Golf in South Asia

Remote courses have a certain appeal: Carne, Machrie, Old Head, you name it. The sense of travellng to such courses only heightens the excitement. However, upon arrival, the golfer is often greeted with a course that, though quirky, fails to fully test his game.

On the rare occasion when a remote course is coupled with first rate architecture, the golfer may indeed be playing one of the world’s best: Sand Hills, Royal Dornoch, Mid Ocean, Cape Breton Highlands, Waterville, the list goes on.

Nicklaus and his design team have bridged this gap between the world’s truly great courses and exotic golf locales where the courses are let down by indifferent architecture. The authors have played three such Nicklaus courses in South Asia. Though the courses lack the subtle intricacies to be classified with the world’s best, they do represent a major improvement on every other designer’s work in the region, with the exception of Greg Norman’s design team and Thompson & Wolveridge.

Each of the three courses is removed from population centers and requires varied means of travel to get to. There is an excitement that has built upon arrival. Once there, the golfer is greeted by sound, well constructed courses – there will be no untoward surprises that disappoint the golfer.

All three courses were opened within a four year period from 1993 to 1996. Uniformly, they are the best conditioned courses in their respective areas. There are no poorly designed holes in all 54 holes – everything is well thought out.

The courses highlight several other design features that mark a Nicklaus course. Firstly, there is the solid bunkering. As the authors have noted in other Nicklaus course profiles,a strength of his design team has always been their placement and depth of the bunkers. The bunkers may not be the most artistic being built today, but they are invariably well placed and deep. They do what all bunkers should do: they dictate play and challenge the golfer to weigh his options.

Another feature is that the collection of the par five holes is of a high caliber. Compared to other modern designers, this appears to be a forte of the Nicklaus design team.

Each of the three course has its own personality. The first course opened, and a real favorite of the authors, is the Chung Shan Hot Springs Golf Club in China. The course is accessed from Hong Kong via a ferry to Macau, a taxi to the Chinese border, and then another taxi ride 30 minutes into the hills of Shenzen Province.

Opened in 1993, Nicklaus was faced with less than ideal property: broadly sloping terrain on either side of a 1,000 foot peak. Eleven of the holes could fit on the west side while the remaining seven would have to go over on the east side.

The result though is an inspiring piece of uphill and side hill architecture. On the front nine, only the 7th hole overtly plays up the hill. Otherwise, Nicklaus routed the holes parallel to the hill. He uses the 2nd, 4th, 8th, and 9th holes to slowly tact up the hill, like the steps of a ladder. At no point does the golfer feel he is playing up a mountain. Indeed, the course is a joy to walk.

The course has a big feel to it. There are sweeping views in most directions. This same sense of spaciousness prevails throughout Nicklaus’s work. Have you ever played a Nicklaus course that felt cramped? We would hazard a guess that the answer is no.

The course is the most liberally bunkered of the three, featuring more than 90 bunkers. As with the other two courses, the bunkers bleed in nicely to the native vegetation. An example of the excellent use of bunkers is the 15th hole, a 500 yard par five up a hill. It could have been an ordinary hole with the golfer just slugging away until he finally reaches the green. Instead, the Nicklaus team placed two bunkers on the right hand side of the fairway at the 230 mark. Further up another 180-200 yards a group of five bunkers protrude into the fairway from the left side. Then the green itself is perched above a right hand bunker that for size and placement is reminiscent of the famed green side bunker at the 16th hole at Walton Heath. An aerial view shows the hole is dead straight but in practice the golfer must tact his way past the bunkers. The more he challenges them, the easier his next shot.

The deep greenside bunker on the long 4th hole at Chung Shan.

The balance of the course is admirable. Both nines appeal equally. The par threes are well balanced. The 3rd hole requires a long iron and the flight of the ball against the distant tree-covered hillside is arresting. The 6th hole features a lake on the right while the 17th features a lake on the left. The challenge of the 13th hole is not to be short, for the front bunker is a full 10 feet deep. The golfer typically would be hitting a 2 iron, 8 iron, 5 iron and 7 iron into these holes respectively.

In 1997, another Nicklaus course opened in a remote location in South Asia, this time in the state of Johor in southern Malaysia. The Legends Golf and Country Club is a three hour drive south of Kaula Lumpur or better yet a one hour drive north from Singapore past the rolling Malaysian country side.

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