Leopard Creek Country Club is an exclusive facility, which opened in 1996. Businessman Johan Rupert owns it and his company sponsors the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship at St Andrews in Scotland.
The front gate to the club is at the bridge leading over the Crocodile River into the Malelane Gate of the Kruger National Park. The entrance is as strictly secured as that at Augusta National, Leopard Creek being reserved for members and their guests. However, visitors can access the property, use the clubhouse, and play the course, by staying at various game lodges in the area, and paying a high-end green fee. The closest one to the course is Buhala Lodge, which is located a few kilometres away on the banks of the same Crocodile River which borders the golf course.
Course architect, Gary Player, commented as follows: “Leopard Creek is surrounded by bushveld. The fact that your could be playing while hearing a hippopotamus snort or seeing a lion near the fence is unique, as is the pitch shot you might hit over a lake full of crocodiles and hippos. The clubhouse, an extraordinary piece of architecture with a thatch roof, is filled with golfing memorabilia. Just three years after its completion in 1996, Leopard Creek hosted a Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf match between Ernie Els and Nick Price.”
Leopard Creek has been the annual host to the Alfred Dunhill Challenge on the European Tour since 2005.
An addition to the golfing experience at Leopard Creek in 2016 was the construction of a par three course which replicates famous short holes around the world, plus a state-of-the art practice facility adjoining the par three course.
Stuart McLean, editor of Golf Digest South Africa, informed us that Leopard Creek was closed for play at the end of 2017 because the course was undergoing eight months of major construction – including a total redesign of the par three 12th hole with its Redan green – and re-turfing, which resulted in the cancellation of the annual end of year Alfred Dunhill tournament.
Many of the fairway bunkers have been repositioned and landing areas for handicap golfers widened. Kikuyu grass fairways were replaced with warm season Bermuda, a grass that requires 30% less water and fewer chemicals to maintain, and this move should help improve year-round playability and allow the golf ball to run further.
Greens have also been planted with the latest strain of Champion bent grass from Houston, Texas, with Leopard Creek now having the South African rights to this particular grass.
There is no doubt that Leopard Creek is a great course, with many memorable holes. However having paid full price (R4200 (£230), including having to stay at an expensive upmarket lodge for the chance to play the course) I was left VERY disappointed.
Despite booking months in advance, there was no forewarning that the greens would be going through its aeration and sanding stage. This left the greens slow and bumpy - and not up to scratch for a full price round. There were also a lot of repairs being made to the course with GUR signs sprinkled all over the place. The worst of which was the 16th hole which was going through a complete makeover and as a result, the tees and green were out of use. The solution was to cut a hole in the fairway, leading to a makeshift 80 yard hole that even the worst of public courses would dwarf. I was laughed at when asking for a discount after the round for having paid full price....
The front 9 is much less memorable than the back 9. The course only really starts getting great when you reach the 9th, looking downhill at the clubhouse and the Kruger National Park in the distance. 11,12 and 13 is my favourite stretch of holes I have played. The par 4 11th is a wonderful hole, playing your tee shot into a fairway in a valley and back uphill to the green with your approach. The par 3 12th is a fantastic short hole tumbling downhill with the Kruger Park in the background. I took 2 clubs less and still over-clubbed - leaving for a very tough uphill chip with the green sloping to the front edge. Then comes one of the best holes in world golf. The par 5 13th will forever be etched in my mind. Bordering the majestic Crocodile River and overlooking the fantastic Kruger Park, while waiting for my birdie putt, I spotted Crocs and Hippos in the River with Elephants, Zebra and Impala strolling in the distance. Needless to say, I missed my birdie putt - its tough to regain concentration standing in one of the most beautiful spots in the world. I could have stayed on the 13th green all day, but needed to refocus and head to the next tee box. The view from the 15th tee is equally as breathtaking, with the champs tee being the highest point on the course. Assuming you play the course in proper conditions, every shot you play from the 9th tee to the 18th green will blow your mind. The par 5 18th is a truly fantastic risk-reward finishing hole - the long hitters will be tempted to go for glory with their 2nd shot to the island green.
Welcoming you at the clubhouse will be an indulgent platter of biltong, droewors, ribs which wash down fantastically with a pint of cold beer.
At its best, this course deserves an albatross rating. However, I am afraid that it was very frustrating, having gone out my way to play the course and being treated the way I was after having the cheek to request a discount given the condition of the course. Lets hope that this was a once off and the course doesn't rest on its laurels as it truly is one of the most memorable experiences of my life, despite having been left with a bad taste.