Golf in South Asia

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.

The End