There are certain courses that just seem indubitably suited to certain golfers. For England’s Robert Rock, one of those courses is Leopard Creek Country Club, hosting the Alfred Dunhill Championship for the eighth time this week.
This will be the seventh time that Rock has contested in the event at the Mpumalanga venue, having in those instances recorded now fewer than three finishes inside the top ten and only once placed outside of the top 20.
The two-time European Tour Champion, whose finest hour came with victory at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship in February this year, came closest to triumphing at Leopard Creek in December 2008 in the early stages of the 2009 season, when the Lichfield man finished tied runner-up one shot behind native winner Richard Sterne.
Designed by nine-time Major Champion, South Africa’s Gary Player and opened in 1996, Leopard Creek is a 7,287-yard, par 72 parkland course situated on the southern border of the Kruger National Park in the north-east of the country.
Famed for the prodigious array of wildlife – sightings of which are commonplace during the week of the championship – both around the course and around the Crocodile River below, the layout weaves in and out of a mix of bush, grass-land and numerous water features.
The signature hole at Leopard Creek is undoubtedly the long par five 13th. With a babbling brook on the left, the green framed against the Crocodile River and the plains of the Kruger National Park beyond the views of both wildlife and countryside are simply spectacular.
“It’s just a great course,” said Rock, who will steel himself against some of the world’s best this week in Mpumalanga, including World Number Five Louis Oosthuizen and 2011 Masters Tournament Champion Charl Schwartzel.
“There are a lot of interesting shots that need to be played. It’s a good layout where there are some holes that can be attacked; it’s also nice to have a short par four on a course (the 319-yard sixth) and some really well-designed par fives too. All the shots seemed to have appealed to me in the past and I’ve got decent memories of how well I’ve played the course.
“The ball seems to sit nicely on the turf here – quite high – and there are nice routes into various flag positions for the way I tend to hit my iron shots from left to right.
“I definitely feel like it’s somewhere if I continue to play here every year for the rest of my career I’d like to think I would win this at some point. It’s always been good to me; I always seem to play quite well in South Africa, quite well at the start of the year, so it all adds up to somewhere I expect to do well at.”
“The fairways are reasonably generous off the tee and because they are soft you’ve got an extra bit of room to play with. The rough isn’t that punishing so it’s a second shot course: you’ve got to really find your route in properly and play the right shapes.”
“The greens are quite soft this week; they’re normally a little firmer than that. There’s a lot of slope in them, general grain following the slopes but you have to keep an eye on that as that can make the six to ten foot putts quite tricky because you can have a lot of break on them. They’ve got the sub-air system too so that could dry them out a bit.”
The Key holes
Seventh, par three, 215 yards
“It’s an important hole because it’s one of the tougher shots on the course. A hard par three with the water running parallel to the right side of the green. It’s very easy to just miss the green left – and that’s where the majority of people will hit it – but it’s a very tricky little pitch from there. So you’ve got to be quite brave and take that shot on and if you can pull it off and make a two there then you’re picking up a couple of shots almost on a lot of guys.”
11th, par four, 375 yards
“It’s very important to play the second shot into 11 well. It’s only a 100 yards pitch but the green spins back at you a lot and you can easily hit it over the back of the green trying to play for the spin or it can come all the way back down the front of the green again so it’s definitely a tricky one and important to get it right because if you do you’ve probably got a tap-in birdie there.”
18th, par five, 541 yards
“18 is a big finishing hole. You’ve got to decide on what your plan is there for the week and stick to it really because it’s a tricky hole. When the flag is on the back right that is probably your lay-up day; lay it down to around 100 yards and then pitch it to the back flag. But when they put it at the front you need to be hitting the fairway off the tee because it’s an easy second shot when the flag is there and you can eagle it comfortably if you hit a good, straight tee shot. So picking your tee shot to suit the pin position on the day is the key with that hole.”
A side note…
Robert Rock on the wildlife of Leopard Creek
“I played the Pro-Am one year with Paul Harris (Sunshine Tour board member) and he kindly offered to put me up for the week so I stayed in his house – on the Leopard Creeks estate – and wasn’t convinced that there wasn’t a lot of things crawling around close by. It’s a beautiful house but I just couldn’t stay there!
“So I had to check out, move back to a normal hotel and then the word got out around and Johann Rupert has embarrassed me on a number of occasions with that story.
“But Johann insisted I stayed with him this week to try and overcome the fear and I think it’s working, I think I’m okay now!”