Remote courses have a certain appeal: Carne, Machrie, Old Head, you name it. The sense of travelling tosuch courses only heightens the excitement. However, uponarrival, the golfer is often greeted with a course that, though quirky,fails to fullytest 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 otherNicklaus 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 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.
The course is drastically different to Chung Shan as the property was more promising. The front nine is over hilly terrain while most of the back nine fits snugly into a valley. Immense palm trees frame the course and provide a most attractive back drop.
The green size of the Legends course is small by any standard, averaging just over 6000sq. feet. The greens appear even smaller, considering that the course plays to 7,000 yards from the middle-back tees and the golfer is often approaching the greens with a mid-iron in his hands.
The Nicklaus team devised two alternate route holes at the Legends course, the 6th and 18th holes. The 6th hole is a reachable par five that falls some 120 feet downhill from the tee shot. Thereafter, it is the mirror image to the 11th hole at TPC in Florida. The green is placed on the other side (the right hand side) of two big lakes. There is 100 yards of fairway area that runs uninterrupted up to the front of the green. The golfer must make a choice on his second shot: can he go for the green? If not, can he clear the lake on his second and leave himself a simple pitch looking down the length of the green, or is the golfer content to bump the ball further up his side of the fairway and cross the lake on his third shot? If he chooses the latter option, the green is at a shallow angle to the golfer and he must contend with two green side bunkers.
The second alternative route hole is the 18th. The fairway is a massive 120 yards across but at the 200 yard mark, a series of bunkers cut across the fairway from the right hand side of the fairway and run 50 yards up the right third of the fairway. Thus, the golfer must choose: does he carry them and aim for the right hand side of the fairway, thus gaining the shorter route home on this 440 yard finisher? Or does he play safely to the left and leave himself a three wood approach shot?
These two holes give the golfer much to think about and are thus favorites. However, they are complimented by several even more dramatic holes. The 11th hole features a tee shot some 100 feet above a lake that runs the entire length of the hole on the left side. The golfer must decide how much of the lake to bite off with his tee shot. The reward is a much shorter approach shot, which on a hole of 430 yards with trouble by the green is a considerable advantage. The 13th hole is a par five that features a river running down the left side of the fairway. As the fairway cascades downhill, so does the river. It flows over a series of tiered rock formations, thus creating several water falls.
These two holes in appearance give the impression of paradise. On the 11th tee, the golfer has a beautiful view down through the valley with the manicured course complimented by well tended indigenous plants and trees. The waterfalls and their sounds further this impression of a Shangri-La.
While these and several other holes such as the sweeping down and uphill par five 3rd and the 5th hole have obvious dramatic appeal, it is the well designed nature of the ‘sleeper’ holes that hold the course together and make it the best course in Malaysia.
For instance, the 2nd hole is a 375 yard hole. A fairway bunker intrudes from the right hand side at the 230 yard mark off the tee. The green is further ahead some 145 yards and is well bunkered down its entire left side. Only the golfer who challenges the right hand bunker will have an uninterrupted shot into the green. The less confident golfer can steer clear of the fairway bunker. In fact, Nicklaus left fairway to the right of the green so the golfer’s approach shot can go right of the green and well away from the deep green side bunkers. Few people will successfully get it up and down from over there as there is a tricky knob to contend with but a bogey can be readily achieved by any caliber player.
Most of the other holes follow this same design philosophy. The better player is always looking to gain an advantage with each shot while the lesser golfer bumbles along in a happy state too. What more can you ask for in a design?
The third Nicklaus course that the authors are familiar with in South Asia is the Nicklaus Sea View Course, located on the Indonesian island of Bintan. The most popular method of arrival is a 45 minute ferry from Singapore.
The course serves to demonstrate the Nicklaus design style compared to another designer who built a course at a similar time at Bintan Lagoon Golf and Beach Resort. The land on this other course was similarly rolling and tree-lined. However, this other course features several sloping fairways that leave the golfer feeling like a goat. The 4th hole, for instance, has a fairway that is pitched at a 30 degree angle (no exaggeration) and has a 100 foot tall tree fifteen paces off the front of the green (?!).
Compare this kind of poor design to the next door Nicklaus course. Nicklaus Design moves enough land to insure the fairways are a reasonable target and, of course with Nicklaus, a good view of the green is provided. However, by moving the land in such a fashion, there is a trade-off that is both good and bad.
At Bintan, the golfer is always greeted by a level stance in the fairway – this holds obvious appeal to the resort guests and their wives. Thus, each hole on the Bintan course is solid. However, the golfer may sense with a slight tinge of regret that the course is indeed too solid, too straightforward (an Indonesian version of Royal Birkdale perhaps?). There is no quirkiness to the holes that make the golfer execute an out of the ordinary shot. Indeed, the professional at Bintan likes playing the other course because of the challenge presented by the variety of lies and stances.
For its inspiration, the Sea View course relies on its tropical setting, no small thing. It does touch the South China Sea with the beautiful par three 12th hole. Also, the 13th hole is a short par four that features a green spilt in two by a stream (believe it or not, it works in this case).
Taken as a group of three courses, the purist may perhaps complain of too little short game variety. Other than a splash shot from a deep green side bunker, there are few other imaginative or ticklish shots that the golfer must continually face. One reason is that the grass used in this kind of heat and humidity rarely allows the greens to consistently roll more than an ‘8’ on the Stimpmeter. However, given the coarse texture of the bermuda grass, it is surely prudent to build more contouring into the greens to lend interest to the short game (a good example of this is found at The Governors Club, a Nicklaus course outside Chapel Hill, North Carolina).
Nonetheless, the three courses are well built and are fundamentally sound. Good stout hitting is a must for the golfer who hopes to play near his handicap – there is not one cheap hole among the entire 54 holes, which is an accomplishment in itself. The Chung Shan and Legend courses in particular inspire. As Peter Dobenrinier once put it, all three courses ‘make the golfer happy to be alive’.
Shallow bunkers, bland routing, and the general lack of strategy found on many Asian courses no longer suffice: they are an insult to the golfer and in many cases, a waste of what was promising golf terrain. Golfers in this beautiful part of the world deserve better and Nicklaus Design is delivering it.