There was a tomato farm, a farmer and his family. 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.
Unfortunately, Lady Luck dealt the Kruger family 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.
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.
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 peninsula.
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.
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.
In late 1995, construction commenced on Pecanwood’s golf course. By May 1996, Pecanwood was set to launch to the public.
According to Alec Bates and Rodney Clare 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.
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.
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 according to Malaysian beliefs.
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.
The temporary clubhouse operated as such until the new clubhouse was opened in mid 1999. Len Verdoorn of Build 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.
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.
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.
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.