The first round of the Alfred Dunhill Championship took place at Leopard Creek Thursday. Grant Winter walked nine holes with Brandon Stone, the SA Open champion and Sunshine Tour Order of Merit leader, and his playing partners Thomas Aiken and Scotland’s David Drysdale.
The group started their round at the 10th hole and here’s what happened:
No 10: 395m par-4. It’s 7.20am and the birds and the animals on the Estate and the Kruger Park right next door are being pretty vocal, no doubt their way of saying thank-you for all the welcome rain that fell in the night. A gorgeous lowveld morning and Drysdale nails a 25-footer for birdie. The other two make par.
No 11, 343m par 4: “Easily the scariest tee-shot on the course, ” says Stone’s dad Kevin, himself a pro golfer, who is behind the ropes with me. “Because of the trees you can’t see much of the fairway, and it’s a long carry to safety,” he explains. No problem for Brandon, though, who hits a good drive into the semi-rough , a wedge to 10 feet and rolls in the putt for a three. Drysdale par, Aiken bogey.
No 12, 176m par-3: In 2013 Keith Horne sensationally aced this hole both on days two and three to make European Tour history . No holes-in-one for the Stone group today though but, curiously enough, they all hit their tee-shots to within inches of each other, about 20 feet from the cup. Aiken misses just left, Drysdale just right and Stone - who after two ‘reads’ definitely knows where to putt by now - is dead on line only for his ball to stop centimetres short of dropping in. So three pars.
No 13, 505m par-5. This dramatic hole is everyone's favourite for both strategy and location, as the green overlooks the Crocodile River and the Kruger Park beyond. Stone thinks he’s duck-hooked his drive into the stream on the left but, to his relief, he just stays dry and then hits a high, absolutely majestic six-iron to six feet behind the hole and makes the putt for an eagle-three. I say to the Nomads man, Rudi Nel, who is stationed there to keep the scores, “I mean, how do these guys do it?”
He just shakes his head and grins: “Practice and more practice, gym and more gym, sports psychologist, swing coach, the right food, no womanising, you name it. And, unlike me, it helps to stay away from alcohol! (and Stone, incidentally, does apparently stay away).”Aiken birdie. Drysdale par. No Big Five on view from the green today but Rudi says he’s seen waterbuck, impala and a few small crocodiles.
No 14, 378m par-4. Stone goes for two-iron off the tee to take the fairway bunkers out of play and hits a beauty from there to about 10 feet.
Aiken, bunkered with his drive, produces a magnificent second from the sand over the little stream that fronts the green to about four feet. Shot of the day, I think to myself. But hang on.
Drysdale’s splendid nine-iron ends up just two inches from the cup for a tap-in birdie. Correction, that’s the shot of the day. The other two miss their putts and have to settle for par.
No 15, 547m par-5 (and playing longer against the wind). Stone pulls his drive into a bunker left. Oops, was that a naughty word from clean-cut Brandon? Aiken, who likes to move the ball through the air with a slight fade, implores his ball to cut. “Cut, please cut!” he cries. It doesn’t cut and he’s in the same bunker as Stone (better known as Pebbles) who ends up draining a monster 40-foot putt for birdie to move to an impressive four under through six holes.
“Longest putt I’ve seen him made all year,” says Kevin. And Dad is so chuffed he repeats himself. The others make par. In the background, the hauntingly beautiful liquid call of the black-headed oriole.
No 16, 190m par 3. Leopard Creek is a nature lover’s paradise and here we have goldtails and gliders, skimmers and scarlets, cruisers and cascaders, ruby jewels and dancing jewels. They are prolific.
So what are they? Dragonflies and damselflies, actually. So colourful, like little helicopters, and for some reason they particularly like holes 15 and 16 here at Leopard Creek. Back to the golf and Donaldon makes a fine birdie while the other two make par.
No 17, 410m par-4: Three drives in the fairway, three fine approaches to the heart of the green and three missed putts. So three pars.
No 18, 495m par-5: With its island green, one of the games’ greatest risk-and-reward holes. Do I or don’t I (go for the green in two)? It’s a birdie or bogey gamble. Pebble lays up, and has to settle for par.
Donaldson goes for it but ends up in the dreaded drink. He takes a bogey six. Aiken also goes for broke to find the fringe of the green, from where he chips and putts for birdie. This brings a wide grin to his face although he wasn’t exactly smiling later in the round when he ducked into the bush to relieve himself only to be confronted by a snake.
This is, after all, Leopard Creek.
Stone would go on to shoot 67, Aiken 69 and Donaldson 70. All round, a pretty good start.