Mention Zimbabwe, a landlocked country in southern Africa, and golf in the same sentence, and you are likely to be greeted with a puzzled stare. Because of the political instability of the past several years, the country’s golf courses remain unknown to many outside Africa.
You might be surprised to know that golf has a long and distinguished history in Zimbabwe.
It was introduced by the Europeans in the 19th century, and first course was constructed in the provincial town of Bulawayo in 1895. The game spread quickly, and today there are more than 50 courses scattered throughout the country, from the capitol Harare to Victoria Falls.
The political and economic turmoil of the late 1990s through 2009 caused a fall off in the pursuit of the ‘ancient and honorable’ game, but with dollarization of the economy in 2009, which brought back a measure of economic stability, golf came back with a vengeance. While the political situation in Zimbabwe remains unsettled, it has not had an impact on the intense love of golf here.
In early 2010, the Africom Zimbabwe Open, one of Africa’s premiere tours, returned to the Royal Harare Golf Course in Harare. Golfers from more than 13 nations competed for the cup, and plans are already being made for the 2011 tournament. In a country where the normal work week comes to a halt at noon on Friday, corporate golf outings are the rule rather than the exception, and high level government and corporate executives can be found ‘on the course’ most Fridays and weekends.
Golf in Zimbabwe has a unique character, reminiscent of the age of the British Empire. The first time golfer is often taken by surprise by the obligatory ‘tea break’ at the turn. If you’ve played courses in Europe or North America where you lose your turn if you stop for refreshments after the first nine holes, this can take some adjustment.
Another facet of golf in Zimbabwe that will be both familiar and strange to the golfer from Asia is the variety of terrain, birds, animals, and layout of courses here. From baboons sitting at the edge of the nearby forest watching you putt, to impalas grazing contentedly in the rough, to elephants deciding to take a shortcut across the fairway, Zimbabwe has it all. And, lest I forget, some courses have crocodiles in the water hazards and cobras in the rough.
Following are some of Zimbabwe’s top courses.
Royal Harare Golf Club – Harare
Located close to downtown and adjacent to State House, Royal Harare Golf Club is one of the top courses in the country. Measuring 6,647 meters from the back tees, it only has one water hazard, but with more than 80 sand traps, and rough that during the rainy season can stump even a pro golfer, it is a challenging course. Royal has reciprocal arrangements with many other clubs in Zimbabwe and with Royal courses in South Africa, Europe, and Asia, so the annual membership fee of just over $1,000 is actually a bargain. For visitors, if you can get a member to sponsor you, the daily fee of $50 is also a bargain. Add to this, three to five dollars for the ninth-hole turn tee for your caddy, and a tip of $10 to $15 dollars, and it’s not an expensive 18 holes of play. Unlike most of the other courses in Zimbabwe, you can also rent clubs at Royal for a modest fee.
Chapman Golf Club – Harare
Chapman Golf Club is also located in the city, not far from downtown or the main residential areas. Unlike Royal, Chapman has water in play on nearly a third of its holes, and with the undulating layout, can be a challenge for a high handicapper. Chapman is listed on the UK golf website, www.top100golfcourses.co.uk as one of the 100 best golf courses in the world. Membership fees are somewhat less than Royal, but with reciprocal arrangements, golfers from the two courses can switch back and forth easily, and during the week, the course is seldom crowded, making walk-ons a snap. Chapman has a resident crocodile in one of the streams that crosses the course; and though seldom seen, it makes playing over the hazard an interesting proposition.
Ruwa Country Club – Ruwa
Located just thirty minutes drive from downtown Harare, Ruwa is both a long and a short golf course. The total playing area is less than 6,000 meters from the back tees, but the walk from green to the next tee on many holes is over 500 meters, making it longer to walk even than Royal or Chapman. The unique rock formations of Zimbabwe come into play at Ruwa, with some located in front of tee boxes, challenging golfers to try and play over them.
Wingate Golf Course – Harare
This is my favorite course when I just want to work on my swing and not have to worry about getting out of bunkers, or losing shots in water hazards. It has no water, and the bunkers are all shallow, making it possible to putt out of them. A flat course, whenever you get within twenty meters of the green, you have the option of using your putter (a Texas wedge) to get on. Wingate’s challenge is the trees that line both sides of almost every hole from tee box and fairway almost to the green. Growing close together, they make that second shot a challenge if you hook or slice off the tee.
Leopard Rock Golf Course – Mutare
In my book, Leopard Rock GC is Zimbabwe’s most scenic course, rivaled only by Elephant Hills GC in Victoria Falls. Located on the side of a mountain overlooking the Mozambican border, it has everything; fairways that slant thirty or more degrees, so that no matter where your drive lands, it drifts down to the rough on the low side, to meandering – but wide – streams that are in play for every shot except your putt. Wildlife, while not as varied as Elephant Hills, is nonetheless interesting. It can be unsettling having a group of baboons sitting on the sidelines watching you putt; grunting as if they really understand just how badly you pushed that ‘gimme’ putt. Or worse, grabbing your perfect approach shot from the edge of the green and dashing off into the bush with it. The views from every hall are unrivaled anywhere in the world, so be sure if you visit this course to take a camera, and lots of spare batteries (if its digital) or plenty of film (if you’re still using the ancient film cameras). Oh yes, and don’t forget to take along a lot of extra balls. Even the pros lose four or five balls to the deep and overgrown valleys over which many shots must be made, and the water will claim another two or three as well, especially hole nine, which has a semi-island green with water around three sides, and bordering the sloped green.
Elephant Hills Golf Course – Victoria Falls
At this scenic course, located adjacent to the Elephant Hills Hotel, you can play within earshot of the famous Victoria Falls, and are likely to see herds of elephants and zebras near or even on the course during play. The scenery on all holes is fantastic, and while it’s an expensive course to play, and a stay in Victoria Falls doesn’t come cheap either, it’s well worth the investment. After a round, you can go on an animal walk or drive, and see hippos and crocodiles in the river, or just sit on the verandah of your hotel and watch the animals arrive at nearby water holes.
These are just six of the more than fifty golf courses that await you in Zimbabwe. Getting here is relatively easy. There are multiple daily flights into Harare from Johannesburg, direct flights from Johannesburg to Victoria Falls, as well as connections that can be made from Addis Ababa and Nairobi. If you’re coming from a country that does not have a Zimbabwean embassy, visas can be obtained upon arrival at the airport in either Harare or Victoria Falls. The fee is $30 for a single entry and $40 for double entry, and is valid for up to two weeks. It’s wise to have your travel agent check for any changes in entry procedures before you depart.
For the golfer who wants a different experience, adventure awaits.