Jungle Golf an Adventure

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PHALABORWA, South Africa -- At the Hans Merensky Estate, golfers face more than the usual hazards of flying balls and runaway carts.
 
``Seven years ago, we had a cheetah kill a pregnant impala on No. 4,'' said Leon Pappas, 73, the club's oldest member and former head pro. ``We had to close the whole nine for the day.''
 
Bordering one of Africa's largest game reserves, the 18-hole course features a unique mix of manicured greens and wild bush. Warthogs root around for food on the edge of the putting green and giraffes sip from the ponds on the 475 acres.
 
The club, 225 miles from Johannesburg, was built in 1967 by the Phalaborwa Mining Company for employees of its copper operation. It was sold to its current owners two years ago.
 
From the entrance, a dirt road winds past a group of frolicking Vervet monkeys, along rolling fairways lined with thatched-roofed chalets, and into thick bush at the southern end of the course.
 
Skirted by Kruger National Park on its eastern border and the smaller Cleveland Private Game Park to the south, the owners found it impossible to keep animals off the course - so they embraced them.
 
An opening in the perimeter fence lets in antelope and crocodiles, but is low enough to discourage all but the most determined elephants and buffalo.
 
The animals are now the main reason why people play golf there.
 
``My wife can join me on the course,'' Belgian tourist Arne Secelle said. ``I play. She looks for animals. It's great.''
 
Martina Gronwald and Adi Van der Walt traveled from Germany for the experience.
 
``We had a big giraffe walking with us the whole way yesterday,'' Van der Walt said.
 
Besides tourists from Europe, Asia and the United States, the club also attracts locals. Donover Jon Wyk, a 17-year-old student, plays the course so often he has become almost blase about the wildlife.
 
``A herd of springbok on the fairway is no big deal,'' he said.
 
Golfers must sign an indemnity form before they can play. Game specialist Greg Austin takes a morning sweep of the perimeter to make sure the more dangerous animals haven't gotten in during the night.
 
``We've never missed an animal yet,'' Austin said. ``It's easy, we just look for the tracks.''
 
Although the delicate Hyena tracks were hard to spot, an elephant left a sizable calling card. A barrier made of steel bars strung with barbed wire and 10,000-volt electrical fencing was snapped nearly in two.
 
Austin jumped into his truck and raced along the rocky back roads. The animal was spotted grazing among the trees. A helicopter herded the elephant back to the game reserve.
 
During the elephant's jaunt, the pro shop suspended all tee times. After spending an hour watching TV or eating a second breakfast, many visitors gave up on playing that day.
 
``I think they are overly cautious when they see big game,'' grumbled Roelf Duploy, a 20-year club member.
 
``We have been playing next to lions and leopards, buffalo and elephants, and nothing has happened,'' added Duploy's playing partner and 40-year member, Thys Fourre, 73.
 
But head pro Sean Pappas, Leon's son, isn't taking any chances. In 1998, a German visitor was trampled to death by an elephant when she frightened the animal with the her camera flash. It was the course's only fatality, and Pappas intends to keep it that way.
 
``We take extra precautions,'' he said. ``The tourists' naivety about big game and predators can put them at risk.''
 
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