GOLF ATRAVEL Player’s Guide
The Indonesian islands of Bintan and Batam have long attracted Singaporean golfers looking to escape the rigours of city life. Now, writes Duncan Forgan, it’s time for Hong Kongers to follow in their footsteps.
golfing odyssey to the Riau Archipelago in Indonesia would be a pretty tempting prospect under any circumstances. Located to the east of Sumatra, the cluster of islands boast the full range of alluring Southeast Asian accoutrements. There are spotless beaches backed by swaying coconut palms, dense forests teeming with exotic wildlife, excellent resorts and, vitally, some genuinely fine courses that wind through jungle and skirt the shores of the shimmering ocean. What makes the Riau islands really irresistible, however, are their close proximity to Singapore. While nobody can deny that the city state has many fine golf options, most are priced at the more punitive end of the scale. Many of the best courses, meanwhile, are ostensibly ‘members only’ which means even more effort needs to be expended if you aim to sweet talk yourself a tee-time. It is almost as convenient then to eschew Singapore all together and make for Bintan or Batam, the two main islands
Fitting finale: the closing hole on the wonderful Gary Player-designed Ocean Course at Ria Bintan 62
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in the archipelago, which are both a mere 40-minute ferry ride away from Singapore’s spiffy Tanah Merah terminal. Indeed, for many Singapore-based golfers, it is rite of passage that takes place as many weekends as child-care and spousal commitments allow. Think of it as a rather more alluring version of what Guangdong province has come to mean to those of us without golf club membership in Hong Kong. With Tanah Merah being just a short taxi ride from Changi Airport, Bintan and Batam are also perfectly feasible options for a short golfing break for visitors from other parts of Asia. Most visitors from Singapore to Riau go for the day and practically all the golf courses can organize a package which includes return ferry transfers, passport formalities (an Indonesian visa on arrival costs US$10), transfers to the golf club and green fees. With plentiful ferry links between Bintan and Batam and a range of accommodation options available on both islands, however, it is no hardship to linger in this underrated golf paradise. HK GOLFER・AUG 2013
Clockwise from above: an aerial shot of Ria Bintan’s wonderful front nine closing stretch; the palm-fringed course at Laguna Bintan, a Greg Norman design; Ria Bintan’s famous par-3 ninth hole 64
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The line ‘this is one of the best sites I have ever had to work on’ is one often rolled out by golf course designers, to varying degrees of truthfulness. In the case of his Ocean Course at Ria Bintan, however, Gary Player wasn’t sticking to a script to keep his paymasters happy when he extolled the virtues of this stunning chunk of real estate. The Ocean Course is regularly ranked among the best in the region and, for visual thrills alone, it is hard to think of many rivals in Southeast Asia that come close to its skyscraping beauty. Carved through thick jungle, the course cuts a broad swathe through the Bintan landscape. While many modern layouts deal in loops of nine holes which make their way back to the clubhouse, the Ocean course adheres to a traditional ‘out and in’ design. The first few holes set a high quality marker. The par-5 first requires a pinpoint drive and a death or glory carry over water to the green while the attractive fifth runs through an attractive, but treacherously narrow, funnel of forest. It is the holes around the turn, however, that Ria Bintan’s fame is deservedly built upon. The
ocean reveals itself halfway down the seventh, a gorgeous downhill par-5. The eighth and the 10th, both par-4s, also feature the sea as a central component. The undoubted star though is the short ninth where the tee shot is played over an inlet to an undulating green backed by towering trees.
Even the best golf course would suffer by comparison to nearby Ria Bintan and there is no disguising the fact that this Greg Norman layout is overshadowed by its immaculate neighbour. Taken on its own merits, however, there’s a lot to admire about this attractive and challenging course. After a relatively nondescript start, the layout begins to come into its own on the par-4 third which features an intimidating drive over a gully and a rocky flowerbed to an uphill fairway that narrows and snakes slightly rightwards towards a small green. The following par-3 fourth is another beauty, with the shallow, heavily bunkered green requiring a tee shot of pinpoint accuracy over another jungle-clad ravine. Like at Ria Bintan, the holes on which the ocean makes an appearance are the standout HKGOLFER.COM
challenges. Here, the first sight of the brine comes on the seventh, a long downhill par-4. Meanwhile, the short eighth which is played across a rock-strewn beach to a slightly hidden, elevated green could give Ria Bintan’s famous ninth a run for its money. The second nine is less eventful. However, the long 16th is a great driving hole with bunkers to the right and water to the left waiting to entrap anything even marginally errant.
The two standout courses at Bintan Lagoon, one designed by Jack Nicklaus, the other by Ian Baker-Finch, complement Ria and Laguna perfectly and undoubtedly cement Bintan’s status as one of the region’s premier golfing destinations. Nicklaus’s effort, the Sea View, could be described as a tropical seaside course. Indeed, if it wasn’t for the gently lapping tepid waves of the South China Sea and the presence of coconut palms, you might say that some holes have characteristics of links golf. Of these, the 12th – a tough par-3 with an ocean backdrop – is the pick. Also notable is the split green on the 13th where a stream separates two sections of putting surface. If anything, Baker-Finch’s Woodlands course is the stronger of the two layouts. It is shorter in length, but the encroaching thick jungle that lines practically every hole makes pinpoint driving HKGOLFER.COM
accuracy an imperative. The eighth, a long par-5 which extends down from an elevated tee and features a lake, penal bunkers and a solitary tree in the middle of the fairway, is arguably the finest of many thought-provoking holes here.
Former US Open champion Larry Nelson had his work cut out when he was tasked with coming up with the original nine holes at Palm Springs on Batam. The site, just a few minutes from the Nongsa ferry terminal, was originally a giant mangrove swamp. With the aid of some serious drainage, allied to his own architectural nous, Nelson managed to make a silk purse out of this particular sow’s ear and Palm Springs has become a firm favorite of visitors from Singapore seeking a good value day’s golfing.
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There’s plenty of greenside protection at the 11th hole at Ria Bintan
The two strongest nines out of the existing 27 holes are generally held to be the Palm and the Island courses. The Palm, the oldest of the three and the one that emerged phoenix-like from the sludge, has a number of eye-catching holes. It is easy to be caught cold on the par-5 first, with out of bounds encroaching from the left and a large lake awaiting errant second
shots on the right. Other memorable holes include the dogleg sixth which plays down towards the ocean and angles around a giant rock formation. The Island, meanwhile, sags a little in the middle but holes such as the short second, which is played over another one of those lush, tropical ravines, and the undulating downhill eighth, are not short of quality.
NEED TO KNOW ACCOMMODATION
GOLF Ria Bintan Golf Club Contact: riabintan.com Green Fee: HK$975-1,345 (includes cart and caddie) Laguna Bintan Golf Club Contact: banyantree.com Green Fee: HK$365-735
Bintan Lagoon Resort Contact: mozaichotels.com Green Fee: HK$920-1,475 Palm Springs Golf & Beach Resort Contact: palmsprings.com.sg Green Fee: HK$460-645 (includes cart and caddie)
The Banyan Tree resort on Bintan (banyantree. com) was one of the luxury chain’s first outlets and retains its status as the most palatial address on the island. After several years of use, it was inevitable that the resort would show some signs of age. However, a major recent refurbishment has given it a renewed lease of life and digs are as upscale and appealing as you would expect for the not inconsiderable price. Villas (from HK$4,200) come in a range of categories. If you have cash to splash, opt for the ones with their own private swimming pool.The resort boasts a range of leisure facilities; there are two pools, a spa, a library and a private beach. Meanwhile, dining experiences can be sampled at the resort’s three restaurants – Saffron (Thai), The Cove (European), Treetops (Asian fusion) – or through a private in-villa barbecue or a specially prepared beachside meal.
GETTING THERE Ferries from Singapore to Bintan (brf.com.sg) and Batam (batamfast.com) leave Tanah Merah Terminal at frequent intervals. Return fares to Bintan cost around HK$390 and HK$300 to Batam. A seven-day visa for Indonesia is available on arrival for US$10.
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