About six years ago, I realized I had played 199 of the 200 courses on the Golfweek’s Best lists of Classic and Modern courses. The lone holdout: Augusta National.
I felt pretty good about that until my friend Paul Rudovsky, whose globe-hopping travels to play the world’s top courses have made him a legend in the course-ratings community, asked me a question: “Are you going to play the world’s Top 100 courses?”
At the time, I had played more than 70 of those courses. Finishing the list seemed like a reach, particularly for a middle-aged Chicagoland guy with a wife, family and demanding job.
But steadily over time, I began to chip away at the list. A couple of courses in Canada, two more in Mexico, and a trip to continental Europe. Then came a 17-day tour of Australia and New Zealand with my friend Ben Klaas, also a Golfweek rater.
That put me over 90 courses, and things were starting to get interesting. The big hurdle standing in my path to completing the Top 100 was Southeast Asia. If I could knock off those courses, I’d be left with only one great whale to conquer: Augusta National.
I told Ben, “I’m going to finish this.”
I spent six months plotting a 17-day trip across China, Japan, South Korea, Thailand and Vietnam. I developed a spreadsheet to keep track of a constantly changing schedule of flights, hotels and tee times. We finalized the itinerary, and Ben and I arranged to meet in late March in Seoul, South Korea.
The trip had a lot of moving parts – five countries, eight airlines, 13 flights, 13 rounds of golf, multiple car services, a different hotel almost every night – yet it went off perfectly. It was as if I had been going from Chicago to Columbus to Pittsburgh to New York.
Even when we missed our connection at Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport, a lady from China Southern Airlines intercepted us on our way to the ticket counter and handed us two boarding passes for a flight leaving in 90 minutes. I’d never get that kind of service at O’Hare or Midway.
Ben and I connected in Seoul and made the quick hop south to Sacheon for the 45-minute drive to South Cape Owners Club, a splashy, five-year-old Kyle Phillips design that, ultimately, we decided didn’t rise to the level of a Top-100 course.
We backtracked to Seoul for the flight to Jeju Island, off South Korea’s southern coast, to play The Club at Nine Bridges. People have ripped on Nine Bridges because they have done a marvelous job of promoting their place. Put yourself in their shoes: If they want to get Americans and Europeans to visit and rate their courses, they have to sell the steak and the sizzle.
Time and again during the trip, Ben and I were dazzled by world-class hospitality at the clubs we visited, including Nine Bridges. But I’m an architecture purist. When I’m rating a course, the only thing that matters is what happens between the time that I stick my peg in the ground on No. 1 and when I pull my ball out of the cup on No. 18. All of the trappings are cool, but they don’t affect the final rating. In my estimation, Nine Bridges is a darned good course that comfortably has earned its standing among the Top 100 in the world.
From there, it was on to Japan for four rounds. There’s no such thing as a four-hour round in Japan. It’s a day-long excursion. It’s very formal, very proper – arrive in a sport coat, sit for breakfast, practice, front nine, lunch, back nine, an extravagant shower and soak, then a drink before leaving. It’s a long day, but it’s extremely fun once you get acclimated to their culture.
I’m not a coffee drinker, but I indulged my hosts at Tokyo Golf Club, then spent the first five holes feeling so jittery that I could barely place my ball on the tee. Tokyo Golf Club, like many older Japanese designs, has two greens per hole. Architect Gil Hanse renovated one set of greens in 2010, and his crew was onsite during our visit, working on the remaining 18 greens. I think Hanse’s work there is going to be tremendous. It’s an unexciting, flat piece of property, but there’s some really good, quality design work.
By contrast, our next stop, two hours south of Tokyo, was a stunning setting on the rugged Izu Peninsula. The Fuji Course at Kawana Hotel is a mountainside track bounded by the sea, the elevation sometimes changing dramatically from one hole to the next. Naruo Golf Club, which we visited two days later, was an even more difficult walk.
In between, we visited Hirono Golf Club, which lived up to its reputation as Japan’s finest course. Like Wrigley Field, this C.H. Alison design makes the most of its smallish footprint. The course is just stunning, and the par 3s, in particular, are wonderful. We walked off saying, “Wow, that was spectacular.”
But nothing compared to the welcome we received a few days later on China’s Hainan Island, where hundreds of range balls were arranged to spell, Welcome to Shanqin Bay. Our female caddies presented us with personalized, cross-stitched bag tags and handwritten letters thanking us for our visit.
We were told that Shanqin Bay Golf Club members average only 3.7 rounds per year. We saw only one other member and guest the entire day.
The experience was even more indulgent than what we experienced in Japan. When Shanqin Bay has international guests, it’s a major commitment. We stopped after four holes for a six-course meal, then again after the 12th hole for another meal. Throughout the round, Chinese warships patrolled the South China Sea because Asian leaders were meeting nearby at the annual Boao Forum for Asia. After the round we showered and enjoyed yet another meal with the head pro and superintendent, who then joined us for the two-hour drive to Haikou, where we had dinner before flying out the next day.
But as I said: It all comes down to the golf course. Take away all of Shanqin Bay’s trappings, and this Bill Coore-Ben Crenshaw design is easily Top-100 material. Shanqin Bay is as good an experience, all in, as I’ve had anywhere in the world.
Vietnam’s golf scene, as we learned on our next stop, is trying hard to reach that level, but isn’t there yet. The Bluffs Ho Tram Strip is only about 65 miles from Ho Chi Minh City, but the drive from the airport took nearly three hours as our driver battled thousands of scooters for space on the road. What we found was a Greg Norman design with unrealized potential. It’s a beautiful, linksy site with stunning dunes, but in the end the dunes are just eye candy that only come into play if you hit a dreadful shot.
On a brighter note, the course is part of a modern resort casino project, and we were able to order a wonderful American steak dinner, which was the first thing we had eaten that didn’t come with something floating in a bowl.
Our final stop was Bangkok, where we played Ayodhya Links, which I would consider a must-play in Thailand, but likely a near-miss Top-100 candidate. Bangkok, however, was everything we had heard it would be. Ben and I had dinner at a popular restaurant called Cabbages and Condoms, which is owned (no surprise here) by the owner of a condom manufacturer. There is a life-sized Santa Claus and Mona Lisa made of condoms, and rather than mints, the waiter tosses four of the owner’s finest on the table after your meal. What a crazy city.
Since we returned, I’ve had friends say, “You went where and did what?” I tell all of them the same thing: Putting together a golf trip to Southeast Asia isn’t that difficult, and it’s well worth the effort.
What you’ll find everywhere you go is world-class hospitality. The sincerity of these people is palpable. They were truly honored that two crazy Americans took the time to come see them, because not many people are doing that. And they were going to do everything possible to make our visit memorable.
Well, almost anything. I didn’t find anyone in our travels who could help me score that elusive invitation to Augusta National. Gwk
(Greg Ohlendorf has been a member of Golfweek’s course-ratings panel since 2004. The following is the story of a whirlwind five-nation tour of Asia, as told to Golfweek’s Martin Kaufmann.)