Wildlife Par for this Course

Golfers playing the course on the Hans Merensky Estate in Phaloborwa, South Africa, encounter more than just birdies. They may also run across cheetahs, warthogs, giraffes, elephants, crocodiles, monkeys and other wild and woolly creatures from the nearby Kruger National Park. Contributing to this links menagerie is the Cleveland Private Game Park on the course’s south end.

Built in 1967, the club, 225 miles from Johannesburg, was built in 1967 by the Phalaborwa Mining Company for employees of its copper operation. It was sold to the current owners two years ago, and golfers from around the world are flocking to play the remote but wildlife-rich track. “My wife can join me on the course,” Belgian tourist Arne Secelle told AP reporter John Henry Boudreaux. “I play. She looks for animals. It’s great.”

A twosome from Germany had a similar experience. Martina Gronwald and Adi Van Der Walt said of their round, “We had a big giraffe walking with us the whole way yesterday.”

Not all encounters are so peaceful. “Seven years ago, we had a cheetah kill a pregnant impala on No. 4,” said Leon Pappas, 73, the club’s oldest member and former head pro. “We had to close the whole nine for the day.”

The club’s owners have found the task of keeping animals off the course impossible, so they’ve embraced them. An opening in the perimeter fence lets in antelope and crocodiles, but it’s low enough to discourage elephants and buffalo – who have a nasty knack for destroying greens and just about everything else in their paths – from entering the verdant grounds.

Regular golfers have become accustomed to getting up close and personal with exotic fauna on the course. Donover John Wyk, a 17-year-old student, plays the Hans Merensky Estate layout quite often. “A herd of springbok on the fairway is no big deal,” he said.

The only serious clash involving golfer and beast came in 1998, when a German tourist was trampled to death by an elephant after she had frightened the animal with a camera flash. Current head pro Sean Pappas, Leon’s son, intends to make sure that never happens again. “We take extra precautions,” he said. “The tourists’ naivete about big game and predators can put them at risk.”

To make them aware of the potential for danger, Pappas has all golfers sign an indemnity form before they can tee off. Game specialist Greg Austin makes a morning sweep of the 18-hole track’s perimeter to ensure that more dangerous animals haven’t breached the property. Austin’s task is usually pretty easy; it’s hard to miss the tracks – or calling cards – of a four-ton elephant. The massive pachyderms must have a bent for golf: one nearly snapped in two a barrier fence made of steel bars strung with barbed wire and 10,000 volts of electricity.

Some members are a bit miffed at the management’s extra care. “I think they are overly cautious when the see big game,” 20-year member Roelf Duploy grumbled to Boudreaux. His longtime golfing buddy, 40-year member Thys Fourre, said, “We have been playing next to lions and leopards, buffalo and elephants, and nothing has happened.”