf experience you’re after, you can play the longest, highest and downright maddest par three hole in the world.

Englishman Graham Cooke, a partner in the development, is the man who originally conceived the golf hole known as the ‘Extreme Nineteenth’, while South African golf professional and course designer David Riddle can take the credit (or blame!) for actually building the thing. Picture, if you will, a massive green shaped like Africa, with its contours echoing the continent's relief – a swale for the Great Rift Valley, humps where there are really mountains, and surrounding the green a large waste bunker, in which is found a green mound, Madagascar. Above the green, the mountain rises, steadily at first, but eventually turning into a sheer cliff perhaps 200m high. There is 100m or so of fairway, cleared (mostly) of trees and rocks, and shaped so as to encourage shots to funnel down towards the green.

And golfers will need this sympathetic shaping, because Extreme Nineteen lives up to its name. The tee, located on top of that sheer cliff I mentioned, is more than 400m above the level of the green, accessible only by helicopter. There have been some severe drop shot holes built on golf courses before, but nothing could prepare you for this. With a vertical difference of over 400m and a horizontal distance around the same, maths whizzes will not take long to calculate that the straight-line distance is in excess of 560m. A ball hit from the tee that lands in the green will have a hang time of 23- 24 seconds.

Riddle is at pains to explain that Extreme Nineteen is more than just a gimmick. “From the start, I said that if we couldn’t make it a legitimate, playable golf hole, then we shouldn’t build it,” he says. “It will be played strictly according to the Rules of Golf – if you hit a shot off the tee that can’t be found, then you’ll be playing three with your next ball.” Golfers will pay a separate fee, in the region of 2,500 rand (US$350 or £180) to play the hole, a price that will include the helicopter trip to the top and back, various bits of memorabilia and an unlimited supply of golf balls, as they’ll be encouraged to keep hitting until they get a tee shot in play. And for the golfer who makes the miracle shot a greater reward awaits: developer Peet Cilliers has put up a prize of a million US dollars for a hole in one on Extreme Nineteen.

Even though the hole was clearly not completely ready at the time of my visit, I can safely say that playing Extreme Nineteen will be like no other experience in golf. Riddle told me his crew had been hard at work fixing the problems caused by rainstorms over the past few days, and it was only too clear to see that a hole built on a mountainside in this way is likely to see a substantial amount of surface water sheeting across it when it rains! The green, seeded only five weeks previously was in surprisingly good condition, with a few strategically-placed patches of green sand covering areas of weaker growth when the Premier of Limpopo province, Selle Moloto, officially opened the hole.

But enough of this; golfers will want to know if David Riddle’s commitment to making the hole a genuine golf experience has been carried through. The answer is yes, with some caveats. Standing on the top of the mountain is an overwhelming experience, with the helicopter parked only a few yards behind you, and such a huge vision in front. I went up the mountain early on the morning of launch day, when clouds still clung to the cliff faces, and a tricksy breeze was blowing in our faces, all of which is by way of an excuse for the fact that I failed to get a ball in play. I hit three shots, all with a driver; none were seen again.

Riddle though, did hit a drive that came up twenty yards short of the green, although as he had previously asserted that the right club for him was typically a hybrid, that perhaps shows the strength of the wind. British golf journalist Dominic Pedler also got into play, his ball stopping just short of the fairway, but in clear view of the spotters. Later in the day, though, as the temperature rose and the wind abated, the hole was clearly more playable: one player landed his ball in the middle of Nigeria, and several others completed the hole. Riddle said to me that he felt a little more fairway clearing might be needed to make it playable for all golfers in all conditions, and I would agree with him, especially for women. But let this not stand in the way of what he has achieved – the longest, steepest, craziest par three hole the world has seen. Extreme Nineteen is going to be big news.

So what of the golf course itself? Riddle is collaborating with established South African architect Douw van de Merwe of DDV Golf Design on the project, which will (everything is big at Legend) be capable of being stretched to a length of 7,748 metres (8,473 yards). Admittedly the high altitude and warm climate of the Entabeni area will see golfers hitting the ball distances they could only dream of at sea level, but still, I can’t help feeling that this is excessive. Also excessive is the course’s biggest marketing driver: not content with handing over a large sum of money to one touring professional to act as ‘signature’ designer, Legend has gone the whole hog and hired 18. Each hole is named after its player-designer, all of whom were offered the opportunity to contribute to the playing characteristics of the hole. Starting and finishing in South Africa with Trevor Immelman and Retief Goosen respectively, the course traverses the golfing world by way of Jim Furyk, Camilo Villegas, Justin Rose and Sergio Garcia among others.

Don’t fall into the trap of assuming that all these golfers have tramped the sands of Entabeni issuing detailed design instructions for their holes. As ever with these projects, the level of interest and involvement depends on the particular player. Some, I was told, have taken a very active interest in ‘their hole’; others have been less involved. Now, though, the development team is starting to bring the signature designers to the property: Rose, for example, visited shortly after I saw the site, during the pre- Christmas tournament swing through South Africa. The day after winning the Nedbank Challenge at Sun City, Trevor Immelman was on site at Legend providing his input to the par five opening hole. He said: “I really look forward to getting out there, walking and playing the hole and making some more suggestions and just making it the best hole I can possibly make it.” In the interview room after the event, which he won by one stroke, he commented that on the dogleg left ninth at Sun City over the monumental lake he only attacks the green if he can reach it with a four iron or less. This strategic aspect is what wins tournaments. Rose added: “I'm excited about putting my name to it. For me design is something I'm very interested in and I'm sure it's going to be a great project.”

What, then, of the golf course itself? Van de Merwe has designed massive, even overwhelming, bunkers because, he told me, smaller features would be lost in such an enormous landscape. Similarly, large scale movement of the indigenous sand has been used to lift sightlines and to focus views. I particularly liked the downhill par four fourteenth (480 metres from the back tee, believe it or not), for its wide and undulating fairway and complex mix of options. Fine driving will be needed to score well at Legend, as it should for a course associated with so many of golf’s greatest names.

This article first appeared in issue 11 of Golf Course Architecture, published in January 2008.