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Steenberg Golf Club: Legendary Players Discover a Timeless Golf Course

There are places where the sun’s reflection on the water sparkles more and the fairways are greener than the golf courses of South Africa, but those places are rare. At least, that’s the way it sometimes seems to U.S. PGA Tour Lifetime Member and South African native Bobby Cole.

Cole acknowledges, “Pragmatically, I know there are beautiful courses in all parts of the world. I love the links courses of Scotland, Carnoustie especially, the many beautiful courses in the U.S., and other courses scattered about the world–some legendary, others with names you might not know. But because I played some of the best golf of my career on the great golf courses of South Africa, I tend to think of them as being among the most spectacular places to play.”

Reminiscing about golf in South Africa, Cole talks about playing The Wanderers Golf Club in Johannesburg, where he won the 1986 South African PGA Championship. He smiles when he recalls defeating Gary Player to win the 1974 South African Open at Royal Johannesburg and the 1980 South African Open at Durban Country Club.

Eight times during his playing career, Cole finished in the top ten at the U.S. PGA Championship, The Open and The US Open, including finishing one stroke back of Tom Watson and Jack Newton, who played off for the win in the 1975 British Open. He held the record as the youngest winner of the British Amateur from 1966 until it was broken by Matteo Manassero in 2009, along with Cole’s record as the youngest player to play in and make the cut at the Masters Tournament (1967) which, in 2010, Manassero also broke.

With playing credentials like these, it is not surprising that last May, Cole, now a U.S. citizen, returned to South Africa for induction into the Mercedes-Benz Southern African Golf Hall of Fame. His name, and his golfing career that includes 22 tournament wins worldwide, are memorialized alongside legendary golfers from South Africa and Zimbabwe such as Bobby Locke, Gary Player, Sally Little, Ernie Els, Nick Price, Retief Goosen, David Frost and others.

As part of the events leading up to the black tie induction ceremony, Cole and other inductees and event guests played in the Mercedes-Benz South African Hall of Fame Celebrity Pro-Am Tournament. Hosted at Steenberg Golf Club, the venue offered an ideal backdrop for Cole to catch up with old “mates,” including South African golf professional Dale Hayes, who works with Steenberg’s course designer, Peter Matkovich.

Cole says, “I had never played Steenberg before; it’s relatively new. (The course was built in 1998.) But as soon as I got on it, it was immediately distinctive as a Peter Matkovich design.

“Play a Pete Dye designed course, a Fazio course, or even a Jack Nicklaus design for example, and every hole is consistent with their architectural style and their design signature. Beautiful golf courses, but when you look back on your round, you find you don’t always clearly recall each hole.

“Pete Matkovich’s approach is different. He designs with the terrain and with the environment, which makes each hole more likely to be distinctive from the previous one. Steenberg is a perfect example of Pete’s appreciation of the land and his desire to create courses that challenge players at all skill levels. His designs accommodate the modern game, but test your skills in old style ways.”

Dale Hayes has his own legendary history in South African golf, including being the leader, or among the leaders, on the European Tour Order of Merit throughout the 1970s. In 1974, Hayes and Cole paired together to win the World Cup of Golf for South Africa (team event), with Bobby also claiming the World Cup of Golf individual win that same year.

Hayes describes the unique Steenberg Golf Course, saying, “There is very little property in the greater Cape Town area, so for Peter Matkovich to get the opportunity to design a golf course in the heart of Constantia was a unique opportunity. He took the weather into account and offered generously wide fairways.

“He also wanted to highlight the vineyards and mountains so the course is relatively flat. The kikuyu fairways and bent grass greens made it the best conditioned golf course and lifted the standard for the Cape area. The golf course offers one of the best golfing experiences in South Africa.”

Steenberg Golf Club is located roughly twenty minutes south of Cape Town and is situated on the eastern slopes of Cape Town’s famous Table Mountain Range. Surrounded by working vineyards, Steenberg Golf Club features private residences and a hotel with spa.

The course is one of more than twenty courses designed or redesigned by Peter Matkovich, who began his golf career playing professionally in South Africa, Europe and Australia. Although he competed in The Open Championship in 1968 at Carnoustie and again at St. Andrews in 1970, he recognized that he loved the courses and the strategy of play more than he enjoyed the competition. Peter says, “Early on, I realized I wasn’t going to be a top player, but I was fortunate to play with all the top players of my day– even all four Grand Slam winners: Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus.”

By 1973, Matkovich had settled into the multitask role of club pro, playing professional and course superintendent at Umhlali Country Club (pronounced Um-shla-li), which at the time offered only nine holes of golf. Within two years of his taking the job, Matkovich had successfully redesigned the existing nine holes and built a second nine.

His extraordinary work on the Umhlali project launched Matkovich’s entrée into the world of professional golf course design. His outstanding effort was especially remarkable in view of his approach to the project. With a very limited budget, Matkovich took to creatively bargaining with highway workers who were building a new roadway from Durban, South Africa into Mozambique. Often, he traded the highway crew food and drinks for the opportunity to use road equipment during the worker’s down time.

Although he works with far more generous golf course design budgets today, Peter Matkovich hasn’t strayed from the work ethic that helped him successfully build Umhlali. In all of the courses he builds, he utilizes as much native vegetation as possible and never moves earth just for the sake of moving it.

Matkovich, who says his many years as a golf course superintendent have made him a better course designer, explains, “There is often too much landscaping and not enough golf in today’s course architecture. When we built Steenberg Golf Club, we honored the historic integrity of the venue; it’s part of the oldest farm in the Cape. We needed to accommodate more than 36,000 rounds of play annually, the historical significance of the buildings, the presence of more than 200 modern residential homes, and foremost, we also had to deal with environmental challenges. The Cape is the only area of southern Africa where the winters are rainy. It’s a harsh winter for South Africa, with lots of wind and rain.

“The portion of the land on which we built the course wasn’t a great piece of ground to start with. And it’s surrounded by working vineyards and the environmental laws in South Africa are as strict as the ones in the U.S.

“Some of the soil is clay and other areas are sandy, and there were drainage issues off the mountain, made worse by the winter rains. We dealt with the drainage problems by building a stream to manage excess water and bringing the stream into play on several of the holes on both the front and back nines.”

In the Afrikaans language, the word steenberg actually means “mountain of stone,” a detail Matkovich paid tribute to in the design of the course’s 14th hole. Describing the land set aside for the hole as originally being, “a featureless piece of terrain,” Matkovich unearthed a stratum of stone, a gravel bed originally used in building roads. Utilizing this, he was able to shape a mound of earth that replicates the mountain range visible on the horizon. The 14th green, which measures approximately 82 yards in length, is recognized as the longest golf green in the Southern Hemisphere.

When Matkovich references the venue as “historic,” he is not using the term lightly. Steenberg showcases a luxury hotel carefully restored from the property’s original structures that were built in 1682. As registered National Monuments, the original buildings adhere to South Africa’s Law for Historic Buildings, maintaining the exteriors as they were in the 17th century, while updating the interiors with period décor and modern conveniences.

Designing a golf course to meld aesthetically with the terrain is a challenge and is always important to Matkovich who strives to make each course look as though it has, “always been part of the land.” At Steenberg, Peter Matkovich has clearly succeeded in crafting a golf course with a timeless personality all its own.

Linda Parker has been writing professionally since the 1980s. With clients in finance, sports, technology, change enablement, resorts, and nonprofit global initiatives, Linda helps organizations communicate their stories in meaningful ways to the people they most want to reach. She has authored, ghostwritten or contributed to more than a dozen nonfiction books. You can reach her at: info@lindaparkerbooks.com.

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