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Golf: Golf Gone Wild

Adjusting her footing while setting up her tee shot at the 297-yard 15th hole, an English tourist was startled to notice a large red drop of what appeared to be blood on the left shoulder of her white golf shirt. Before she could say a word to her partners, another drop splattered on her shoulder, then another. Alarmed, she rocked her head backward and looked straight up. There, halfway up the 50-foot African wattle tree that shaded her like a giant mushroom, was an eight-foot-long leopard eating an impala. It was lunchtime at South Africa’s Hans Merensky Estate.

The incident took place six years ago, or so I learned this past summer from the club’s head pro as I stood over the tee at Leopard Kill—the hole’s official name now. The course also includes Hippo Hollow, the par-3, 189-yard 17th, where bellowing hippopotamuses offered new meaning to the term water hazard. Crocodile eyes poked out of the waters that flank the eighth fairway, a giraffe snacked on tree leaves high above the 13th green, zebras kicked and butted each other on the 11th, and swarms of warthogs, springbok, wildebeests, and monkeys scampered here and there. While hunting for a ball that I had sliced into the bush (where course employees explicitly warn you not to venture), I spied a sleeping lion before hastily tiptoeing away.

No, we were not in Augusta anymore. Hans Merensky and three other South African courses lie adjacent to and within Kruger National Park, a game conservation reserve almost as large as New Jersey that runs the length of the northernmost border between South Africa and Mozambique. The wildlife, including Africa’s Big Five—elephants, leopards, lions, rhinoceroses, and buffalo—roam freely from the rest of the park onto the courses, which have limited or no fencing surrounding them.

The wildest course is the fenceless Skukuza Golf Course, a par-72, 6,450-yard 18-hole built within the park for employees but recently opened to the public. There, I was joined by warthogs and springbok, a tame group of partners for a course that welcomes visitors with a large sign stating that it is “unable to accept liability or responsibility for any loss, damage and/or injury (fatal or otherwise) whatsoever.” In years past, Skukuza golfers had to carry two-way radios at all times so that club officials could warn them of threatening congregations of animals. Today, rangers sweep the course twice a day in their Land Rovers, and you test the favorable odds that the gallery will mind their manners if you mind yours.

Not all golfers want to play by these rules. Some insist on violating an animal’s space in pursuit of a Kodachrome trophy. Five years ago, before elephant-restricting fences were installed at Hans Merensky, a German woman was crushed to death on the 16th hole, the motor drive on her camera clicking away as she stubbornly stood her ground. After studying the pachyderm footprints, wildlife experts estimated that the beast made four mock charges—obvious warnings telling the woman to back off—before attacking.

The Kruger courses are open year-round, but the ideal time to golf there is during the South African winter (June through September), when the days are mostly sunny and warm, the nights are cold, and the most dangerous creatures, the malaria-carrying mosquitoes, are largely dormant.

Hans Merensky Estate, +27.15.781.3931, www.hansmerensky.com;

Kruger National Park, www.krugerpark.co.za;

Skukuza Golf Course, www.golfinsa.com/skukuza.htm

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