Golf on the wild side at Leopard Creek

South Africa’s Big Three may be missing this week, but the Big Five are certainly here as the Alfred Dunhill Championship at Leopard Creek tees off the European Tour’s summer in South Africa.

With the Big Three of Ernie Els, Retief Goosen and Charl Schwartzel away on Presidents Cup duty this week, South Africa’s rising stars such as George Coetzee, Thomas Aiken, Jaco van Zyl and Jbe’ Kruger have a chance to shine.

But the beauty of this event is that South Africa’s finest wildlife often steals the show. The Leopard Creek course borders the magnificent Kruger National Park, with the result that it makes for a unique week in global tournament golf where the professionals can do a bit of game watching while they’re playing.

Giraffe, antelope and monkeys are a common site at Leopard Creek, while there are also snakes and the more elusive leopard. Some of the water hazards also have signs declaring, “Danger. Crocodiles.”

“We saw giraffe on the second fairway in our practice round,” said South African professional Michiel Bothma. “And we also saw leopard tracks in the bunker on the 13th hole”.

Countryman Des Terblanche and a few professionals went on a game drive in the Kruger Park earlier this week, and had a brush with an elephant and her calf.

“The elephant was fine and then all of a sudden started shaking its head and getting a bit agitated with us. The funny thing was that one of the pros closed the car window when this was happening. I said to him, ‘That’s not going to help you. You need to get us out of here’.”

Hennie Otto is another of the golfers who loves the bush feel to this tournament. “I’m staying in the Kruger National Park this year, and it’s so relaxing. I’ve got my family with me, and at night I love just staring at the fire and hearing the noises of the animals. You can just stare at the fire and clear your mind for the week ahead.”

Derek Muggeridge, the course superintendent at Leopard Creek, says they spotted a leopard stalking some impala during the pro-am. “We were driving in a cart behind the pro-am field, and we got to the 13th, which overlooks the Crocodile River and then the Kruger National Park beyond this, and saw how this leopard has just spooked the impala on the other side of the river.

“That’s the amazing thing about this place. You can be driving along and all seems quiet, and then suddenly you see something like that.”

Snakes are obviously present as well, although their sightings are more rare. There is one python on the estate that loves to stretch itself out across the entire width of the road, earning it the nickname “speed bump”.

Wayne van Schalkwyk, who helps with the laying of TV cables for the broadcast, says they were busy laying cables near the camera crane on the mountain overlooking the estate when they spotted a black mamba.

“It was about two metres long. We just dropped everything and ran,” he said.

It’s definitely a week when some of the world’s leading professionals get to bag birdies, eagles and a whole lot more wildlife.

By Michael Vlismas

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