Have clubs, will travel
When golf first became a popular pastime in Scotland, it appealed not to the well-heeled members of society, but rather to the lower classes. Indeed, the earliest recorded mentions of the game suggested that it was a cheap, easily accessible pastime for the peasant classes who never travelled very far – times have certainly changed since then.
It was really the jet age that saw international travel boom, and with it the golf tourism sector. Coinciding with the worldwide golf boom, several countries took advantage of the opportunity to lure cash-flush golfing foreigners to their shores – either to experience their grand historic courses, or like others, they frantically built golf resorts to cater for this growing market.
When advising travellers on the best golf destinations, it must be established whether they are golfers or tourists who play golf; there is a distinct difference.
The true, dyed-in-the-wool golfer is only too happy to experience the best the game has to offer in any weather conditions, has a true appreciation for the history of the game and loves discovering different design philosophies. To truly experience the golfing culture of a foreign country, these individuals would be advised to avoid the golf package tours where one is couriered about following a tight schedule.
The best advice for these ‘proper’ golfers would be to rather experience less, but do it properly, rather than whizzing about taking in as many of the tourist attractions while squeezing in rounds of golf. The golf operators do have their place, and particularly in Asia, where there can be communication problems, it is worth teaming up with a reputable local outfit that specialises in arranging tee times and that offers transport.
The Great Waters course at Reynolds Plantation, Greensboro, Georgia, USA.
THE UNITED KINGDOM & IRELAND
It is perhaps appropriate to begin with the best in Scotland, flying into either Edinburgh or Glasgow and hiring a car.
This is where the game has its roots, and of course every golfer should visit the home of golf – the Old Course at St Andrews.
From a pure golfing point of view, the Old Course can be something of an anticlimax, but one cannot fail to revel in the special atmosphere here. In summer it is difficult to get onto the course, and during early spring and autumn the weather can really be miserable. For the well-heeled, a night or two in the Old Course Hotel is a rare treat (which also guarantees tee-times), but the prices are enough to have you choking on your malt whisky.
It is easy to rattle off the names of the great championship links layouts; the likes of Royal Troon, Prestwick, Gleneagles, Carnoustie and Muirfield, and certainly all are worth playing.
But if time prevents you from ticking off the Open Championship venues as you play them, there are two great experiences that should be on every serious golfer’s wish list – Royal Dornoch and Turnberry. The former is probably one of the toughest, purest tests of links golf, and if only to understand what this form of the game is all about, the drive to this most northerly of all the great courses is recommended.
The Ailsa course at Turnberry is probably one of the most beautiful seaside courses in the world, and the revamped hotel here (Turnberry is an up-market resort) is one of the best in Scotland. Incidentally, do not be put off by the warning that many of the famous old courses are strictly private, and that they can be played only if you are a guest of a member.
As long as you are appropriately dressed (and lose that multicoloured Mohican hairstyle), if you introduce yourself to the golf pro or the manager, and explain that you have come all the way from South Africa, there is a good chance that you will be introduced to a member and be allowed to play. There are no guarantees, but in my experience this is worth trying. One of the most difficult courses to get to play is Loch Lomond, but if ever there is something worth seeing, it is this modern masterpiece.
Just visiting the course without playing it is worth the trouble.
But besides the famous clubs, there are so many unheralded courses all over Scotland, and many nine-holers that are as good as their bigger counterparts. Part of the joys of travelling in this part of the world is discovering these gems – the locals are friendly, particularly once you get out of the cities, and for the budget-conscious there are some exceptional municipal-type facilities that will pleasantly surprise you. You could spend a whole summer touring Scotland and not run out of courses that are worth raving about.
South of the border one associates the game with the great parkland layouts, but before we get to these, one of the great ‘clusters’ of links courses is found north of Liverpool around Southport.
Royal Birkdale is one of the best (private) courses, but there are so many really fine places to play here, and one could comfortably spend a week or two in the area, where everyone seems to be in one of two camps – Liverpool or Everton supporters. A definite must in the area is the Southport and Ainsdale GC, traditionally used as an Open qualifying venue.
Supreme among the heathland courses of England must be Sunningdale in Berkshire, and I suppose The Belfry, with its Ryder Cup history, is also worth visiting.
It would unfair to suggest that it is not worth spending too much time in England on a golfing trip when Scotland is just up the road, but many would maintain that this is true. Wentworth is probably overrated (please don’t tell Ernie Els I said so), and for a fun few days playing its multiple courses, Woburn is probably a better option.
I would unashamedly say that a visit to Ireland, touring both Northern Ireland and the Republic, is probably as good as it gets in terms of getting around, experiencing a wide selection of different courses, and discovering just how hospitable the Irish are.
This is golfing heaven. From the wild and dramatic links courses such as Ballybunion and Waterville, to the immaculately groomed K Club and breathtakingly beautiful Druids Glen, this is one place where the most discerning golfer will find a treasure trove of golf courses, and although this is an expensive destination, it must be rated as one of the very best.
Lahinch, Royal Portrush, Royal County Down, Mount Juliet – the list goes on, and as in Scotland, you will stumble on the most enchanting nine-hole courses that charge a pittance for a visitor to play. The roads here are uncongested, Irish drivers are the most courteous, and yes, the Guinness does taste very different here. You must at least once employ the services of one of the grizzled old caddies here – most are garrulous types who will keep you entertained with their fund of anecdotes.
The Old Course, St Andrews, Scotland.
Waterville Golf Links, Ireland.
In terms of value for money, few destinations can compare with Southeast Asia, and Thailand and Malaysia lead the pack. Vietnam, Myanmar and Cambodia have made efforts to catch up, and have imported designers like Nick Faldo and Greg Norman to work their overpriced magic, but in terms of general infrastructure, they still have some work to do.
Thailand, the ‘land of smiles’, has a selection of courses that all have one thing in common – they are groomed to perfection, in fact in some cases they are over-groomed and seem rather sterile. The who’s who of the modern designers have left their mark here, and when one considers the cost of first-class hotel rooms, transport around the country (you can hire a chauffeur-driven car for a pittance), excellent cuisine and the reasonable greenfees, a holiday here is probably cheaper than staying at home.
Accept one thing – the pace of play is going to be slow. A game of golf is a day’s outing in Thailand, and the privileged locals who are members of these courses are in no hurry. But what an experience – the multiple female caddies (one to carry an umbrella to shield you from the sun, one to carry a lightweight chair and a cooler box with drinks and one to carry your clubs while you drive in a cart), takes getting used to. So does the hot, humid conditions.
It is not unusual to find Singaporean and Japanese businessmen flying to Bangkok or the other major centres for the day to play a round of golf, which is cheaper than playing in their own country.
If there is one criticism, many of the courses are of the American cookie-cutter variety, but there are many really good ones. The Thai Country Club near Bangkok is where Tiger Woods famously won the Honda Classic in 1997, and where the Volvo Masters has also been hosted. Another interesting resort is near the banks of the famous River Kwai, the Nichigo facility. Built by Japanese investors, the hotel and country club has 27 holes bordered by mountainous terrain, and the Japanese designer Kobayashi did an excellent job of creating a truly excellent collection of holes.
A quick flight takes you to the island of Phuket, which although rather touristy, is home to eight courses, the pick of which are Blue Canyon (with the Canyon and Lake courses) and Muang Beach, built right against the Andaman coastline. All things considered, including attractive air/hotel deals, Thailand is definitely at the top of the value-for-money list.
Malaysia is home to 200 golf courses, and at much the same prices as neighbouring Thailand, the country offers great value for the tourist’s rand. In and around the capital Kuala Lumpur there are umpteen options (including the rather gimmicky floodlit experience) and the famous Langkawi Island with what has been rated Malaysia’s best course – Datai Bay.
But for my money, a short flight across the South China Sea to Borneo is highly recommended, and from the capital of Sabah province, Kota Kinabalu, one can easily access some truly amazing golf courses in a location which is as exotic as they come. The pick of these is Sabah Golf and Country Club, an amazing layout designed by Robert Muir Graves, which he carved out of rainforest – this is one of my favourite golf courses in the world. It was here that Vijay Singh spent some time practising while he was persona non grata on the tour. My advice is to spend some time in Kuala Lumpur to do some shopping and see the sights, play one or two courses in the city, but waste no time in heading off to Borneo (perhaps a bad choice of words, as Borneo is known as the land of the headhunters.)
Thai Country Club, Thailand.
THE UNITED STATES
It would be impossible to do justice to golf in the US in a few pages, and the options are mind-boggling. The Northeast, the Plains, the West Coast, the desert, the Carolinas, indeed a guide to Hilton Head alone would fill a volume.
For me the pick are two regions in the South – firstly the Robert Trent Jones Trail in Alabama, and then Georgia, specifically around the historic port of Savannah.
The Robert Trent Jones Trail has been covered in some detail in a past issue of Compleat Golfer, but it is well worth researching this collection of courses.
They were built by one of the greatest architects with state pension fund money in an effort to boost the flagging tourism industry in Alabama. Nowhere in America can courses of this quality be played for such reasonable greenfees.
There is a total of 468 holes at 11 sites throughout the state, each of the courses is situated in some spectacular countryside and each is very different. They have to be seen to be believed. There is certainly more to Alabama that slack-jawed, moonshine-swilling hillbillies that play the banjo.
The Peach State of Georgia, besides being home to the famous Augusta National, is also serious golfing country, and I am prepared to stick my neck out and say that the best golf resort in the world, Reynolds Plantation, is found here.
Situated near Greensboro, midway between Atlanta and Augusta in what is known as the Lake Country, the resort has seven golf courses in all, a Ritz-Carlton Lodge and privately owned lodges, and to describe this as a five-star facility would be a gross understatement. I played two of the courses here: the Oconee, designed by Rees Jones, and The National, the work of Tom Fazio. Picture Augusta National with its towering Georgia pines, impossibly manicured fairways, tranquil lakes and all the pampering the Ritz-Carlton is famous for.
This is the sort of place where you want to say as long as your money lasts, which in my case wasn’t too long.
Perhaps one of the most historic and beautiful cities in all of the United States is Savannah – when General Sherman went on his infamous burning spree during the Civil War, he actually couldn’t bring himself to torch this place, and in fact ‘gave’ it to president Abe Lincoln as a present!
Off the coast from Savannah on a 6 500-acre island is a golf estate called The Landings, accessed via a causeway. This is the most impressive golfing community you can ever hope to see. There are six signature courses on the low-density estate, and each seems better than the other. Is this the best golf estate in the world? I haven’t seen them all but The Landings would get my vote.
The National, Reynolds Plantation, USA.
The first-time visitor cannot fail to be struck by the sheer size of this continent, and it must be said that after your flight to Perth, and then completing another long leg to Sydney, Adelaide or Brisbane, you feel as though you were born on the aircraft.
But if you are a serious golfer, and your destination is Melbourne, you have the famous Sandbelt courses to look forward to. Made up of eight courses: Victoria, The Commonwealth, Kingston Heath, Huntingdale, The Peninsula, Yarra Yarra, Metropolitan and the most famous of all, Royal Melbourne, these are the crème de la crème.
Renowned course architect Alister MacKenzie had much to do with the design at these venues – Kingston Heath, for example, was routed by Dan Souter, but later MacKenzie was brought in to complete the bunkering. These are traditional golf clubs, without the bells and whistles, and best of all, they are about as un-American as you can find. Royal Melbourne, the East or West courses, are every bit as good as they are cracked up to be, and the rest all deserve the acclaim they constantly receive from critics.
They are private clubs, but welcome visitors, and if you haven’t the time to play all of them, Royal should certainly be on your itinerary.
The Sandbelt aside, my favourite state is Queensland, with its famous coastline that is home to any number of golf courses. From Brisbane, travelling north or south along the Gold and Sunshine Coasts, you will find umpteen courses, but three resorts stand out – Sanctuary Cove, Robina Woods and the Hyatt Coolum.
Sanctuary Cove, with its opulent Hyatt Regency hotel, has three courses, The Pines, The Palms and Gainsborough Greens. By far the best of these is The Pines, the only Arnold Palmer signature layout in Australia. Robina Woods was designed by Graham March, and the Coolum course, the home of the Australian PGA Championship, is the work of Robert Trent Jones Jr. But the course I most enjoyed in this area was the Links Hope Island, the creation of five-time Open champion Peter Thomson.
Surprisingly, much of the terrain is actually reclaimed land, but one would never guess this. Thomson’s love of links golf shines through in this excellent design, which mirrors some of the great classics that are half a world away.
Royal Melbourne GC, Australia.
Africa is the last continent really to have discovered golf tourism, and led by South Africa, we now see activity in Nigeria, Kenya, Morocco and other countries that hope to make the most of this bonanza in the future. (I’m prepared to bet that Mozambique will become a golfing ‘hot spot’ before too long, and only the bureaucratic minefield and unfathomable laws of land ownership are holding this country back.)
Obviously we have the finest resort facilities on the continent, and both Sun City and Fancourt are comparable to the best in the world. As I tell golfers when I am out of our country, a golfer could play a different course in South Africa every day for a year, and still have a long list of delights yet to be sampled.
Zimbabwe, despite its political strife, is still a great place to go golfing, and the two plums are Leopard Rock and the traditional old beauty, Royal Harare.
The most surprising golfing destination is perhaps Kenya, and I once spent some time touring this country better known for the plains of the Serengeti and the Masia Mara than the Royal and Ancient game.
Kenya has 39 golf courses, 12 of which are clustered in and around the city of Nairobi. The three best in the capital are Muthaiga (very much the ‘in’ club in Nairobi), Karen Country Club (formerly the home of Karen Blixen of Out of Africa fame) and the modern course at the hugely impressive Windsor Hotel and Country Club.
But if you want something quite unique and certainly one of the most intriguing courses in a spectacular setting, you have to travel north to the Equator and visit the Mount Kenya Safari Club.
At one time this luxurious resort was the hangout of the stars of the stage and screen when they were ‘on safari’ – and built in the shadow of the imposing snow-capped mountain, it has a quaint layout which claims to be the work of a young Jack Nicklaus.
The place is prohibitively expensive, but for a spell of decadence which harks back to the days of White Mischief, it is worth a visit. Would I suggest a trip to Kenya specifically to play golf? Probably not, but if you happen to be there to witness the awe-inspiring migration, take your clubs along.
Fancourt, South Africa.