– IN THE BEGINNING –
There was a tomato farm, a farmer and his family. And not much else occupying 255 hectares of Hartbeespoort dam frontage. The farmer’s name was Casper Kruger (reportedly a direct descendent of Paul Kruger) who was married to a descendant of the Anglo-Boer war veteran General Hendrik Jacobus Schoeman after whom the township of Schoemansville across the water from Pecanwood is named. Interestingly, the land on which Pecanwood is situated originally belonged to the General.
According to Danie Saayman, the resident City Planner of the time, the Krugers had farmed the land for a number of years. Apparently, at some point in time, the family was ostracised by the community to some extent as Casper had taken to directing shock waves at potential hail clouds in an effort to protect his crop. His children were subsequently asked to leave the local school as this was deemed to be meddling with God’s will.
Unfortunately, Lady Luck dealt the Kruger family another blow when the bank with which Casper had taken out his bond went bankrupt. His bond was recalled and the farm was put up for sale in 1993.
Enter Rodney Clare, owner of the then fledgling Maccon Group (the developers behind the estate) whose interest in the land that would be Pecanwood was piqued entirely by chance. One day in 1993, Rodney and his wife visited Eagle’s Landing to purchase a weekend home. The selling agent happened to mention that for a little more than the asking price of a home at Eagle’s Landing, Rodney could purchase the vacant land next door and have his own estate.
An entrepreneur to the core, Rodney bought the farm with a view to creating one of South Africa’s first golf estates. In line with this premise, he toured the USA to get a feel for the golf estates there, following which he proposed two developments to the bank: Key West (which would occupy 45 of the 255 hectares of land) and another residential estate which had yet to be named.
His pre-sales figures convinced the bank to fund not only the development of Key West but the purchase of the remaining future Pecanwood land in 1994. Construction of Key West began in the same year.
At the time, Maccon Construction was being run by a diminutive staff contingent from Rodney’s home in Bryanston. Paddy Cunningham, then recently retired Senior Partner of Price Waterhouse Coopers and newly elected Chairman of Maccon introduced Rodney to Alec Bates.
Alec had been a partner with Ernst and Young and had experience in property and hotel development. Rodney named Alec his Development Director and the two struck up a business relationship that would last ten years and span three continents.
In 1995, Maccon received outline planning approval for a golf course, club house, marina, 650 homes, a 150 bedroom hotel, apartments and tennis centre for the land adjacent to Key West. At the time, Hartbeespoort wasn’t exactly viewed as an upmarket destination. Thus it was deemed necessary to create a draw card to entice buyers.
Explains Alec: “Those were heady (and admittedly risky) days. We were planning a multi-million rand development with limited funding and a very small team. To create appeal, we invited Jack Nicklaus to come out from the USA and design our golf course.
“We flew him to the Pecanwood site in a helicopter we could ill-afford with great trepidation. Why would one of the world’s greatest golfers want to put his name to an undeveloped, neglected tomato farm? Incredibly he agreed to do just that.”
At the time, 60 hectares of the proposed Pecanwood land was still underwater. A master development plan was developed by Nicklaus’s organisation in the USA which included the construction of the peninsulas which although the subject of some controversy over the years, successfully transformed the submerged land into 2,5km’s of viable water frontage.
Approval for the peninsulas was granted by the local water authorities on the condition that they wouldn’t reduce the storage capacity of the dam. This was achieved by dredging deeper water around the peninsulas and creating internal storage lakes.
In late 1995, construction commenced on the golf course. Golf Data were awarded the contract to build the course utilising Jack Nicklaus’ design. Approximately 1, 5 million cubic metres of earth was excavated to shape the course. This surplus earth was used to construct the peninsulas.
Around this point, Alec says Maccon was beginning to run low on cash and that the bank was beginning to get twitchy. Clearly a financial partner was needed. However South African backers were unwilling to come to the party as they believed Pecanwood was doomed to flop.
In hindsight this might have transpired had it not been for some quick manoeuvring. After unsuccessfully attracting a local partner, it came to Maccon’s attention that Tan Sri Lee Kim Yew, the owner of the Malaysian development company Country Heights was interested in investing in a South African construction project. Country Heights had been involved with a number of notable projects including the development of The Mines Golf and Residential Estate in Kuala Lumpur.
Alec discovered that Tan was travelling with the Prime Minister of Borneo and was staying at the Palace at the Lost City. He hastily checked into the hotel in the hope of bumping into Tan Sri and the minister, which he duly did. Over dinner he managed to persuade the pair to view the Pecanwood site.
Tan Sri was short on time though and could only view the site early the next day. Alec contacted Rodney at 11pm that same evening and announced that he would need a helicopter to come and fetch them at 8am the next day. “Impossible” came Rodney’s reply. The helicopter arrived right on time.
The party flew over the site a few hours later. Tan Sri liked what he saw and signed a joint venture agreement on the back of an envelope during the return trip to Sun City. As per the agreement, Maccon would provide the land and Country Heights would match the value in cash. The deal took less than an hour to conclude. Six weeks later the development funds were paid into Pecanwood’s bank account.
Thus marked the inception of Pecanwood’s association with Country Heights. Tan Sri Lee, Tan Sri Hashim (a previous leader of Malaysia’s defence force and brother in-law to the Malaysian Prime Minister) Dato Michael Yam and Joanne Yeoh-representatives of Country Heights all-would become pivotal figures in Pecanwood’s development in the years to come.
Indeed; so successful would the Country Heights/ Pecanwood relationship become that it progressed beyond the borders of the estate, culminating in the development of local projects such as Fourways Crossing and various other projects in Europe.
Moreover, Tan Sri Lee was so impressed with the skills of Pecanwood’s (developers*) that he implemented a skills exchange programme whereby many of Pecanwood’s (developers/artisans) travelled to Malaysia to share their knowledge with Tan Sri Lee’s (developers)*.
In late 1995, construction commenced on Pecanwood’s golf course. Golf Data was awarded the contract to build the course utilising Jack Nicklaus’ design.
By May 1996, Pecanwood was set to launch to the public. Key West had already proven highly successful and was virtually sold out.
According to Alec Bates (Ex Development Director of Maccon) and Rodney Clare (the owner of Maccon) they had “no idea” as to how to price the launch homes. At the time, Pecanwood consisted of three furnished show houses, a dirt road leading from the entrance to the show houses, one peninsula and a few dusty golf holes.
The night before the launch, Rod and Alec still hadn’t priced the homes. They decided some Dutch courage was in order and stayed up late drinking beers in an effort to compile prices. The more beers they drank, the higher the prices went. Which was just as well Alec says as they would have given the stock away the next day otherwise.
By all accounts the launch weekend was a huge success. Nearly 80 stands were collectively reserved along the peninsula and the 12th fairway facing Fish Eagle Drive. Prices for peninsula stands ranged between R350 000 and R750 000; plots along the 12th fairway were sold for R200 000.
Given the success of the launch and in a bid to establish a town-like feel, the next 110 houses along Fish Eagle Drive were sold as complete packages for R700 000 in a joint venture between Basil Read and Maccon.
Interestingly, Alec remarks that the initial purchase contract included a clause which stipulated that the developers were under no obligation to construct a golf course. People bought plots regardless.
Obviously the golf course construction went ahead though. It soon became clear that a strict golf and boat membership plan would be necessary.
Says Alec: “The membership plan was developed by a specialised firm of American lawyers who drew on their vast experience of what had and hadn’t worked in the USA. Despite the odd grumble from members over the years, this plan has stood the test of time and helped maintain Pecanwood as one of the top golf courses in SA. It has also underpinned the value of Pecanwood’s real estate to a large extent.”
Pecanwood’s original homes were built along very strict architectural guidelines, giving cause for some to refer to Pecanwood as ‘legoland’ in the early days. The estate’s initial architectural design was modelled on an American gated development named PGA West in Palm Springs, Arizona.
According to Alec, the ancient Chinese aesthetic concept of Feng Shui played a major role in the design of the estate. The interplay of mountains and water was in fact one of the main reasons Country Heights became involved with the estate in the first place.
A hotel, apartments and tennis courts were also originally planned for the estate. However, as time went by, the plan to develop these was abandoned as it was felt that the interests of the residents would conflict with the hotel and apartments. The building plans were modified to total 880 houses; the number of golf members was set at 888; extremely lucky numbers both according to Malaysian beliefs.
Pecanwood estate grew slowly but surely from this point onwards. Construction of the golf course continued apace, sales increased and eventually residential development began along the ‘back nine’ of the golf course.
A number of people can be attributed for making the golf course what it is today. Randy Holmes was just one such character. A Texan employee of Jack Nicklaus, Randy, complete with Stetson hat, was contracted by Pecanwood for four months to shape the golf course. He worked a 16 hour day with a D6 bulldozer and is responsible for much of Pecanwood’s unique golf course territory.
In July 1997, the first official game of golf was played on Pecanwood’s fledgling golf course. It was played across the back nine from the 10th to the 18th hole. The field was led by Paddy Cunningham, Rodney Clare and Michael Yam; the atmosphere was reportedly “electric”.
Upon completion of the first game, the players returned to Pecanwood’s temporary ‘clubhouse’: two houses which had been built at the 11th tee under the guidance of Geoff Hindle who joined Maccon in 1996 as Pecanwood’s Technical Director.
The clubhouse offered a temporary pro-shop; ladies and gents change room facilities and not much else. However, as one of Pecanwood’s first (and highly successful) past employees Jason Totos recalls, despite the limited facilities the clubhouse was hugely popular.
Indeed, it was so popular that members regularly stayed all hours of the night, particularly on Friday’s. According to Greg who now works at Pinnacle Point a gentleman by the name of Craig Ashby would arrive with his spit braai on the back of his bakkie and proceed to “make the best braai ever”. Greg also recalls how on one occasion, a certain member (who shall remain unnamed) drove his golf cart into the bar, honked his horn and demanded a drink.
Such was the atmosphere which prevailed at the temporary clubhouse. Many a member unfortunately attempted to drive back home a little worse for drink on their golf carts afterwards. Unsurprisingly, retrieving golf carts from bunkers in the morning became a regular occurrence.
The temporary clubhouse operated as such until the new clubhouse was opened in mid 1999. Len Vidoren of Bild Architects (who was affiliated with Sun City’s Lost City design) was brought in to design the clubhouse.
He did so with great flair following research into American designs. The clubhouse was constructed by Basil Read on a raised mound which provided commanding views of the golf course, dam and mountains. It has since grown to include a spa, gym, training academy and kids club.
But it wasn’t all smooth sailing. Many a problem cropped up during the construction of the golf course and estate and Jack Nicklaus had much to say during his progress visits…
But it wasn’t all smooth sailing. Many a problem cropped up during the construction of the golf course and estate and Jack Nicklaus had much to say during his progress visits.
According to Alec Bates (Ex Development Director of Maccon) he and Rodney Clare (Maccon Construction’s owner) dreaded Jack Nicklaus’s visits to some extent as the “subtle changes” Jack wanted to make usually cost a significant amount of money to implement.
For instance, Jack requested additional bunkers be created on the 7th fairway. He also requested the 6th green be re-profiled (although this was a reasonable request given how all the balls were running into the water at this hole).
Alec also recalls how on one of Jack’s early site visits, he ran late inspecting the golf course. He subsequently almost missed a VIP dinner function complete with press interviews Alec had organised!
In terms of the rest of the estate, the developers had to deal with a number of other technical and construction problems. In the early days Pecanwood’s electrical ring feed didn’t complete a full circuit. This proved particularly onerous for residents as they ended up throwing out food that had gone off in their fridges due to power cuts.
Pecanwood’s peninsulas also proved problematic. Special gabions had to be constructed to prevent their erosion by waves. It was also discovered much to the horror of the developers that the strip of land between Key West and the 12th fairway on which the boat club and workshops are situated did not originally belong to Pecanwood. This strip of land was subsequently “ransomed” to Pecanwood at no small cost.
The fluctuations in the dam’s water levels caused problems with the estate’s original launch ramp. Indeed, according to Alec the whole marina proved troublesome until the second ramp was built and the marina properly engineered.
Jack officially opened the course in August 1998. He played the course by himself and addressed the 2000 strong crowd and media via a microphone attached to his lapel.
Past Pecanwood employee Jason Totos (now General Manager of Golf Operations at Pinnacle Point) caddied for Jack at the opening. As Jack played he explained the design and thinking behind each hole. Jason recalls being impressed by the skill with which Jack played as he had recently injured his hip and “was getting on in years”.
The new clubhouse had not been finished at this stage so Jack played out of the temporary clubhouse like everybody else. The event was arguably one of Pecanwood’s most memorable says Alec. It marked the opening of the first Jack Nicklaus course in Africa and the design has since won numerous accolades. Notably the course still receives awards and continues to hover around SA’s ‘top ten golf course’ mark despite tough competition.
As the years progressed Pecanwood became involved with additional ancillary projects such as the construction of the Pecanwood Shopping Centre. The estate also acquired all the land along the southern boundary and developed a private school which has gone from strength to strength.
By 2002 the majority of Pecanwood was sold out. Thus Maccon and Country Heights elected to dissolve their joint venture and Country Heights bought out Maccon’s 50% share in the golf course as they wished to own outright a trophy golf course in SA.
Suffice to say Pecanwood would not be what it is today without the collective effort of all those who have gone before and who currently run the estate. Those who reside within its boundaries can surely count themselves lucky to call Pecanwood home.