Golf is nothing like an extreme sport – but it absolutely is in one corner of South Africa.
In the country’s northernmost province of Limpopo, close to the Zimbabwe border, lies the Legend Golf and Safari Resort. Its flagship Signature Course, with each hole designed by a different famous golfer, is sprawled out across the plains of the Entabeni Safari Conservancy, home to Africa’s “Big Five” and a vast array of other wildlife.
Yet many players do not return to the clubhouse after 18 holes, not because they’ve fallen prey to a lion or leopard, but because they’ve boarded a helicopter and soared up Hanglip Mountain to a one-of-a-kind bonus hole: “The Extreme 19th.”
The 361-meter (395-yard) hole, ending in a green shaped like the African continent, is the longest – and possibly the most intimidating – par-three in the world, and the brainchild of Legend Holdings CEO Peet Cilliers.
“We wanted it to be a place of extremes that people would talk about … we wanted to do something unique,” Cilliers told CNN.
“Golf can be quite boring and I think it is just something that makes it special. It’s a wild experience.”
Into the lion’s den
The seed for The Extreme 19th was planted in November 2000, when Cilliers’ wife Mart surprised him with a family picnic at the summit of Hanglip Mountain for his 41st birthday.
Captivated by the view, Cilliers would return to the peak (accessible only by helicopter) shortly after to show a friend, who – a bottle of wine later – suggested he drive a ball off the edge. By the time the duo descended, a whimsical wager had solidified into a concrete plan for an unprecedented feature.
Deterrents – financial and literal – ensued. Sceptical designers quoted five million Rand (today, roughly $263,000) for construction, which would be paused intermittently when lions padded into the area, leading workers to flee up nearby trees for safety.
Staff donned crash helmets as balls rained down from above in an attempt to plot the best landing zone. A few months later, South African golfing icon Gary Player struck the hole’s first official tee shot in 2008.
The nine-time major champion teed up a few steps further back from the edge to allow him his signature follow-through skip after the ball, and the same setup is also afforded to golfers with a fear of heights. Though the drop is sheer, a ledge two meters down would break the fall should any player somehow tumble over.
Golfers are permitted to take between five and seven shots off the tee, dependent on wind conditions. With a hang-time averaging 22 seconds, an eagle-eyed gaggle of crash helmet-clad caddies await down below to mark where the balls land.
With a sloped fairway starting roughly 260 yards in, “you don’t have to be a very good player to actually hit it near,” Cilliers insists, as balls can roll all the way down to around the bunkers encircling the flag.
A short electric fence surrounds the green to shut out the more dangerous wildlife, though occasionally impala – a species of antelope – and other smaller creatures slip through. On the Signature Course itself, however, wildebeest, zebra, kudu and other species are free to roam.
It costs 5,000 rand ($263) for a group of four to play The Extreme 19th, and 1,000 rand ($52) to play the Signature Course – though some travel halfway around the world just to play one hole.
“We’ve had some people from China and Europe who literally fly in, play The Extreme 19th and then leave,” Cilliers said, “It actually happens quite a lot.”
Perhaps some early visitors were drawn in by the prospect of becoming an instant millionaire.
For the opening year of The Extreme 19th’s existence, a $1 million reward was promised to the first player to sink a hole-in-one. There was a heart-in-mouth moment for the resort when one ball went careening via a rock to within two meters of the cup, with the prize dropped to $10,000 shortly after.
Closed during the Covid-19 pandemic due to a nationwide plummet in tourism, the Extreme 19th and Signature Course remain shut for renovations, but Cilliers said “something special” is in the works regarding a new reward upon the grand re-opening in the near future.
The first birdie was made by former West Indies cricketer Franklyn Stephenson in January 2010, yet by December 2014, where exact record-keeping ended, there had been just 12 more.
Of the 2,811 total scores submitted during that period, a mere 118 made par, while 338 escaped with a bogey. An eye-watering 1,287 players – almost 46% – finished in double figures.
A catalog of famous names dot the log book. The majority of the 18 Signature Course designers have stood atop Hanglip, including major champions Sergio Garcia, Bernhard Langer, Justin Rose and Padraig Harrington, who holed out from a bunker to become the first designer to par the hole in 2009.
There have been plenty of VIP visits from beyond the fairways too. Two icons of British sport have played The Extreme 19th: seven-time Formula One world champion Lewis Hamilton and five-time Olympic rowing gold medalist Steve Redgrave, as well as South African Springbok rugby heroes Frik Du Preez, Naas Botha and Morne Steyn.
Yet arguably the most memorable star appearance came when Morgan Freeman took flight in December 2009. The actor, who had starred as Nelson Mandela in “Invictus,” a historical drama following the story of South Africa’s 1995 Rugby World Cup win, had just stepped onto the 19th green when he received a call informing him that he, co-star Matt Damon and director Clint Eastwood had each received a Golden Globe nomination for the film.
“WOW! Three nominations on the 19th! Not too bad,” Freeman scrawled in the visitor’s book.
Many players opt to stay in one of the reserve’s lodges, which offer guests luxury on the banks of Lake Entabeni, with views of wallowing hippos backdropped by the mountain.
Activities include safari excursions and hot air ballooning, while an adjacent resort with 66 residences and a large conference center offers a more “corporate scene.”
Cilliers occupies neither. He lives in the reserve’s sole private home, where his children were raised. He is swiftly approaching a 25-year tenancy in the bush after making the switch from his previous career as a lawyer in Johannesburg.
The city can be reached within a three-hour drive, but to Cilliers, it’s a world away.
“If you’ve lost your soul, come to the bush and you’ll find it quickly,” he said.
“Although you’ve got work to do, you’re not part of the rat race. You’re reminded every day when you wake up or go to sleep – whether it’s a lion’s roar or the birds in the morning that wake you up – you know exactly where you fit in and how you’re supposed to live your life.
“It’s a wonderful experience.”