Blog 25 September 2012

News Updates today in St Francis Bay

FEATURED PERSONALITY - Jeff Clause – CEO for St Francis Links

Jeff Clause is the CEO for St Francis Links, a top-ranked links golf course and residential estate in the Eastern Cape village of St Francis Bay. The course won Best New Course in South Africa in 2007 and is currently rated by Golf Digest in the national Top-10.eff, also fondly known as Santa, is not only involved in the daily running of the St Francis Links, but also in our community. Very few people know the extent of what the Links actually does and Jeff does not go about publicizing this.

Jeff Clause St Francis Links St Francis Bay

In January this year John Young interviewed Jeff. This was published in the The Frontier.

How have the holidays been for you and St Francis Links?
We have just come off a massive holiday season with more than 13 000 guests through our gates! We catered for 3 000 rounds of golf and dealt with more then 45 000 food and beverage items.

Tell us about your background. Have you always been in golf?
I was born in the Mid-West of the United States, corn and cattle, Iowa. Jefferson Iowa, they named the town after me. Hard working people, everyone learned how to work hard with good schooling.

And then because winters were so severe, I took my first position in Texas. I was working in Texas for 11 years before being recruited to come to SA.

Had you studied to be in golf?
No, I was heading for marketing, entrepreneurship and public relations at the University of Iowa. It just turned the other way. Shortly after leaving University, one of my mentors got the head pro position in Des Moines, and called me. He said why don’t you come into the golf business?

For me it worked because it was the people business, more so than playing golf. I was going to be working with people, and boy did that work out to be true.

And how did you come to be in South Africa?
Jeff Claus St Francis Links St Francis Bay

Believe it or not, it was the tennis side of sport that got me to SA. I worked in the same estate with former SA Wimbledon competitor, Billy Freer. In 1990 Bill Freer was recruited back to South Africa after 17 years in Texas to start Fancourt. He ran a big tennis facility in Texas.

Billy Freer, being a South African, came home. Cliff Drysdale had a home on my golf estate property, Kevin Curren went to the University of Texas and they all got together now and then for golf at my course. The three tennis players together sold me on South Africa; they got me directly and indirectly to come to Fancourt.

I came to be the first Director of Golf at Fancourt, just after it opened in 1991 and I was there until 1997.

I oversaw everything related to golf—teaching, tournaments, course maintenance, the golf shop, co-ordination, bookings.

What was your first move after Fancourt?
I ran a Jack Nicklaus Signature course in Texas so when the first Nicklaus Signature was coming to Knysna (at Simola) I got pretty excited about it. And then it didn’t happen – flooded.

Liezl Claus St Francis Links St Francis BayAfter hanging in there for a little while my South African wife-to-be said, ‘Well, either we leave or I leave’. So we moved across the street to Sparrebosch. It was under construction. My wife Liezl and I set up all the structures there.

When did you find time to get married?
We opened nine holes the day before we got married in 1999. We only had time for a couple of days honeymoon … and then we were back at work.

I spent a total of eight years at what became Pezula. I had eight good years there.

And then you moved to St Francis: how did that come about?
St Francis Bay
I was asked to come to see this wonderful piece of land in the Eastern Cape. I remember when we were doing Simola in the mid-90s, one of the people involved in Golf Data said he wanted me to see the land because some of the partners may not be aware of just how good the land is.

I came here to St Francis to look at it and fell in love with it.

I flew to Johannesburg where I met the chairman of WBHO, Mr Mike Wylie and I can tell you exactly what I said to him.

The first words out of my mouth were, ‘It’s good to meet you sir, Mr Wylie. I am here to tell you that you are about to open the best new golf course in South Africa.’

Interesting enough, I was not applying of the job. I was wearing a good neighbour’s hat. I was there on behalf of one of the developers to say – Take this seriously, make sure you hire the right people, understand what you have.

The role that I played at that stage was to tell them that this was the home of one great golf course; it is going to be a golf course that attracts people from all over the world, which it has.

And this is how Jeff and Liezl came to St Francis Bay.

How many homes are built at the moment?
We are approaching 60, and that is with two years of almost no building; it just stopped. But now, it is starting to turn again.

Tell us more about the wedding business. Who gets married here?
St Francis Links Wedding Venue

There is almost always a connection to St Francis in some way, although the reputation has certainly grown beyond that. Plus we have 120 beds on the estate and we have partners in members on the estate. We have got the accommodation. The weddings are held here in the clubhouse. Sometimes we just host the reception. We have had weddings and receptions ranging from 50 to 220 people.

I understand the South African Bridal Industry Academy has a Best Club Reception Award that your venue has won?
That award is voted on by the brides themselves. There is nothing we can influence. It is the bride being satisfied. Our team has done it two years in a row, 2010 and 2011.

From the standpoint of business we could have run a food and beverage operation serving toasted sandwiches, pies and burgers, but that was never going to expose the estate. That was never going to attract the kind of function or business that we wanted to see in the long run.

And to attract the quality of chef that we have. To host 270 people for dinner tonight [St Francis Links has a weekly curry evening that is very popular over the summer holidays], we could not have done that with a pie and toasted sandwich man. It’s been outstanding.

And has your wedding offering made an impact on the local economy?
More than 10 000 unique people have come here – who probably wouldn’t have otherwise – to St Francis Links, St Francis and the Eastern Cape in the four years we have been doing weddings.

What makes St Francis Links a unique golf course?
St Francis Links St Francis Bay

Mr Nicklaus loved the land. The land lent itself to 18 unique golf holes, individual holes, in which most of the time, you don’t even know there is another hole out there; you are alone out there.

Secondly, because of the type of condition and the type of movement of the land, you have got a lot of different type of shots. And the multiple tees allowed you to play off tees that suited your game and me to play off tees that suited my head professional’s game! [This was a joke directed at the young golf professional whose choice of the most difficult tees to play off stirred the competitive juices of Mr Clause on the day!]
Probably the thing that makes this place so special is that it is just so natural; there is nothing contrived here. You are really playing between man and nature.

Do you have a favourite hole?
I really truly don’t think you can pick a favourite hole. There are no signature holes because they are all signature holes. I know that sounds like bragging but it is what it is. Mr Nicklaus will tell you the same thing.

The last thing that makes it special is that it never plays the same way twice. Mother Nature is always part of it. It can be intimidating. But the more you play it, the more you like it.

Describe the scene when Jack Nicklaus played the first round?
St Francis Links St Francis Bay

He played by himself. He was a fourball of one, with 500 caddies in attendance, the gallery. That was on opening day in December 2006. He has done more than 300 around the world so he seldom gets back to courses.

He has got one going up in Johannesburg near Dainfern called Steyn City. That will be the seventh Nicklaus adventure in South Africa.

What is your view on the state of the golf estate industry in South Africa.
I think established first-home golf estates that have become communities (Erinvale, Steenberg, Dainfern, Mt Edgecombe), they have learned to manage themselves.

I think that going forward, golf estates that don’t control their costs will not be attractive. A good estate must be self-sefficient, providing all services from water to electricity and waste removal to lawn maintenance. Security and stability are the foundation to a successful estate. Yet, the overall cost to the homeowner must be attractive – with funds for major repairs and replacement to avoid special levies or shortfalls.

Nobody wants to leave South Africa and whether you move to an estate for the lifestyle or for the options or the opportunity that estate living brings, you still have to manage that estate at a fair price.

For so many estates there was not enough mass and there was not enough foresight to manage the cost of the estate.

I think one of the reasons we have succeeded is that we have been able to keep our costs relatively low. And we don’t forsee any kind of increases that are other than inflation related. 

But if it was a strictly holiday accommodation estate, I wouldn’t be doing a new one right now – rather come here where stability, security and lifestyle options define our success!” John Young
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