The Links is by some measure the most photographed golf course in the history of South Africa.
The Links reconfigured South African golfers’ mindsets. There was a time when shining new parkland courses like The Montagu and The Outeniqua dazzled crowds and lured hordes of players. But by the late Nineties new parkland layouts were a dime a dozen in South Africa. In one decade South Africa had gained more than 30 new layouts, nearly all of which were parkland in nature.
In this arena The Links represented a quantum leap. It is only visionaries such as Hasso Plattner and Gary Player that could imagine an end product as bold and daring as The Links. Even after construction started on the course in early 1999, many people simply could not believe that Plattner had commissioned Gary Player to build a links on a piece of land that once served as an airstrip. It is not unfair to say that there was a lot of skepticism about the project.
At the time South Africa boasted only one true links course – Humewood GC in Port Elizabeth, situated some 370 kilometres to the east of George and Fancourt. There were other courses that boasted links-like characteristics. Milnerton in Cape Town was one such course. Best known for its spectacular views of Table Mountain, Milnerton form many years was deemed a genuine links. A residential development that now weaves through the course changed much of the layout’s character. Durban Country Club also has some links-like holes, as does another famous South African layout, East London GC.
After the extension to the Outeniqua course was completed, Fancourt boasted 36 championship holes packed into tow superbly manicured parkland courses. Hasso Plattner wanted more. He wanted a course that would elevate Fancourt’s international profile and that would offer a golfing experience that transcends a mere score as captured on a scorecard. In short, he wanted one of the best layouts in the world. One of South African golf’s entrenched urban legends is that Plattner commissioned Player and his design team “to build a course that would rank in the top 10 in the world”. While this is not true, Player and Plattner combined to create a product that can compare with any course, anywhere in the world.
In the Nineties several high profile designers were involved in the construction of links-like courses in both the USA and Scotland. Master champion Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore designed Sand Hills in the wastelands of Nebraska (a project during which less than 1 900 cubic meters of soil was moved). David McLay Kidd designed Bandon Dunes, a spectacular course edged on the cliffs of the rugged Oregan coastline. Pete Dye completed Whistling Straits near Kohler, Wisconsin, site of the 2004 US PGA Championship won by Vijay Singh. And just outside the historic town of St Andrews, Kings Barnes was opened to rave reviews from the ultra-discerning Scottish golf public.
It is clear that Player and his men faced a daunting task. Not only were there a myriad of special courses in the pipeline, all of which would vie for international attention, but the site of The Links didn’t lend itself to spectacular golf course design at all. If Bandon Dunes, Kings Barnes and Sand Hills were rated A-grade golf landscapes, the land earmarked for The Links would have been C-grade, if not worse. The property was flat, infested with kikuyu and boasted no vegetation or water features to speak of. Another problem was that the property was separated from Fancourt by the Malgas River and thus there was no immediate access to the property from the estate.
The latter problem was overcome via the acquisition of Tuinplats, the farm that flanked the Fancourt golf estate academy. Today Tuinplats is home to Bramble Hill, The Links clubhouse and the opening and closing holes of The Links.
Acquiring Tuinplats enabled the Plattners to position The Links Clubhouse in close proximity to the original boundary of Fancourt. There was a natural extension from the main estate to the golf academy and to The Links.
The first step was to strip the land of its identity. What used to be an airstrip had to become dunescape. For weeks on end the crunching sound of bulldozers ploughing away filled the air. In the end roughly 750 000 cubic meters of soil were moved, nearly 3 500 times the amount of soil moved at San Hills in Nebraska.
The kikuyu was weeded out and replaced by a mix of cool season fescue, rye and colonial bent, fairways were sculpted and green complexes were molded. Remember that The Links had to be a course with a natural feel and an authentic look, but that it was essentially 100 percent man-made.
The course has been altered significantly since it was opened. This is hardly a surprise as The Links always was intended to be (and always will be) a work in progress. The majority of the changes made to the course between 2001 and 2004 were done with The Presidents Cup in mind. US Team captain and the most successful golfer of all time, Jack Nicklaus, suggested a number of changes.
The single most significate change suggested by Nicklaus was to convert the 18th hole from a par four into a par five.
The change has not only cut short the walk from the 17th tee and thus linked the two areas on which the course was built, but also created a more scenic walk home. Previously, the clubhouse was not visible from the tee as the view of it was blocked by a tall dune. Today the magnificent structure beckons the golfers home.
Construction of The Links lasted 20 months. On the opening day a mild breeze floated in off the nearby Indian Ocean, the sky was overcast and at times a soft drizzle covered the terrain. It was the perfect day on which to open a course that was modelled on the courses of the British Isles, where golf was born and nurtured into maturity.
Those privileged to be invited to the opening function included Fancourt members, dignitaries, members of the press and celebrities. That night, at a gala evening held at the conference center, the patrons enthusiastically debated the future standing of the course in South African golf.
2003 Presidents Cup 2005 South African Airways Open Championship 2012 Volvo Golf Champions