American pro becomes South African pitchman

The par-4 fifth hole at St. Francis Links.

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American pro Jeff Clause “fell in love” with South Africa and made it his home.

St. Francis Bay, South Africa – How did an Iowan working in Texas become one of the biggest promoters of South African golf?

In 1991, Jeff Clause left The Hills CC in Austin, Texas, to take on a three-year assignment as the first director of golf at Fancourt, the South African resort that hosted the 2003 Presidents Cup.

“I didn’t hesitate,” Clause recalls. “I was 34 or 35 years old, and thought, what’s three years in South Africa? Well, three years became 23 years.”

After Fancourt, he spent eight years as director of golf at Pezula Championship Course in Knysna, then continued east along the Garden Route to St. Francis Links, where he has served as CEO and director of golf since 2006.

Along with two dozen Golfweek course raters, I met Clause at St. Francis Links during a recent two-week tour of South Africa. The course, located on the southern coastline about 50 miles west of Port Elizabeth, sits on huge, rolling dunes. Holes are cut through the fynbos – the native coastal shrub – and defined by rugged bunkering and greens that sit naturally in the sandy mounds. It’s a Jack Nicklaus Signature Course, but very different from what we’ve come to expect from Nicklaus’ shop.

During our group’s visit to St. Francis Links, I talked with Clause about golf in the country, South Africa’s appeal to golf tourists, and the country’s odd tradition of stopping play for 10 minutes mid-round.

How did you end up settling in South Africa?

Jeff Clause: I got involved with the PGA here, I got very active with the educational programs. The PGA program in South Africa was more a guy taking green fees, giving a few lessons. When I came from Houston Country Club, it was (members with their) arm around you, (saying) “This is my pro.” We were in a position of honor, and in South Africa it wasn’t a position of honor. I wanted to change that. So we brought service standards to South Africa – names on lockers, names on carts. I fell in love with the country, I fell in love with one of the girls in the country. We’ve been together for 19 years – 17 years married – and I never looked back.

Is St. Francis Links largely a second-home, vacation development?

JC: The town itself, St. Francis Bay, definitely is a second-home community. It was a secret – one of those places in South Africa that you had to find. For many years, it was a real high-end, second-home place. It was our little Martha’s Vineyard of South Africa. Yet today, with (information technology), we’ve got a lot of young families here, a lot of good businessmen of all nationalities, of all colors, of all races, living here and commuting. We have good schools in the area, so it’s been quite an attraction for first-home buyers. We had three years when we didn’t build because of the recession. Now we’re building 13 homes, we have 16 homes in the planning stages. And yet, the homes don’t encroach (on the course). It’s one of those residential developments where the golf course came first.

Where do locals commute to?

JC: Johannesburg. Johannesburg is the New York of South Africa. If you look at South Africa, from an economic standpoint, Joburg is the city, Cape Town is the beauty, and Port Elizabeth (about 50 miles east of St. Francis Bay) is the conservative side. We’re kind of the Bandon Dunes of South Africa. You’ve got to come find us.

I was struck by the green sites and how naturally they sat in the dunes. Did Nicklaus and his people find those green sites first?

JC: I am a Nicklaus fan. There are a lot of people who are critical of Nicklaus designs as being residential communities and stuff. The last raters I had out here were six holes into the game going, “Don’t even tell anybody it’s a Nicklaus course.” For me, I like the strategy. . . . At the opening, (Nicklaus) stood up and effectively said, “I’m not going to upset 250 people that I’ve worked with, but this is some of the best land I’ve ever seen.” The next morning during an interview, the reporter said, “Mr. Nicklaus, you said this is the best golf course you’ve ever done.” And Jack said, “No, I said I think this is the best land I’ve ever seen. That’s better than what I’ve done. It was up to me not to goof it up.” And I think he was right.

You’ve said that South Africa is about the “and” – golf and wine, golf and safaris, golf and other adventures. Can you talk about that?

JC: We’ve got great golf courses around the world, but coming to South Africa is such a special bonus. You’ve got golf and game (safaris), golf and clean air, golf and blue skies, golf and great topography, golf and great oceanfront, golf and great wine, golf and great food, and golf and great people. The South African people – black, white, colored – are incredibly selfless people.

One criticism is that everything seems spread out. The wine region is in the Western Cape, the best golf is along the Garden Route in the south, the safaris are in the Eastern Cape.

JC: It’s not like you can go to Hilton Head and do it all in a weekend. That’s a fair comment. But if I were coming to South Africa, I would detox in Cape Town, get over the jet lag and do the wine country. I would then make my way up the Garden Route – probably the best golf courses in the country are there. And if you’re limited on time, you can get a game experience here in the southeast. If you’ve got time, you can go up to Kruger (National Park for safaris) and also play Leopard Creek (Country Club).

The one gripe with South African golf is the traditional 10-minute break between nines. How did that originate?

JC: You probably saw a phone booth at nine and 18. That’s my way of speeding up play. I put a telephone in to make sure the halfway house is ready. It’s a South African tradition. I’ve had difficulty with it, not only from the standpoint of momentum – I think it’s the greatest momentum killer in golf – the only time I want halfway is when we’re losing. But it’s a proper tradition. Some clubs, like us, make a point of our homemade pies and homemade this and that. . . . When the Europeans come here, it’s a bottle of wine. I don’t believe in it, but I’ve succumbed to it.

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