GolfStyles Travel Edition

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s a Cold War kid, if you would have told me 30 years ago that China and Vietnam would be on the list of places I traveled to with my clubs, I would have said you were crazy and my father would have beaten the crap out of you. But the world changes and the game keeps up. So it won’t surprise me one bit if one day my kids travel to Pyongyang or Tehran with their clubs. I hope I’m around to join them.

The golf lifestyle includes traveling, and if you do it right you can see a lot of the world with your clubs in tow. There are established places like the U.K. where occasionally a new course opens, but the game doesn’t really change much. There are emerging golf destinations like Abu Dhabi, southeast Asia or northern European countries like Sweden and Denmark. Everywhere you go cultures are different, people are different, the food is different. So why shouldn’t golf be different? Many of those trips create memories for a lifetime, be it two weeks in New Zealand or a Solstice Survival on the planet’s southernmost course in Ushuaia, Argentina.

We’ve managed GolfStyles trips to six continents, only bypassing Antarctica. There is an addictiveness to golf abroad, or golf travel anywhere for that matter, and these days there are no limits. On the heels of a global golf boom, the entire world is open to golf. The game can take you anywhere, and following are a few of our favorite destinations.

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New Zealand’s patchwork history of Maori, European, Pacific Island and Asian influences makes it a cultural melting pot, which, in a landscape of such great beauty and stunning natural features, makes it an easy place to visit and a tough place to leave. Golf, on the other hand, in the land of Kiwis is decidedly American influenced. Tom Doak, Jack Nicklaus and less-heralded David Harman contributed the design work on four of the country’s five best courses.

Doak’s layout at Cape Kidnappers in the Hawke’s Bay region is the country’s most famous, redefining seaside golf with fairways fitted into narrow fingers of land on cliffs 600 feet above the Pacific Ocean. Cape Kidnappers was for years considered the country’s best – until Doak topped it in 2015 with Tara Iti, where craggy ribbons of green fairways stand out amid sandy waste areas that Pinehurst No. 2 would envy – all cozied up to the great expanse of the Pacific.

Another 120 miles to the north, Kauri Cliffs brings another of New Zealand’s picturesque settings into play. Harman’s design overlooking the rock outcroppings of the Takou Bay is pure golf that didn’t need to be tricked up to harmonize with its eye-popping surroundings.

The Jack Nicklaus-designed Kinloch is built on volcanic terrain, flanked by rugged hills with panoramic views of Lake Taupo. This ramshackle layout is earthy, with the aura of a great links course even though it couldn’t be farther from an ocean on the North Island.

The course that breaks up the American architecture dominance of New Zealand’s best is Paraparaumu Beach Golf Club, designed in 1949 by 1924 Aussie Open champion Alex Russell. Like Royal Lytham & St. Anne’s, Paraparaumu Beach has all the foils of a links course but is surrounded by the town.

A quick trip to the South Island (Middle Earth in “Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit Trilogy”) must include two courses by John Darby. The Hills sits in the Wakatipu Basin, surrounded by the aweinspiring snow-capped Southern Alps, and Jack’s Point (pictured) is wedged hard between the sawtoothed Remarkables mountain range and the majestic Lake Wakatipu.


CAPE KIDNAPPERS – A Kiwi Cliffhanger

I’ve been to the end of the earth, and damn if there isn’t a golf course there. When you arrive at the 15th green at Cape Kidnappers in Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand, you’ve reached the edge. You can go no farther. The Earth drops straight down 600 feet to the Pacific Ocean and there is nothing else to see. Until this moment I have acknowledged the seaside holes at Pebble Beach to be the pinnacle of oceanside golf. But now, standing on this spot staring out over the vastness of the ocean I’ve come to the conclusion that I have to rethink my understanding

of the golf world; perhaps the entire world.

This spot at Cape Kidnappers, where land, sea and golf meet in such impossible perfection, you take in the as-far-as-the-eye-can-see view and contemplate the enormity of the world and golf’s small place in it. Here, on this spot, you just have to wonder how it all got this way.

But then there’s the closing stretch at Cape Kidnappers to deal with. The drama of the course, for the most part, is behind you, burned permanently into the part of your brain that holds your greatest golfing

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experiences ever. The closing holes are good ones, to be sure, but the whole course can’t play at the edge of the world, so, luckily, the 16th hole turns back toward safer territory.

Throughout the course, fairways nudge to the edge of crevasses so steep that if you survived the fall, which you wouldn’t, you couldn’t possibly climb back up. Greens are pushed to the very edge of available real estate, and the whole setting is so far from any mainstream concept of a golf setting that it almost has to be – almost by definition – one of the world’s great courses. And it is.


Kiwi Cliffhanger II

In the pencil holder on the reception desk at Kauri Cliffs are 14 pencils, each exactly the same height and sharpened to exactly the same point, except one. Its point is worn to a nub. It’s dirty from so many fingerprints. So you wonder when someone will notice. After a few days at Kauri Cliffs, you come to expect that level of attention to detail, which is why you notice the renegade pencil.

At $1,000-plus per person, per night and not including golf, Kauri Cliffs had better deliver on every aspect of luxury – and it does.

The Kauri Cliffs course is almost as spectacular as Cape Kidnappers. You can see the ocean from 15 holes and several hang on a cliffside that looks out over the spectacular Bay of Islands region. On a clear day one could easily argue that New Zealand’s two most dramatic courses are better than any two that any other country could put up for consideration.

Just stand on the seventh tee box, facing a cliff-hanging long-iron par 3, with the rock outcroppings of the Bay of Islands poking up through the vast Pacific Ocean as far as you can see to the right; or crest the hill between No. 13 green and No. 14 tee and play the next four holes with the same view to the left and tell me what is comparable.

The first three holes of the back nine sit in a crevasse out of view of the ocean. But the rest of the holes have clear views, although sometimes you have to look behind you, which is fine because you don’t want to miss anything.

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“The Great Game” in Afghanistan generally refers to the rivalry and conflict between the British and Russian empires, which competed for supremacy in Central Asia for almost 100 years in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But GolfStyles writer GREG MINJACK found another Great Game in Kabul.

Yes, there is a golf course in Afghanistan. But you have to apply a fairly liberal definition to the meaning of what a golf course is to fully appreciate it. To be fair, it is probably not unlike the original “courses” that are part of the game’s legend; places where bored shepherds swung their staffs at rocks, advancing them toward some distant target across open grazing lands. In fact, we encountered the Afghan equivalent – an encampment of Kuchi nomads and their goat herd – near the tee of the seventh hole. I am sure they were quite startled by the spectacle of our fivesome, each with caddies, and accompanied by two armed security guards, all taking turns chopping at the dusty ground with shiny metal sticks for no practical purpose.

When I first arrived in Kabul in 2009 as a U.S. Government contractor working as an observer of its presidential election, I had no idea that there was a golf course in Afghanistan. Knowing of the existence of courses in some very unlikey and far flung places, thanks largely to the influence of the British, I assumed that any such


remnants of the Empire would have been quickly eradicated when those colonialists were driven out of Afghanistan for the third, and final, time in the 19th century.

After learning of my interest in the game, our local Afghan staff told me about the Kabul Golf Club. For the next year and a half, my mission became to play this course, which I became convinced must be a mystical and hallowed place. What else could a golf course be in a land renowned for the rejection of all things foreign, and what could be more foreign to Afghans than the game of golf? If not for some supernatural force, what could explain how a golf course survived both the Soviet and Taliban regimes, and the current insurgency?

No other golf experience, even accounting for the lack of grass, the lousy equipment and the lost balls, could have matched the intensity of the excitement . . .

It took more than a year of concerted lobbying, whining, yelling, begging, bribing, shaming, and questioning the manhood of our security staff to convince them to allow me and some colleagues to play. Of course, the job of our security detail is to keep its charges safe, so they are not inclined to allow unnecessary exposure to risk. In short, it is not good for their careers to “lose” anyone in their care, especially for an outing that in their judgment was not “mission essential.” But, on one sunny afternoon, our security director finally caved and gave us the green light to pack up and head out to the course. He cautioned us, however, that he reserved the right to scrub the “mission” if our security team had any concerns about our safety.

I nominally acknowledged his nonsense, being absolutely certain that nothing short of a complete Taliban occupation of the course was going to abort our mission of playing that day.

It was strangely comforting to see that the last encampment before arriving at the course was an active de-mining camp. Our confidence increased when we later learned that the golf course was the object of international de-mining experts’ first training exercises when they arrived after the fall

of the Taliban regime. Still, our group decided that sticking to fairways and greens should be our strategic game plan for this course.

All golfers who travel to play famous courses know the thrill of finally arriving at the gates of their destination. Having once worked for the PGA Tour, I am fortunate to have played many of the most famous and exclusive courses, including Augusta National, Cypress Point, Pebble Beach and St. Andrews. And, although I have driven Magnolia Lane, 17-Mile Drive, and The Links Road, the thrill of arriving at the iron gates of the Kabul Golf Club, and bouncing along the dusty, rocky road in our armored Land Cruiser leading to the humble, makeshift golf shop, rivaled any other that I have ever experienced. Being a guest at elite golf courses is exciting not only because of the anticipation of the impending round, but – at least for me – it is also the feeling that I am lucky to be there at all. In the case of Kabul Golf Club – about as far from an elite golf club as you can imagine –my excitement was amplified by the feeling that a golf course was lucky to be there at all.

As we pulled up to the club’s golf shop, we were quickly and cheerfully greeted by Afzal Abdul, the pro and sole keeper of the flame of golf in this hostile place. During the years that he has served as the manager and pro of the club, he has been jailed twice, by both the Soviets and the Taliban, for operating the course and for his work promoting the game. I intend for this article to serve as a nomination for his induction into the World Golf Hall of Fame. How many other members of the Hall of Fame can claim that kind of sacrifice for, and dedication to, our great game?

Afzal humbly minimizes his difficulties with hostile adversaries as though it was nothing more problematic than running a double-shotgun on a mid-winter’s day. He told some amusing stories about the Taliban and their regime’s attitude toward sports. It seems that the only game that was allowed to be played under their fanatical and primitive reign was volleyball (a preference he could not explain). The Soviets, on the other hand, used the course for a tank parking lot. Afzal said that due to informants’ false reports that he was working for foreigners at the golf club, he was arrested by Russian forces and jailed for six months

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in a basement of a Kabul prison. Afzal said he was released because the Russians never came up with any evidence to support the charges.

In addition to running the club, Afzal shepherds a gaggle of caddies, young and old alike, some of whom are pretty good sticks. In fact, Afzal and one of his young caddies were invited to attend the 2011 Dubai Open where they were introduced to Tiger Woods. A picture of their handshake with Tiger prominately adorns the otherwise barren walls of his golf shop.

Although we arrived unannounced, and with no reservation, Afzal quickly arranged caddies, loaner clubs, and even balls and tees (all very well worn). Within minutes of our arrival, we were on the first tee ready to be challenged by this ninehole wonder.

As I finally stood on the first tee looking down at the “fairway,” the absurd irony of being out there that day hit me. Here I was in a theater of

kinetic activity (a.k.a., war zone) – where almost any person or vehicle can serve as an improvised explosive device and any other person a victim –preparing to play a little golf. Having two armed security guards walking along with their AK-47s only partially hidden under their shemaghs (Afghan scarves), and our security director playing with a holstered pistol on his belt, was surreal. It highlighted an oft-made observation that golf is largely absent in the most troubled of places.

Think of the horrific flashpoints of the last several decades – Bosnia, Kosovo, Rwanda, Iraq, Sudan, Iran, Syria – and the one trait common to all of them is a dearth of golf. It makes you wonder whether there’s a correlation between golf and peace, and a wider availability of golf around the world could provide a potent antidote for violent fanatical behavior – at least off the course.

As for the course, well, it is absolutely the best in Afghanistan and, probably, too, in the


neighboring countries of Iran, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan – and, that’s a lot of territory over which to claim primacy.

The course uses the terrain well, with almost all holes incorporating steep vertical or lateral elevation changes.

The “greens” are composed of rolled, oiled sand. I was amazed and impressed with how puttable they were (probably similar to the rolled sand greens common in parts of the U.S. in the late 19th and early 20th centuries).

Grass is virtually non-existent, however. Rather, the ground cover, when we found it, was more like a creeping vine. Needless to say, we played using the “lift-clean-and-place” rule.

The pro told us that he has a long-term plan to restore the sprinker and irrigation system that was unceremoneously, but efficiently, torn out by the Taliban, and is looking for investors. The land itself is owned by the government, so it remains at risk of being appropriated for some supposed national security purpose. If you spend any amount of time in Afghanistan, you come to realize that any kind of long-term planning can only be entertained by the most ambitious of the small universe of hyperoptimists. But, having the vision and drive to make the Kabul Golf Club a lush, green, manicured oasis among the dramatic mountain venue stirs even the most jaded realist. In my mind, I painted it all green and imagined what Kabul Golf Club with grass would be like. I can even picture adding nine more holes to the course.

When this conflict subsides, when the government stabilizes, when corruption is finally choked off, I can see Afzul Abdul as the head professional of a real course. Yeah, I can see it, and it’s good; real good. For that, I’d come back. Because where democracy takes root, golf – real golf – with grass and bunkers and greens that are mowed every morning cannot be far behind.

As the inventory of the club’s rental clubs is sorely lacking, along with his supply of used golf balls, I seriously considered donating some of the many sets of clubs and full shag bags I have sitting in my garage. I wasn’t sure, however, how it might look when some American showed up in the luggage claim area of Kabul airport with several bags of golf clubs. No doubt, word would quickly

spread; being interpreted as a sure sign of neocolonialist intention that would really fire up the hostiles. I thought better of the idea.

Security protocols imposed on every foreigner living and working in Afghanistan are stringent. You are told never to linger in any one place for more than 20 minutes (the time it takes for “hostiles” to arrive after paid informants report your location). You are not allowed to take a stroll outside of the walls of the compounds in which you live and work. Any place you go for a meeting or event has to be “rekkied” (to reconnoiter, or approved in advance by security teams) before you are cleared to attend. Driving routes to places you regularly visit have to be changed every day. You are not supposed to congregate with other foreigners so as not to offer a tempting target. You should not be out in open spaces at significant distances from protective cover or an escape vehicle. All of these precautions, we are assured, are for our own good. But such constraints on normal movement can really take a toll on your morale.

Imagine then, living for extended periods in such a restricted environment, what it is like to get out for nine holes of golf. In allowing us to go, our security director ignored almost every one of our security protocols. And, for that we are indebted.

No other golf experience, even accounting for the lack of grass, the lousy equipment and the lost balls could have matched the intensity of the excitement of getting out for a three-hour stroll, on a beautiful day, in the fresh air, on open ground, outside of the dusty, polluted, and dangerous city of Kabul. I dare say, it might have been an even better experience than teeing it up at any worldranked course – at least on that day it was.

As there was no real clubhouse or 19th hole in which enjoy a post-round beverage and recount the game, we sadly, but with great satisfaction, bade farwell to our caddies and Afzul. But not before we bought out most of the golf shop’s inventory of logoed shirts, hats, and other souvenirs. Alas, the pro did not accept MasterCard, but, if he did, our group could have starred in the company’s next golf commercial. The script, of course, would read:

Green fees: $20; logoed golf shirt: $30; playing a round of golf in a war zone: Priceless! n

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Has anyone ever noticed that the earliest known references to golf in both the British Isles and in America deal not with the playing of the game but with the banning of it?

We only know people were taking mulligans and lying about their handicaps in Scotland before 1457 because that is the year that King James II issued a ban on golf (and, more understandably, on soccer). The reason: Golf was cutting into the time Scottish archers needed to practice for the endless wars with the British. Scholars also infer that the game had spread to western Scotland by 1589 only because that’s when the city of Glasgow prohibited play in the central city.

In a similar vein, the first published mention of golf in the New World apparently comes from a Dutch ordinance dating to 1659, setting a steep 25-florin fine for golfers playing in the streets of the small settlement that eventually became Albany, New York. And this was in an age when a florin really meant something.

Village magistrates said they were acting because they were sick of hearing the “complaints from burghers of this place against the practice of playing golf along the streets, which causes great damage to the windows of the houses, and ... is contrary to the freedom of the public streets.”

There’s many a modern homeowner living alongside a fairway in today’s residential golf

communities who probably wishes he had the rulemaking authority of those Dutch magistrates. But none of these edicts had any appreciable effect on the popularity of golf in the ensuing centuries.

What inspires this little history lesson is the unique travel piece on the preceding pages. The diminished Taliban led to a vigorous revival of many popular pastimes banned by the Islamic fundamentalist government, from chess and backgammon to the national sport of buzkashi, a (really cool) game which is something of a cross between polo and keep-away, with a goat’s carcass as the ball.

When Kabul Golf Club hosted its first tournament in 30 years, the press accounts focused on the picturesque shortcomings and hardships of Afghanistan’s once-and-future golf course. As is often the case, the media missed the point, because this is fundamentally a story of hope, of the surprising hardiness of what has to be the most finicky game ever invented.

Kings, colonial overseers and religious fanatics have all tried to kill the game in their turn, citing public safety, moral purity, national security. And all have failed miserably.

Golf has gotten a bad rap as an exclusionary, elitist, class-bound pastime, but history teaches something very different. A country that tries and fails to ban golf is a country that is fundamentally sane.

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Roll up. Roll up for the history tour. Roll up. That’s an invitation . . .

In the middle of a golf trip to England’s midwestern coast, I am standing on the Albert Dock in Liverpool, once a symbol of the greatness of Edwardian England. A century ago this waterfront area was one of the world’s great ports and ship building areas. Now the dock and the neighboring city center are a symbol of the past and the future – cobblestone pedestrian-only streets lined by upscale restaurants and shops. It’s sort of a Charles Dickens meets Armani in 21st-century England. I came to England for the golf – to play the ancient courses, some of which date to the presidency of Andrew Johnson – in the 40-mile stretch of linksland from Liverpool to Lytham; courses where six Ryder Cup matches and 32 Open Championships have been waged. While I have always been enamored with Scotland and Ireland (and recently Wales), it is England’s midwestern coast – what they call the golf coast – that has the greatest and most historic courses in the most compact area. You can play them all with less


driving than it takes to get from Myrtle Beach to Calabash. But I also came to brush up on my Beatles history, and, more educationally, the history of the dock on which I’m standing. The Albert Dock and Liverpool are intimately entwined with the three greatest commercial maritime tragedies ever – the Titanic, the Lusitania and the less-known but most tragic Empress of Ireland.

You may remember in the Hollywood interpretation of the sinking of the Titanic that Liverpool is written across the stern of the distressed ship as it plummets to the bottom of the Atlantic. The ship was built largely by Liverpudlians who worked for the White Star Shipping Company then headquartered at the Albert Dock. The Lusitania, the fastest ship crossing the Atlantic at the time, sailed from Liverpool to New York and on one of its return voyages was torpedoed by the Germans during World War I. Empress of Ireland, a Liverpool-toCanada liner, sunk in the St. Lawrence River after being broadsided in a thick fog by a huge coal ship. More than 1,000 died less than four miles from shore, including 172 crew members from Liverpool. More passengers were lost on the Empress (840) than the Titanic (817) or the Lusitania (791).

the middle of the roundabout. You can stand at the red iron gate to Strawberry Field, the Salvation Army house where John played in the yard as a child. You can still have a pint at the Cavern Club, where The Beatles began to gain fame and where thousands of major rock ’n roll acts have played on their way up.

Still, it is the golf history I’m most interested in. The stretch of linksland from Liverpool to Lytham is less than 40 miles as the Srixon flies, but it is packed not only with great courses but great golf history. Three of the world’s top 100 courses and seven of the 100 best in the U.K. and Ireland reside in this stretch.

Help. I need somebody. Help. Not just anbody . .

Ihave successfully avoided the front bunker on the par-3 opening hole at Royal Lytham & St. Annes. “Well done,” says my caddie, John Fishwick. “Only 205 more to keep out of.”

The Merseyside Maritime Museum recounts the history of each tragedy, all of which occurred within three years of each other. History tells us that these three tragedies sent Liverpool into an economic tailspin.

No one I think is really in my tree . . .

Less than 30 years later, John, Paul, George and Ringo were born in Liverpool, and their history is immortalized on the Albert Dock with The Beatles Experience. But I prefer to get out and see the real thing. You can walk down Penny Lane and find there still is a bank, a barbershop and a shelter in

John tells me he knows all the bunkers. “I should,” he says. “I’ve been caddying here for 66 years.” He tells me he’s 85 years old, which means he was a year old when Bobby Jones won the 1926 Open Championship with a 175-yard shot out of a pot bunker over nothing but heather, hills and gorse. A plaque commemorates the shot, and if you stand next to the plaque and size up the shot you would question whether Tiger or Phil could pull it off today. John says he can still do two loops a day, and I’m not going to argue since I’m having trouble keeping up with him, even though he keeps falling behind to rake the bunkers I keep finding.

On the 17th tee, the fairway finally looks open; just one bunker out there. I hit it good; a little draw.

“Looks boon-kerish to me,” John drawls. I protest, saying I only see

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one bunker and my ball is nowhere near it. “Yes,” he says. “But there’s 22 of them out there.”

My ball finds the bunker next to the Bobby Jones Bunker. I play out sideways and take my lumps; more lumps. Lytham & St. Annes deals nothing but lumps.

If you finish your round here and you’re not physically exhausted from playing out of the bunkers and mentally exhausted from worrying about going in the bunkers, then you’ve probably played well.

There, beneath the blue suburban skies I sit . . .

The story of how Royal Liverpool came to existence 12 miles outside the city in the town of Hoylake isn’t really much of a story, even though it is highly unusual in the British Isles for a course not to be in the town for which it is named. The linksland where the Irish Sea washes up against England was the race course of the Liverpool Hunt Club, where well-heeled Liverpudlians spent much of their leisure time. So when the idea of building a golf course on the land

came about shortly after our Civil War ended, it naturally became known as Royal Liverpool.

Also naturally, Royal Liverpool, which has become one of the world’s great courses, is interchangeably referred to as Hoylake. Again, that doesn’t make a very interesting story except when you consider there is a municipal course called Hoylake across the railroad tracks from Royal Liverpool. So when traveling golfers incorrectly navigate themselves to Hoylake municipal, they arrive with a quizzical look, expecting the grandiose clubhouse and rolling linksland of an Open Championship venue only to find a featureless city golf course.

Pull into the internationally famous Hoylake and you’re greeted by an opulent clubhouse, aged and kept to perfection. Inside, as you might expect, the walls are lined with memorabilia from the 11 Open Championships held there, including Tiger Woods’ famous wood-less victory in 2006 and more famously Bobby Jones’ win in 1930 as the second leg of the Grand Slam. A corner of one of the main rooms is referred to as the Bobby Jones Corner and includes, among other things,


the scorecards from each of his four rounds.

The greatness of the course is in the subtleness of the design. Other links achieve greatness because of the drama of the linksland they are built on. Royal Liverpool doesn’t have that advantage. Its flat and uneventful ground won’t win any awards, but the intricacy of the design and the masterful bunkering does. On a windless day it offers a very pleasant round but, with the fan turned up, it is a monster of an entirely different color.

Tell me, tell me, tell me; Come on, tell me the answer . . .

Nowhere is there a greater dichotomy between the greatness of the course and the monstrosity of the clubhouse than at Royal Birkdale. To be fair, the inside of the clubhouse is comfortable, elegant and contains as much ‘ifthese-walls-could-talk’ history as most other clubs on the Open Championship rota. But it’s basically a concrete ship’s bridge overlooking the wavy links from which England’s greatest course has been carved out over the years.

But then the clubhouse has always been a bone of contention at Birkdale. The first one, built on the other side of the property and opened in 1897, was razed in 1903, having been built across the line of the property belonging to the club. A properlyaligned clubhouse was quickly erected and opened in 1904 but lasted only 30 years until the current misplaced aircraft carrier design opened.

The coolest clubhouse on the property is the original pro shop, which stood beside the original clubhouse and is now used by 32 artisan members who trade their skills for free memberships to the club. They provide painting, plumbing, carpentry, landscaping and what not in return for being allowed to play the course before 8 a.m. and after 5 p.m. and to hang out in their own clubhouse of a few hundred square feet. On the walls are pictures of visitors the little clubhouse has entertained over the years. Some of the names you might recognize – Nicklaus, Palmer, Watson and Trevino.

If you get the opportunity to play Royal Birkdale, do so. It is as good – and maybe better – than the best courses in Ireland and Scotland. The pure, raw links character of the course oozes from behind every towering dune, and every modification to

Birkdale over the last 100 years keeps that character in mind. Well, except one. The rebuilding of the 17th green several years ago to add length to the par 5 for the 2008 Open is entirely out of character. While it provided the theater for Padraig Harrington’s great 5-wood shot to clinch the title, it has never been well received by the members and it is going to be rebuilt again before the next Open at Birkdale, which, oddly enough, has not yet been scheduled.

We’ve got everything you need; Satisfaction guaranteed . . .

How good is the linksland around the city of Southport? Royal Birkdale’s 18th hole abuts a wonderful but little-known (at least among Americans) course called Hillside, which abuts Southport & Ainsdale, the first course to host the Ryder Cup more than once.

Just south of S&A, West Lancashire is as pure of a links course as you will find and an Open qualifying site, and Formby, like Hillside, marries linksland with parkland to form a course considered among the best in the British Isles.

The difference you will find on some of the linksland here is that there are trees. At courses like Hillside, Formby and Hesketh, holes often begin either as parkland holes set among evergreen trees and end in the dunes characteristic of links courses. Sometimes it’s the opposite. And it’s not unusual to play a links hole followed by a parkland hole.

Everybody’s got something to hide . . .

During the Ryder Cup matches at Southport & Ainsdale in 1933, the U.S. team was captained by Walter Hagen. In the last singles match, Denny Shute needed only to two-putt for the U.S. to win. But Hagen was in the clubhouse enjoying a drink with the Prince of Wales and Shute thought he needed to hole his putt, which missed and ran six feet past. He missed the comebacker to give Great Britain and Ireland the Cup.

One sweet dream came true today . . . You can play three of the Open Championship courses, three of the world’s best courses, seven of the best in the U.K. on one tank of gas and without changing hotels. n

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Beating Balls In BAGHDAD

Isuppose a real reporter would have gone down and interviewed the guy. It was around noon in the Iraqi capital, a fall nip in the air that sent the temperature plummeting from 115 degrees to a relatively balmy 105. I was standing on my balcony on the 11th floor of the al Rashid Hotel, taking in the city, a brown, sprawling Arabic version of Los Angeles, the level horizon interrupted every so often by one of Saddam’s grotesquely outsized palaces or kitschy monuments to himself, his sons, or his various military misadventures. I was about to retreat back to the comfort of my air-conditioned room when I happened to look down. Aside from a sparkling-blue swimming pool, the grounds of the al Rashid are nothing to brag about – a little grass and a lot of dirt.

The only person visible was a slightly overweight man, in shorts, a collared shirt and an African bush hat, striding purposefully across the lawn with a silver walking stick in one hand. Approaching a palm tree at one edge of the courtyard, he stuck out the stick, and with a raking motion, lined up three golf balls at his feet and turned to face where he had just come from. His swing was a little creaky and he skulled a few (outside of the Tigris River basin, Iraq

is one giant hardpan lie), but just the simple pleasure of watching a man hit a golf ball was enough to make one feel at least marginally better about the whole place.

That soldier with his pitching wedge, carving out a small niche of serenity in an alien and unwelcoming place, inspired some larger thoughts about golf’s role in the geopolitical scheme of things. Maybe, in addition to reliable electricity and democratic government and a functioning economy, what Iraq needs is a little golf.

The Scots, it’s worth noting, have stopped painting their faces blue and troubling their neighbors since taking to golf a few hundred years ago. Germany hasn’t started a world war since Bernhard Langer joined the Tour. Not one of history’s noted troublemakers, from the Vikings and Mongols down to Saddam himself, had much time for golf.

On the other hand, the Irish boast some of the world’s loveliest golf course and one of the world’s nastiest sectarian bloodlettings. So maybe it’s a theory that needs some tweaking. Maybe my new golfing friend 11 floors below would have some thoughts. But as I watched him hit, marching contentedly in the stifling heat from nowhere to nowhere, I didn’t have the heart to interrupt him.


Why Dubai?

20 GOLFSTYLES Playing Through

he first thing people asked when I told them I was planning a golf trip to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates was: “Is it safe?’’ The Western world thinks of the Middle East as Third World, our impressions having been formed by 9-11, the Iraq War, civil war in Syria, and endless jihad and terrorism. Our previous generation mostly only knew of hostages in Tehran, a war between Iran and Iraq, Desert Storm and oil embargoes. To this day, no region of the world could use a good PR agency more than the Middle East.

The fact of the matter is. some countries in the Middle East have advanced rapidly in the last 30 years, but we’ve been too busy to notice. The United Arab Emirates stands out as a tiny desert oasis of impeccably kept green grass and imported palm trees; a modern city swallowed by a timeless desert; a sophisticated culture and incredible lifestyle; and, by the way, not a bad place for golf.

If interstate highways linked countries in the Middle East, you could easily drive to Iraq from the UAE. It would be a short boat ride across the Arabian Gulf to Iran. If the UAE could not be any closer geographically to the Third World Middle East, it couldn’t be any further removed from it politically, economically or, in many ways, culturally. The signs on every building, each with traditional Arabic script side-by-side with the English translation, serve as a constant reminder that you are in the Middle East. But almost everything else about Dubai – from the ultra-modern skyline, to the outstanding dining (restaurants do American food almost as good as we do) to the


characteristics of the golf courses – is everything you wouldn’t expect the Middle East to be.

Dubai is – among all its other fascinating tributes and dynamics – safe. Unless, that is, you have come to Dubai to play golf. In that case, it is just as hazardous as America.

My first drive around Dubai fascinates me – not by how different it is but by how different it isn’t. I drive by a McDonalds, Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut, Starbucks Subway, and even a TGI Fridays. A Holiday Inn sits just around the corner from the French hotel where I am staying, and spread across town are Hilton, Crowne Plaza, Ritz Carlton, Marriott, Hyatt, and Sheraton.

they accept other religions. When I pass St. Mary’s Catholic Church, I look twice.

I thought I would need an interpreter, but everyone speaks English. The UAE is incredibly hospitable to people from all over the world.

It comes as no surprise when I arrive at The Emirates Club, a 36-hole complex west of town, that if it weren’t for the desert views and some shots that play across desert, both courses would look perfectly at home in the Middle Atlantic. Conditions are immaculately green, golf carts are everywhere, measurements are in yards and sprinkler heads are marked with distances to the center of the green. But when I try to reach the par5 fourth on the Wadi Course in two and hang the shot out to the right, my trek through the soft desert sand to find my ball trapped under desert scrub brush reminds me that this is not golf in America.

Dubai’s souks are world-famous and I watch visitors haggling with the merchants. But most of the shopping these days takes place in modern malls and shopping centers like Wafi Shopping Mall, Abu Hail Shopping Centre, Al Rais Shopping Mall, Oasis Centre and Al Manal Centre, which is exclusively for women and families.

I drive by a few of the 130 mosques and prayer houses in Dubai. They are intriguing to Westerners and show that money hasn’t changed the fact that this is an Arab country, and its people are deeply committed to the Islamic religion. Yet they are aware that Dubai is now an international city and

The Emirates Golf Club opened in 1988 as the first championship grass course in the Middle East. The Majlis Course is the more interesting of the two and the home of the Dubai Desert Classic on the European PGA Tour until it moved to the new Dubai Creek course. The lush fairways of The Emirates Club roll through the desertscape and the raised greens are well protected by bunkers and water hazards.

Constantly within sight while playing either course is the Burj Al Arab (Tower of Arabia) hotel. Built on a manmade island in the Arabian Gulf, the billowing sail-shaped structure pays tribute to the seafaring past of the Arabian people. The structure is the world’s tallest hotel and an architectural and engineering marvel. It is a tribute to how extraordinary a building can be when money is no object.

The sail-shaped facade is a double-skinned Teflon-coated, woven-glass fiber screen, meaning one side of the three-sided building is barely more than an actual canvas sail. The hotel, more opulent than any New York hotel could imagine to be, has no ordinary rooms. The bottom-of-the-line rooms are luxurious 600-square-foot, two-story suites with

22 GOLFSTYLES Playing Through

circular staircases and a personal business center.

The main hotel restaurant is under the Arabian Gulf and another is suspended 200 meters above it. Guests are picked up at the airport in Rolls-Royce limousines or helicoptered to the 28th floor helipad. The 18th-floor Assawan Spa far outdistances anything any luxury spa at an American hotel. Oh, by the way, rooms start at about $1,500 per night.

It does rain in the UAE, although the total average rainfall in June and September is 0 inches. July and August average 0.001 inches and October generally sees 0.022 inches, which really amounts to little more than every camel in the Emirates spitting a couple times in those months. February is the rainy season, with more than two inches on average. During my week in the UAE in March, I am told it hasn’t rained in more than two years.

So why is the rough at Dubai Creek Golf and Yacht Club so thick that when I overcook a 3wood and the ball scampers 15 feet off the fairway? Clearly part of the reason is that I played the day after the conclusion of the Dubai Desert Classic. The USGA would be proud of the rough on the 6,839-yard course.

Dubai Creek is the marquee course in the UAE and not to be missed on a golf trip there. Like all the courses owned by the government (the Creek, Dubai Golf and Racing and Emirates Golf Club) tee times are

available to the public.

Opened in 1993, the course cozies up to Dubai Creek and is so close to Dubai’s busy downtown area that a wild tee ball could impede traffic on a major road. If you drive around the city, you can’t help but catch glimpses of the ridiculously green fairways. I find it hard to believe, thanks to the beautifully sculpted mounds, clear blue lakes and imported palm trees that separate the holes, that 20 years ago the land was harsh desert that supported little life or growth. And for a course built on a small parcel of land, the holes maintain great individuality because of the architectural features that separate tees from greens and one fairway from the next.

You don’t expect water to be such a prevalent feature in the desert, but Dubai Creek has more hazards than the creek on the closing holes to deal with. The possibility of drowning tee shots exists on three of the four par 3s. Water comes into play on eight other holes, but never more dramatically than on the two closing par 4s. Both play along Dubai Creek. As if that isn’t enough to deal with, the approach to 18 requires a long iron or even a fairway wood to carry a pond fronting the green on the 430yarder.

The conditioning at Dubai Creek and the other government courses is exceptional. In the desert, Dubai has a limitless supply of water thanks to the


creek and salinization plants.

But, then again, keeping a golf course green can’t seem like that big of a task in a land of ample maintenance budgets for golf and everything else. Once after a torrential rain in the mid-1990s flooded the downtown area, the government immediately installed a stormwater management system to prevent it from ever happening again.

The desert can be a surprisingly cool place. At night, during the winter months, Dubai can be almost turtle-neck cool, especially when the wind blows. Daytime golf can require a windshirt. Although the desert wind is generally just a strong breeze at worst, my drive from Dubai to Abu Dabi, one of the other seven Emirates, indicates otherwise.

A strong wind blows sand across the highway, drifting it like snow along the curbs. The wind keeps the desert in constant motion, creating small drifts and ripples in the sand almost like water ripples.

Once off the main highway, Ali, who is driving me and two friends to the course, tells us he has to take a longer route to Abu Dabi Golf Club because drifting sand has made the direct route impassable.

“I hope,’’ I joke, “they have the road plowed by the time we get done.’’

The National Course at Abu Dabi Golf Club, a 36-hole complex owned by Marriott, is longer and more difficult than the Garden Course, which has nine floodlit holes for night play. The National is big-league, stretching to over 7,200 yards. Even the more palatable 6,740-yard markers are a tricky dichotomy of play around lakes and past desert scrub brush. A couple of wonderful par 3s over water are the most memorable holes but it’s three beefy par 4s of 420 or more even from one tee up and the manly par 5s that test a player’s ability to consistently go deep off the tee.

Halfway between Dubai and Abu Dabi is the world-class Jebel Ali Hotel and Resort, which is relatively new to the golf industry. The resort’s nine-hole course plays among exotic trees and incredible landscaping. The search for a stray tee ball on the par-4 seventh takes me into a stand of brush and trees. I never find my ball, but I end up face to face with a peacock.

Although the drive to Jebel Ali is largely through desert, the course seems far removed from the sand. Nine more holes are planned, although no timetable is set for their construction. The privately owned course is as well conditioned as the government courses. The hole you will most likely remember is the short par-4 seventh where the landing area pinches down to almost nothing. The smart play is an iron off the tee.

In some ways the golf in Dubai is very different from golf anywhere else in the world. At the Dubai Golf and Racing Club, darkness falls and your round goes on. The course, built around the worldfamous Nad Al Shiba horse racing track (home of the Dubai World Cup, the richest horse race in the world), the course has a links-like feel, right down to the thin, tightly cropped and rolling fairways and the deep pot bunkers. Most holes encounter one of eight lakes. The front nine plays around the outside of the track, which is so big it encompasses the entire back nine of the 6,428-yard course. On race nights (the course is closed) a one-mile horse race starts on the backstretch and covers but half a lap.

The course is deceptively tough. Short holes play over water and allow little room for mistakes. Despite its modest length, there are some long par 4s and 5s. A hidden hazard in front of the par 5 10th green will ruin a well-struck second shot that might appear to get close to the green, but other than that the course is a fine design. Playing under the lights is another treat for Westerners. But don’t expect to blame bad shots or lost balls on poor lighting. While the flood lights don’t simulate daylight, there is more than enough light to see even your biggest tee ball land, be it in the fairway, rough or water.

Nabeel may well be the only person in Dubai who can show up for work in blue jeans and a cowboy hat and not look out of place. Then again, he may be the only person in Dubai with a valid Virginia driver’s license.

Nabeel is a desert safari guide. He drives a Toyota Land Cruiser across the desert, which isn’t nearly as difficult as negotiating the Capital Beltway, but a heck of a lot more fun. He races up and down the desert dunes, creating an amusement park ride in a standard SUV. He races on, seemingly without

24 GOLFSTYLES Playing Through

regard to tipping the vehicle over. Actually, it’s difficult to tip one of those vehicles, and I’m glad I know that since I am riding shotgun. Despite my pleas, Nabeel isn’t going to let me drive.

‘’But Nabeel,” I insist, ‘’I drive on the Beltway every day.” He’s not impressed.

You could never imagine a place so dominated by brown being so beautiful. The dunes give the desert rhythm, like the waves in the ocean. The sun setting over an endless desert landscape is a sight no film maker or painter can do justice. We stopped and watched as the hot orange sun turned yellow, then to haze, then to dark. And then Nabeel takes me and the group to base camp, where we eat dinner under the desert stars.

The next day, the brown of the desert becomes the golf setting. You can make the 12-hour flight to Dubai and play its green world-class courses, but don’t overlook “The Desert Challenge.” Dubai Country Club is a 6,431-yard, par-71 course with a practice facility, putting green and not a single blade of grass.

The course was built in the early days of the UAE (the early 1970s) by a pioneering and eccentric group of Europeans. Fairways are defined by green stakes. If your tee ball lands within the stakes you may place your ball on a piece of artificial turf

which you carry with your clubs. Outside the green stakes means the ball must be played as it lies. The greens are pushed up and clearly defined. They are a mixture of sand and oil and hold shots surprisingly well. They are faster and truer than you could possibly imagine sand being, but there is little undulation. Bunkers are defined by raised sand lips which you must blast the ball over, thereby creating a different shot than simply missing a green where there is no bunker.

Shorts and sunscreen are as important as the driver and putter. The desert sun bounces off the sand and though it provides a nice, even tan, it raises the temperature of the playing surface so much that during the summer season the club offers only a nine-hole rate.

This pure desert golf is a workout. The center of the fairways are hardened sand, meaning a striped tee ball will gather plenty of distance and be quickly taken out of play. But walking and pulling your trolley through the fairway sand can be like walking on soft beach sand.

I am told in the pro shop that my Softspikes won’t do. Players must wear sneakers since even non-metal spikes make indentations in the browns that can’t be repaired by the practice of sweeping your footprints from the putting surfaces so as to


not anger the next group through.

Water hazards are clearly defined by standard yellow or red stakes, however, other than the drinking water in the jug on each tee, there isn’t a drop of water on the course. Water hazards are dug out as if the designers were planning to fill them up, but if they tried, they gave up and now the hazards look like dried-up lake beds.

Heritage Village on the west bank of Dubai Creek is to the people of Dubai what Colonial Williamsburg is to Americans, a living, working museum that pay continuous tribute to the country’s past. To a Westerner it is full of contradictions.

If you think American pioneers had it rough, take a stroll through Heritage Village. In the old Dubai, a family home was maybe 200 square feet of sand covered by an Arabian rug and enclosed by four thatch walls and a thatch roof. I visited the village on a cool winter evening when the temperature might have dipped into the 50s. The women cooking over fires didn’t seem that laborious, but on a 120-degree summer day it must have bordered on cruel and unusual punishment.

The village of shanties is directly across the creek from the city’s ultra-modern skyline. Arabian women dressed in traditional black abba robes talk on cell phones. And while the women of the village cook traditional Arab meals over open fires, kids snack on Kit Kats, Chicklets and fireballs bought by their parents.

At 25, Marwan J. Bin Beyat isn’t old enough to remember the old Dubai. But his parents lived in it. Beyat works for the government and shows me a black-and-white photo hanging on the wall of the Dubai corporate hospitality room at the Dubai Desert Classic. The picture, taken in the early 1960s, shows the desert near Dubai Creek. It is clearly a desert. The land is sectioned into small square sand plots by wooden fences that had long ago seen better days. Americans would be embarrassed to keep their lawnmowers in these structures. But they were family homes, almost until

26 GOLFSTYLES Playing Through

the time Beyat was born. Now, on that same land is one of the world’s most modern skylines and most dynamic downtown districts.

“The UAE has one of the best standards of living in the world,’’ he tells me, then rattles off a list of some of the things the government does for its people.

• At age 20 the government gives natives land and a 500,000-dirham ($180,000) interest-free loan for 25 years to buy a house.

• As a wedding gift, the government gives couples 75,000 dirham ($20,000).

• Every child’s education through college is paid for.

• There is no income tax, no sales tax and the government pays for everyone’s health insurance.

‘’Do you get that in America?’’ he asks.

Salaries are very much in line with typical American salaries, and middle-class housing in Dubai looks very much like an upscale Miami suburb, without the gaudy pink and baby blue colors.

region of the world back 4,000 years when nomadic fishing communities began to form along Dubai Creek. The early settlement of Dubai began in the 1830s as a small fishing village on the Shindagha peninsula at the mouth of the creek, which by American standards is a healthy river.

Life centered around fishing, shepherding goat and camel herds, or farming date palms in the few places water could be found. Pearl-diving became a viable trade and helped Dubai rise to a trading center of some prominence by the late 1800s. But when the Japanese developed the cultured pearl in the mid-1900s, the pearl industry collapsed. Trade in other products, including gold, helped Dubai survive, but life in the UAE was far from cozy.

Archaeologists tell us they can trace life in this

In 1966, Dubai discovered its oil reserves and by 1969 the country was exporting oil. Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum led the nation into a period of rapid advancement that is still clearly evident. Unlike other Middle East rulers, Maktoum spread the oil wealth around, and now every person born in the UAE benefits to this day. n


Made in

OK, I admit, there’s something hinky about playing a game steeped in aristocracy amidst the hardscrabble existence of oppressed peasantry in communist China. Not to mention enjoying the luxury of a five-star resort while taking my pick of 12 golf courses, a few of them world-class. But many critics of golf – and many American companies – can be found luxuriating in thirdworld countries cozying up to foreign dictators –mainly Chinese – while politically scolding half of their American customers. So it was with minimal conflict that I found myself at Mission Hills, the largest golf resort in the world.

When the “great leader” Deng Xiaoping accepted the merits of capitalism in the early ’80s, he definitely got the golf part right. And the more recent rulers allowed dollars, yen, won and euros to fuel a building boom (more officially called “economic zones”) that embraced golf as part of it.

What’s not to like about that? Mission Hills

offers 10 of its 12 courses to visitors and all have big-time names attached to them. Most of the courses were developed at the same time on the same great topography. So maybe it was just a coincidence that the Norman Course was unnecessarily difficult and the Sorenstam Course was pleasant and fair.

And who would have thought that the Olazabal Course, a one-time venue of the World Cup, would be nothing short of spectacular. Or that the Leadbetter Course would be your chance to score on wide, pristine fairways (OK, maybe that one was predictable). But not the Els Course, which was a gregarious front-nine romp up, down and through the hillsides followed by a more subtle but solid series of holes on the back nine that can be beautified by floodlights (above).

Since the “designers” are all personalities, it was easy to stereotype a layout. The temptation on the Faldo Course was to nitpick your way through the 28 GOLFSTYLES Playing Through

round. By the time you end with a world-class trio of finishing holes, you walked off No. 18 thinking, “that was a darn good golf course.”

Other name courses are from Jack Nicklaus, Jumbo Ozaki, David Duval and Vijay Singh. If there is a sameness to the courses, it is because they’re all on a connected, dramatic, magificent piece of land, and to complain about that would be akin to criticizing the Pinehurst collection for its similarities.

Mission Hills is a bastion of capitalism that employs the human product of communism, so the American used to a simple check-in for a tee time might be taken aback by the seemingly chaotic process. You’d swear it was here where the term “Chinese fire drill” originated, but then you begin to notice that it’s all working out and that you brought your American angst and annoyance with you, mostly for no good reason.

The caddies are no different than those of

Scottish lore – you can barely understand them and they think they know more than they actually do. The difference at Mission Hills, though, is the aesthetics. There are several thousand caddies who board at the resort property – all young women who support their families in the villages or who are simply fortunate, because a daily $20 tip is more than a week’s wages in the rice fields. And, at least there’s truth in advertising with the Mission Hills caddies. A “Golden” caddie earns her rank based on stern testing and customer reviews.

Mission Hills, about 90 minutes from Hong Kong, is the Guinness Book of World Records holder for largest golf resort in the world and perhaps on its way to becoming elite. It offers a cultural experience beyond the superb golf for nearly half the price of a Scotland/Ireland trip. Of course, you’re not doing China instead of Ireland, but perhaps it’s worth a spot on your Bucket List.


A Quick Trip Around TheForgotten Kingdom

There is a reason Wales is known as a great country for hiking adventures – driving isn’t such an easy thing. Wales is a country of country roads. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a wonderful country to drive around – just don’t plan on making a 50-mile trip in an hour.

But that means on your golf trip to Wales you will see more than just fairways and greens. You’ll pass through towns with names that start with a confounding double L followed by a collection of letters that would make an awful Scrabble rack. And you need a pronunciation guide to read a map. Some useful hints: The Welsh double L is pronounced like our single L, although you must force air across both sides of your tongue in making the sound. Their double D is roughly equivalent to our th. Their C is always as in cat or kill and never as in city. And when in Harlech – and you will be – you must pronounce the first syllable with such a throaty rasp that it sounds like you’re hocking up a fur ball.

You will need help with all of this, but no worries. The people of Wales are happy to see you. They understand Wales is the forgotten kingdom of the United Kingdom. Golfers from around the world know every Open Championship course in Scotland and England, and they know Ireland and its world-ranked links. But most would be hard-

30 GOLFSTYLES Playing Through

pressed to name a single Welsh course beyond the Ryder Cup’s Twenty Ten Course.

The first course you come to when driving into Wales from any of the London airports or, more conveniently, the Bristol Airport, is Celtic Manor. This is a flamboyant five-star resort of over-the-top elegance and luxury; a money-is-no-object place if there ever was one. The resort is owned by Welsh billionaire Sir Terry Matthews who, upon getting the bid to host the 2010 Ryder Cup, rebuilt the resort’s Wentworth Hills Course specifically to host the world’s greatest golf event. Renamed the Twenty Ten Course, it is a modern parkland layout that is an absolute mustplay compared to its former self, which was a course easy to pass up in favor of a great links course. Now, with its Ryder Cup lore, it’s a must-play solely on its merit.

I have an uneasy feeling as I poke around in the headhigh gorse looking for my wayward Srixon to the left of the first fairway at Southerndown, one of the oldest courses in Wales. I’m not too worried about the ball or the ensuing penalty stroke; it’s more the set of eyes peering back at me that has me concerned.

ball in the fairways or reasonably close to them. But they seem to take exception when you wander into their high grass and turn what might be tomorrow’s lunch into a gaping divot. And they are plenty vocal in letting you know they prefer their meals not be interrupted by incoming golf balls. Such shots will annoy you just as much as the sheep. Southerndown is a course that is meant to be played down the centerlines, and straying too far into the sheep herd will keep the lost balls and penalty shots piling up.

Southerndown was built more than 100 years ago on land somewhere between links and parkland. The fact that it is called a downland course is a misnomer. The land is quite elevated and if you turn your back to the first green, the

I’ve played enough courses in the U.K. to know that livestock often has the right-of-way, but at Southerndown the sheep seem to have taken their proprietary right to graze to a right of ownership. They have taken up residence in the gorse, clearing away the lower foliage of the bushes to create little caves of creature comfort, and they would rather you not stick a 3-iron into their living room while searching for your ball.

The Southerndown sheep clearly make you feel like an intruder. They seem to tolerate your imposition as long as you chase your silly white

panoramic view down to a lush green valley and out to the distant town of Bridgend is remarkable. After a benign opener, the course becomes progressively more narrow until the claustrophobic 18th and its two-tiered fairway enclosed by gorse and bunkers.

I’m standing on the fourth tee at Pennard, grinding over the yardage book, surveying the distance again and again and each time finding it impossible to calculate how one relates to the other.


Then, as if by the grace of the Welsh golf gods, an elderly gentleman who happens to be a member playing another hole pulls his trolley up and takes pity on my befuddled soul. He points me in the proper direction and we both go on our way. A few holes later, as if he has been appointed your guardian golf angel for the day, he shows up and helps me navigate the turn.

“The ninth fairway goes down there and moves a little left. When you get to the dogleg, make sure you play to the green on the left. The green on the right is the 18th. Then 10 goes down there into the valley, and then it goes in and out and all around. It’s quite a trip.”

Indeed. Pennard is quirky, scruffy and ragged, not only around the edges but right down the centerlines. Anyone who knows links golf will recognize Pennard as its most pure form.

If you enjoy watching the bad bounces and wild rolls of the Open Championship, you can’t help but enjoy Pennard, which is links golf to the power of 10. The terrain ebbs and flows like an angry ocean and head-high mounds and hillocks in the fairways can cast astray your best efforts. But such bounces are what define Pennard and it shouldn’t be any other way. The course may be the most natural links in the world. It is hard to imagine that even a thimble-full of earth was moved to create these fairways. And one would assume that the greens and tees were created simply by lopping off the top of a dune or shuffling around a few spadefulls of the sandy loam from Wales’ southern coast.

Pennard, unlike the world’s other links, plays high above the sea near appropriately named Three Cliffs Bay, where each of the cliffs soars hundreds of feet above the ocean. This land is so rugged it pushes the envelope of golf course sites. It is one of the toughest links walks you will experience. A friend from London who has joined us for our trek through Wales once climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa. “Yeah,” he shrugs, “but it wasn’t as tough as walking Pennard.”

But the walk has its rewards. You might bark at the state of confusion the course lives in, or at the blind fourth or the quirky 10th, but the 16th is one of the world’s great scenic holes. The par 5 plays directly toward the three cliffs with an infinite view of the ocean in the distance.

The Welsh, like most Europeans, cherish their history. While other cultures might tear down an aging building to erect something more sturdy, more functional but far less charming, the Welsh cling to such spots, nurturing them not from one year to the next but from one century to the next.

One Saturday morning not too many years ago, the car park at Royal Porthcawl was filled to capacity, as if it might be the opening day of the member-guest tournament. But the course was empty. Inside the clubhouse a meeting was in progress to determine what to do about the club’s clearly outdated and certainly too-small clubhouse.

“You would have thought they were debating whether to impeach the queen,” one member tells me.

A faction of members floated a proposal to raze the existing 100-year-old structure and build something with, oh, some modern conveniences and a little more square footage.

The clubhouse at Royal Porthcawl is too small. It is too old. And the site it sits on overlooking the Bristol Channel is deserving of something more majestic. But while it lacks the amenities of modern clubhouses like those recently built at Pennard and Aberdovey, it is, without a doubt, the most fabulous clubhouse in the British Isles.

Its rich wood walls contain the golf stories of a century. The floor squeaks and creaks with every step. There are no hallways; you just go from one room to the next to the next, and when the bartender slides your BLT across the counter, you just find some nook or cranny and enjoy your lunch.

The fact that one of the world’s great links courses awaits outside makes Royal Porthcawl the complete package. Other great links of the British Isles have built modern structures to accommodate the needs of the world’s intruding golfers. Royal Porthcawl – or at least a safe majority of its members – will have none of it.

A visit to Harlech must include two things: a climb to Harlech Castle and a round at Royal St. David’s. The castle, once part of King Edward I’s iron ring of castles around Snowdonia, is only as interesting as any visit to any other castle in Wales. But it’s the pictures in the gift

32 GOLFSTYLES Playing Through

shop that grab my attention.

The castle was built on a cliff hundreds of feet above Cardigan Bay, and reproduced artist renderings from the 13th century, when the castle was completed, show the ocean crashing against the base of the cliff. So you look out the door of the castle courtyard and ponder the dichotomy. The ocean is visible only well off in the distance. Between you and it lies Royal St. David’s, one of

the classic links of the British Isles. A little research reveals the land the course is on has been reclaimed by nature from the sea, a feat now under study within the Morfa Harlech Site of Special Scientific Interest.

So we have nature to thank for what has been called the “hardest par 69 in the world.” The layout includes just two par 5s and an abundance of meaty par 4s. The closing holes, which play through


classic linksland beneath the castle, are clearly the strength of the course.

Tenby is the oldest golf club in Wales, built just outside the walled medieval town that has become one of the country’s thriving summer spots. Its restaurants, accommodations and nightlife are among the best in Wales so an early morning tee time isn’t always the best plan, especially since the opening holes are about as tough a stretch as you'll find in links golf. The openers are cut through significant dunes, the third green pushed up so high on all sides that missing it anywhere leads to an almost impossible recovery shot.

The short par-3 seventh at Tenby leads to a confluence of golfers streaming into a very small area from several holes. On a quiet day it isn’t even noticeable, but on a crowded Saturday morning it would be a great place for a hot dog stand.

You’ll leave Tenby with half the holes burned into your golf subconscious forever because they are incredibly cool to play. But the thing you’ll remember most about Tenby is the one quid you’ll pay for insurance. Tenby is the only course in the world where you have to protect yourself from beaning a pedestrian. A footpath right through the middle of the course connects the town to its beach and there are a couple of blind shots that must be played across the path. So the club requires that you insure yourself.

I’m closing in on a great round, my best ever across the pond. Coming up the blind fairway of the 18th hole at Nefyn, I have blistered my tee shot just left of the directional pole. My friend hit his just to the right so it makes perfect sense that my ball is the one on the left edge of the fairway. But it’s not. It’s my friend’s, which means mine is in the thick, waist-high grass farther left, and my round is ruined.

We inquire about the accuracy of the directional pole in the pro shop. “Oh, yeah. That’s been wrong for a hundred years,” the pro says.

But that’s not what makes Nefyn & District a links course unlike any other we’ve played on this trip or any other trip to the U.K. The course sits 100 feet above the ocean on sheer cliffs with fairways and greens that are crowded into areas too

small. The course is a right-of-way to a beach below so on a nice summer day a traffic cop would be a good idea. The holes built above the beach are simply spectacular. Only Ireland’s Old Head is comparable, but Nefyn has much more classic lines.

As one of Wales’ northern-most courses, it is well worth the trip. From the 11th hole home, it is quite a ride, maybe not the most pure golf but some of the most spectacular.

I’ve got a six-footer to even the match with our Welsh hosts at a lovely links with an equally lovely name: Aberdovey. It sounds peaceful and serene, and on another day it probably is, but the fan is blowing 35 mph off the ocean, the temperature is dropping through the Celsius teens like a well-struck 20-footer hitting the hole and my partner is writhing in pain.

He’s laying four, 50 feet from the hole on the dead-into-the-wind par-3 fourth, which covers 156 yards but is every bit of a low, boring 3-iron. His woefully wayward shot is not why he is grimacing and dancing about like he’s just touched an electric fence. Actually, he has just touched an electric fence. The greens at Aberdovey are surrounded by low-hanging charged wires to keep the grazing cattle from leaving hoof prints in the carefully tended putting surfaces. It is a common occurrence in Wales, where ancient grazing rights supercede those of the local greenskeeper.

At Aberdovey, club officials have offered the farmers tens of thousands of pounds and perfectly fine grazing land farther inland, but the cattle still graze on the golf course without regard to the fact that this is one of the country’s great links.

One of Aberdovey’s great holes is the par-3 12th, where the green sits on a bluff exposed to whatever expanse of the Atlantic Ocean decides to deal it. Today is an on-shore wind capable of blowing over your stand bag so often you decide to just lay it on the ground. Your well-struck 5-iron rises above the level of the green and gets murdered by the wind, to lay 30 yards short. So you compensate on your chip but catch it a little too cleanly and it sails over the back edge of the green and onto the beach below, needlessly reminding you that you are playing links golf. n

34 GOLFSTYLES Playing Through


hen USAF Lt. Col. John Keating left Vietnam 40 years ago, you can rest assured he didn’t anticipate an invitation to return. “Of the thousands of questions you could have asked me at that time, ‘Would you want to return to Vietnam someday with your golf clubs?’ certainly wasn’t one of them.”


WAR Remembrance

The mission on this tour of duty is to engage the Ho Chi Minh Golf Trail, which includes some of Vietnam’s newest gems and oldest classics but no munitions. We begin in Ho Chi Minh City, which Keating knew as Saigon, a dangerous but much more friendly place for Americans than Hanoi last time he was here. While Vietnam is an emerging market and golf destination, a drive through Ho Chi Minh City is still a lesson in Third World sociology. Away from the modernizing business district, which is lit up like Times Square but goes on for miles, every street is lined with small, onestory shops that in the States would be barely

more than a rickety old back-alley garage desperately clinging to its last days. Some have tarps strung off the front to create a “verandah” and provide relief from the intense sun. The shops, one of which could be a bakery, next to another that sells greasy tire rims, next to another that looks like a Third World convenience store next to another that sells bridal gowns, stand wall-towall and go on for miles and miles on every street

in every direction. In Ho Chi Minh City, there is no space; every square inch of real estate is occupied by something.

Then you cross the Saigon River, the city’s eastern limit, but nothing changes and the same scene goes on for more miles and miles and miles.

People are everywhere and traffic is New York City on its worst day times 10. Busses, delivery trucks, maintenance vehicles and only occasionally cars (there is a 100 percent tax on automobiles so very few citizens own one) all fight for space on a hodge-podge of roads that would drive a cartographer mad. Then mix in not hundreds or even thousands, but millions of motorbikes whose drivers bob and weave through the bigger vehicles, sometimes inches from disaster, without fear.

The motorbike is a staple of Vietnamese life. Almost every city resident has at least one. With nine million people in HCMC and another seven million in Hanoi, you can do the math, but the actual scene is impossible to comprehend until you’re actually in the mix. Everyone is on a motorbike. Businessmen in jackets and ties, businesswomen in skirts and high heels, deliverymen (you would not believe what can be delivered on a motorbike), and even school-age boys and girls. Imagine your 16-year-old daughter driving a motorbike to school carrying at least one sibling and possibly two (an art that the Vietnamese have perfected for up to four people) during the peak of the worst American city rush hour.

It is all un-orchestrated chaos played out to a cacophony of vehicle horns and sirens – not to mention a smog of emissions and dust that would make Los Angeles air welcoming. Yet, somehow, it all works out in the end – usually. Not once in four days of being driven through Hanoi and HCMC did I witness an act of road rage, a fender-bender or even anyone losing his temper.

Not five minutes away from this madness in HCMC is Vietnam Golf & Country Club, a 36hole facility that is so placidly tranquil, and, therefore, so blatantly opposite to what is outside the gates, that it is impossible to find a more stark

36 GOLFSTYLES Playing Through

dichotomy. The club has more than 1,000 members and can be the golf equivalent of the HCMC streets on a weekend morning. Still, like most Vietnamese clubs, it welcomes visitors during the week. A round on either course is not too dissimilar from your home course – tree-lined, bunkered and enough water to keep things interesting. The greens are the defense of the East Course, usually sloping so severely in a couple of different directions that pin placements have become hard to find since the course maintains modern green speeds. On some greens it is possible to speed by the hole and end up off the green or to lip out a putt and have a 15-footer left.

The real Vietnam – the Vietnam of socialism, oppression and an average anual salary that equals $1,200 – ends abruptly as you travel past Phan Thiet (FOHN tee-et), a smaller, cleaner city, and you get a glimpse of what the country wants to become. Between Phan Thiet and the South China Sea is a stretch of 50 or so resorts that cater to the Vietnamese upper class and western travelers. Across the street from the long line of oceanfront resorts is a myriad of more shops, restaurants and beach stores, similar to those back in the city but slightly nicer.

At a place like the Blue Ocean Resort, each guest or family might be from a different country and as you stretch out on the beach, you’ll hear German, French, Vietnamese, English and a couple languages you don’t recognize. Each bungalow guestroom at the Blue Ocean is just steps from the beach and the South China Sea is bath tub-warm even in the peak of an American winter.

“Most Vietnamese can’t see the future. They are so engaged in getting from day to day that it takes all their effort,” general manager Jennes Le Thanh Tan tells me. “But now some Vietnamese are starting to get ahead a little and they’re starting to think about the future.”

Ocean Dunes and the soon-to-open Sea Links will play a part in a future built on enticing European and American tourists and golfers. It’s still easy to get a starting time at the Nick Faldodesigned Ocean Dunes, but obviously the tourist industry is trying to change that. The layout is full

of interesting holes and touches the South China Sea on the back nine, and the future meets the past on the par-4 13th where the blight of the city backs up to the fairway and the course-side homes are considerably less luxurious than in the States.

The last time Lt. Col. Keating was in Da Nang, he couldn’t wait to get out. Now, 37 years later, we have to pry him out.

“We’d fly a mission over South Vietnam and then refuel and rearm in Da Nang and fly another mission on the way back,” he says. “One of these mountains around here is Monkey Mountain where the Viet Cong would hide out and fire their artillery at us when we took off. I have a couple friends whose lives ended on Monkey Mountain.”

Without knowing better, Vietnam would be just about the last place you would expect overthe-top luxury. American cinema has etched into our minds a war-torn Vietnam of dense jungle, impoverished villages and urban blight all wrapped in a blanket of thick and intense tropical heat. We don’t realize the war has been over for more than four decades and things have changed. Only 25 years after the end of World War II, our perception of Germany and Japan had been completely remade, and rightly so.

But no democracy emerged from the Vietnam War. The communist North spread its socialist republic throughout the South after the U.S. pulled up anchor in 1975 and democracy died. Socialism has Vietnam largely stuck in the Third World. Its 85 million residents make it the 13th most populated country in the world, and the average income is a more-than-reasonablesounding 19 million Vietnamese Dong, but it is the equivalent of $1,200. That makes the Nam Hai Resort a surreal experience. A collection of beachfront bungalows, infinity pools and impeccable service on China Beach (the famous spot where American GIs went for R&R) make some great western hotels look like just another place to stay.

Combined with a round at the Montgomerie Links, one of Vietnam’s newest course and probably its best, it’s a combination of golf and luxury that not even The Greenbrier or The Homestead can match.

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In Hanoi, the golf doesn’t start well for Keating. His caddie tells him that her grandparents used to tell her stories about their village being bombed by American fighter pilots. He’s in the woods on the first four holes.

“Hanoi’s revenge,” he grumbles.

Golf came to communist Hanoi in 1994 when King’s Island was built. The 36-hole complex is accessible only by boat (actually a glorified dingy with a Yamaha outboard motor), which drops you off 100 feet or so beneath the clubhouse. You climb a series of marble steps to a round structure

with a cone-shaped roof and large bay windows all around. In the awkward light of dusk it might be confused with an alien vessel.

The Mountainview Course is big and brawny and enough of a test to hold the Asian tour championship two weeks after we play. The design is very American with bold bunkering, large greens and trees lining most holes.

The Vietnamese upper class loves its golf. It’s a two-hour drive through the traffic of Hanoi (just as bad as Ho Chi Minh City) then a quick boat ride to the clubhouse, then a short shuttle bus to


the first tee of the Mountainview Course, but every weekend morning and most weekdays the place is packed. The two courses do 100,000 rounds a year, mostly by members.

Hanoi, like all of Vietnam’s major cities, is really two cities in one. The old Hanoi remains largely Third World with streets lined with small shops and vendors like those of Ho Chi Minh City. But an entire new city is being built within Hanoi’s borders. Towering apartment buildings and office complexes

are giving the city an impressive skyline. Dozens are under construction, as is a new eight-lane highway, which far surpasses the quality of the country’s roads.

The Vietnam Keating remembers is gone, remembered only in several War Remnants museums throughout the country.

IWhat Vietnam has become is far from what any American warrior would have guessed. Give it another decade and it will be what no one ever imagined. n

A RETURN TO VIETNAM (From an f-4 to a par 4)

t began with a phone call. “Dad, what do you think about a trip to Vietnam?” My last journey to Vietnam was a combat mission in an F-4E loaded with weapons. I served two tours there and my memories are far from peaceful. I am a retired fighter pilot and was proud of our accomplishments, but forever since have questioned the restrictions that kept us from maximizing our skills and equipment. I never thought of returning, much less with a golf bag in tow. Then came son Michael’s call. I arrived in Vietnam with great anticipation but no expectations.

The first site was the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). Its purpose is to portray through graphic photography the war crimes committed by foreign forces, namely the United States, against the Vietnamese people. It manges to leave out the crimes committed by the Viet Cong. It is propaganda, but effective.

I was reminded of how expendable young American lives became when civilian and military decision-makers think fighting a war is more important than winning it. The American combatant was in Vietnam to survive. His opponent was there to win. Considering the recent history of the U.S. in the Middle East, how long before similar museums exist in Baghdad or Kabul?

source of my most life-threatening moments. Nevertheless, Spring Island is a magical place, requiring a boat ride to access the island clubhouse and courses. The serenity and natural beauty are impressive. It is hard to imagine this pristine setting as a sky full of surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft artillery as bomb-laden F-105s and F-4s roared toward their objectives in the city.

With one exception, all of our caddies were young ladies. They were cheerful and efficient and equal to the best Irish and Scottish caddies. The weather was hot and humid and we occasionally complained – but not for long. I am in shorts, a stay-dry shirt and playing a game I enjoy. In this same weather, we thought of the reluctant draftee in full battle gear, days on end in the field, enemy whereabouts unknown, and his game, to stay alive.

Forty-five years ago, Vietnam was a very different place. People in the North were hostile and those in the South suspect. Today, Vietnam is an emerging nation with an aggressive economy and a gregarious and inquisitive population. Tourism is blossoming with the high-rises and modern firstclass resorts. The Nam Hai, east of Da Nang on China Beach, is the most high-tech vacation site I have ever experienced.

The golf experience was more spiritual than athletic. Playing in areas that once were combat targets was unreal. My favorite course was on Spring Island in Son tay Hanoi. It is difficult to think of Hanoi in pleasant terms. It is the

For the natives of Vietnam, even after absorbing the loss of three million lives, the war is ancient history. Thanks to Jeff Thoreson, GolfStyles, and the people of Vietnam, it is the same for me.

40 GOLFSTYLES Playing Through

Golf Trips

For a sport that really doesn’t require much physical exertion – one you can play while smoking and drinking –golf occasionally finds itself on the extreme edge, and these are events you can take part in.


Each March, when the ice conditions are right at Uummannaq Golf Club in Greenland (pictured), golf is played in one of the world’s most spectacular (and cold) landscapes. The course is 375 miles north of the Arctic Circle and golfers from around the world play for the title among freezing glaciers and huge icebergs. Coping with temperatures that can fall to -50º C with the wind-chill factor is more challenging that putting on the “whites.”


N ullabor Links stretches 860 miles across the southern Australian Outback along the Eyre Highway from Kalgoorlie to Ceduna. There is one hole in each town along the way. Each tee and green are separated by a “fairway” of natural, rugged Outback land. It’s not so much the golf as the native culture you enjoy in these quintessential Outback towns. The

“Chasing the Sun” golf festival celebrates the course and the region every September.


I f you are one of the few golfers who has extreme athletic skills, you’re told not to use them at Skukuza Golf Course in South Africa. The warning sign says: “Lions, elephants, leopards, rhinos and buffaloes. Do not run away! If you run, the animal will believe that it has gained the advantage and it will be more likely to give chase.” By modern golf standards, the Shukuza course isn’t very difficult. But knowing what’s lurking in the surrounding Kruger National Park makes it almost impossible to play well.


Mountain golf on the Pacific rim takes on a different character than what we know here in the States. The courses are just as spectacular and the scenery is even more beautiful. The only problem is that some of the mountains are apt to explode. Merapi Golf Club near the ancient city of Yogyakarta in Indonesia plays at the base of Mount Merapi, an active volcano, which last erupted in 2010.




I’m not entirely sure why, but halfway through a 14-day trip to the Kingdom of Thailand I found myself climbing to an elevated platform attached to the clubhouse at Black Mountain Golf Club near Hua Hin. It reminded me of a fire lookout station, or a beach house that’s not quite on the beach so you climb to a platform on the roof to check out the ocean conditions. When I got to the top, I realized this platform exists for exactly the same reason.

On this morning the sun peaks above the mountains – not distant mountains but mountains snuggling right up to fairways and greens – and throws long shadows across the course, giving it that soft, sun-bathed beauty of a course that only reveals itself when the sun hangs low.

The view embodies just about everything I wasn’t expecting from Thailand – it’s way better than I thought. Not only the golf, but everything. The food. The culture. The people. The history. All of which is wrapped in a Buddha-like Zen that gives the place a calming harmony of spirit among everyone, everything. Well, except for the traffic in Bangkok. Beyond the fact that the average driver in Bangkok spends 64 hours a year stuck in traffic, it’s not hard to see why 38 million people a year visit Thailand. But it is hard understand why so few of them are golfers.

I left on the 24-hour travel day excited about the experience of Thailand and expecting the golf to be good but the secondary aspect of the trip. I returned having played some outstanding and memorable courses and hoping one day I can see more because there is too much golf ground to cover even though Thailand is smaller than Texas.

in between those 950 miles you’ll want to sample some really great golf. But to go to Thailand only for the golf is wrong. Here’s why.

The Struggle

Bangkok is a city of contrasts. East versus West, old versus new, traditional family lifestyles (albeit Third World ways) versus the desire to join the First World. Any trip to Thailand requires several nights in Bangkok, where all of these values collide, most imprudently in the fact that 94.6 percent of the population follows the teaching of Buddha, but the nightlife makes Las Vegas look tame.

And then there are the dozens of high-rise condominium projects under construction that help give the city an expansive and modern skyline as impressive as any in the Western world. But those projects often cast shadows over traditional street markets that date back hundreds of years and where generations of families have sold local vegetables and herbs

“Everything has opened up. You can explore the world through golf,” says Mark Siegel, managing director of Golfasian, the biggest inbound golf tour operator in Southeast Asia.

In Thailand you can find yourself swimming in the impossibly blue water of the Andaman Sea near Phuket one day and riding an elephant through a mountain river near Chiang Mai the next. Well, maybe a couple of days later, because

that most Westerners won’t even recognize and with names we can’t pronounce. (How much buap hom, fak thong or Khilek do you have on hand?) The luxury condominium market is booming in the capital city, but much of the population is still just trying to eek out the average income of about 800 baht ($26) per day.

The Famous Thai Massage

The physicality of a Thai massage falls somewhere between extreme yoga and torture. I


was bent and twisted in so many directions that I heretofore didn’t know the human body could accommodate that. Twice I think I started to cry. You will be shocked at the amount a leverage a Thai girl who might not even weigh 100 pounds can exert on the tight and underused muscles of a middle-aged man. There are more elbows thrown in a 90-minute Thai massage than in most NBA games. But you walk out feeling loosey-goosey and wondering whether it might not have been wiser to have the massage before playing golf.

The Famous Thai Cuisine

One night at a restaurant along the River Kwai (yes, that River Kwai) curiosity got the best of me. I asked our guide, Dang, to spice up a piece of sea bass the way the locals eat it. You may have heard Thai food packs more heat than Dirty Harry, but Thai restaurants in the States don’t do the real deal justice.

One bite and my mouth felt like an Australian bush fire had broken out. My eyeballs were sweating and over my whimpering and flailing for water,

44 GOLFSTYLES Playing Through

Dang casually downed the remainder of the fish as if it were as easy on the palate as Raisin Bran.

The international cuisine in Bangkok is world class, but not getting out to the local restaurants is a mistake. At most of these out-of-the-way, roadside eateries no English is spoken, so you look at pictures on the menu and point. Almost regardless of where your finger lands a traditional Thai dish arrives at your table. It’s epically delicious and way too much food for what seems like way too little money. But in the end both you and the proprietor are happy.

The Famous Thai Nightlife

Evenings may start at the luxurious rooftop bars in Bangkok where visitors can enjoy the highlife of Thai nightlife, but who knows where they might end up. You’ve probably heard Thailand’s nightlife can be a bit more, well let’s say, exotic, than hotel bars and lively nightclubs.

Yes, walking down certain streets in many Thai cities you are serenaded by girls calling out to international travelers hoping they will buy them a drink and go from there. But as blatant as the establishments are on those streets, you have to go looking for it to find it.

Bangkok’s world famous hot spots like Nana Plaza, Soi Cowboy and Patpong (remember the “Deer Hunter?”) cater to international travelers with peep shows, massage parlors and racy bars and most other things you can conjure. On the famous Walking Street in the beach town of Pattaya, the Hooters restaurant is tame. On nearby Soi 6, almost every establishment is bathed in pink neon that would make Las Vegas blush.

But that’s just the bromidic Western image of Thailand. For every go-go bar and back alley massage parlor, Thailand matches and exceeds it with cultural hot spots, restaurants flaunting the irrepressible Thai cuisine, nightclubs with beautiful Thai dancing, and lively bars with cutting edge mixologists.

One thing to know: where there are scantily clad ladies there are also Thailand’s world-famous ladyboys. You’ve been warned.

The Rickshaw

Don’t even think about driving yourself

through Bangkok, or really anywhere in the country. Leave that to skilled professionals. Your driver will be a hybrid of Mario Andretti and Ralph Cramden, guiding a 12-passenger bus through thick traffic and gaps so tight you, as a passenger, will lean away from the window because you’re sure the bus is going to scrape against the passing truck.

And then there’s the rickshaw. It is still a staple of city travel, but no longer powered by foot. At some point an ingenious rickshawer thought to save himself the tiresome legwork by putting a two-stroke motor on an oversized tricycle with a canopied platform and a bench. Seat belts? The rickshaw is commonly known as a tuk-tuk for the sputtering sound the little engine makes. The time will come when you need to hail one, but if you think a New York City cab ride is hair-raising, it’s nothing compared to a death-defying ride on a Bangkok tuk-tuk.

The Caddie

Caddying in Thailand is a public works program. A caddie is mandatory for every round. They are always female, always dressed impeccably in the club uniform and always eager to help. They are well-versed in the rules and etiquette.

The system is a bit awkward in that each caddie chauffeurs a single player so there are four carts in every group. Many courses allow fivesomes and even sixsomes, so at peak times the course looks a bit like Bangkok rush hour. Many speak only sporadic English so communication can be difficult and four carts taking off in four different directions tends to break up the camaraderie of the group. You will only touch your ball when you tee it up and take it out of the hole. The caddie will mark it on the green, even if she has to run to beat you to it, clean it and even adjust your Sharpie line. One thing to know is that it’s OK to use your rangefinder or ask your caddie to use it. You’re not hurting anyone’s feelings.

The History

Thailand is an ancient country full of palaces and statues of Buddha, but the most fascinating piece of history is the bridge over the River Kwai.


During World War II, the Japanese occupied Thailand and planned to advance to Burma but needed a railroad line to move supplies. Allied prisoners and locals were forced to work 18 hours a day building the bridge and railway that became known as the “railroad of death” because of the incredibly rough terrain, tropical heat, shortage of food, brutality of the Japanese guards, malaria, and poisonous snakes.

Near Kanchanaburi you can visit the open-air Jeath War Museum for a gruesome look at the life of POWs during the occupation. The human toll is contained in two huge cemeteries where more than 9,000 Allied soldiers are buried.

And, Finally, the Golf

Thailand isn’t a destination where you play 36 holes a day every day. The cool season of November through March is as sultry as the dog days of a Middle Atlantic summer. In 12 days in the country, we played seven rounds and on the off-days strolled through palaces, spent a day immersed in World War II history near Kanchanaburi, took a river cruise through Bangkok, and delighted in the culinary experience that Thailand is.

covers everything from practice balls to a sumptuous post-round buffet in the ultra-modern clubhouse. You won’t even reach into your pocket for snacks and water at the over-the-top halfway houses on each six.

On the other side of Bangkok you can play a bunker-for-bunker replica of the back nine at Augusta National at a complex called Royal City Gems. It won’t convince you you’re in Georgia, but the elements of each hole are distinctly recognizable. The other nine holes are replicas from the world’s great courses.

Almost all trips to Thailand start in Bangkok, the most visited city in the world according to Mastercard’s 2019 Global Destination Cities Index, although very few of those trips are made by golfers.

“From what I see, most Americans here are backpackers or beachcombers,” says Siegel. “We get a few golf groups. I’d say 99 percent of the golfers I speak to back in the States don’t even know where Thailand is or what language Thais speak, or that there are many golf courses, worldclass golf courses, in Thailand.”

Many of those are near Bangkok. Nikanti Golf Club, about an hour from city center (if there can be such a designation in a sprawling city of 6 million people) is an experience with a certain degree of sophistication not often found anywhere. The design is impeccable, the conditions unbelievable, and its 6-6-6 layout not only nudges at the future of golf but pays tribute to the six realms of Buddhism. Your fee ($175)

In nearby cities there are plenty of no-baht spared layouts like Black Mountain near Hua Hin, where the stone and water features create stunning backdrops and accent the layout that is considered one of the world’s 100 best outside the U.S. Black Mountain was built as a luxury resort community to entice golfers from around the world to buy second homes – for a fraction of the cost at similar resort communities around the world. You get a more earthy experience at Royal Ratchaburi near Kanchanaburi, where there are no ingenious design elements but thousands of monkeys freely roaming the fairways without regard to your game. They might be packed around your ball in the fairway, but when you get to within a few steps they will noisily excuse themselves and continue eating bugs from each other’s hides somewhere else.

Somewhere between the experience of Black Mountain and Royal Ratchaburi fall courses like Grand Prix, a fine layout where each hole is sponsored by an automotive company, so the Hyundai sign in the distance may be your target line. Stunning Banyan Golf Club is a Rolex Top 1,000 course and one of Thailand’s most honored layouts. It opened in 2009, but plays to very classic styling so it’s easy to feel like you’re playing a course decades old.

On the eastern edge of the Gulf of Thailand, the beach town of Pattaya is filled with exciting water sports, sultry nightlife and Siam Country Club, a four-course complex where the new Rolling Hills Course features a 19-foot deep bunker labeled the “Wall of Death.” For a more traditional experience, try the Old Course. n

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It’s often said that you owe it to your golfer’s soul to go to Scotland, but for the greatest golf, go to Ireland. From the mountains of Mourne at Royal County Down to the Pebble Beach-on-steroids beauty of Old Head, to the dramatic vistas and views of the classically challenging Ballybunion, to the fun and peril of Old Tom Morris’ redefined Lahinch, Ireland’s version of golf is sensational, to say the least.

You can take a lap around the country, never going inland more than a mile and play a half dozen of the world’s Top 100 courses and another dozen that are just as good. It’s hard to add a lot more to the discussion on Ireland, other than the following gorgeous pictures worth more than thousands of our words. From the east coast of the larger U.S. cities, you can go from your front door to the first tee at Lahinch or Portmarnock in less than nine hours. We’ve done it many times, but the one place we always return to, every year, is Ballybunion.

As famed Irish crooner Phil Coulter would mellifulously sing, Ballybunion is “The Town I Love So Well.” Ballybunion is Ireland’s Pebble Beach, and it wouldn’t be a bad thing if the only equally spectacular coastal courses you played were those two, one on the Pacific, the other on the Atlantic. But it’s at Ballybunion where the publisher, whose Irish roots are deep, is a member, the managing editor and a few fellow purists frequent enough guests to be honorary members, where we’ve held an excruciating Solstice Survival, and where we’ve hosted more than a hundred friends and clients.

Ballybunion is a perennial Top 20 course in the world, a flummoxing and frustrating beauty with an exquisite array of holes unlike any collection in the world. And, with all its accolades, there’s nary a whiff of pretense from its local members and the quintessential Irish town it supports.

We’ve been making the trip to Ballybunion every year since 1986, usually spending a full week, missing only the pandemic closure of Europe. We get beat up every year and return every year, sometimes twice or more. We can’t wait to get out of there and, usually within a few days, can’t wait to get back. After a week at Ballybunion’s Old Course, no matter how cruel and capricious she is, you reserve the softest spot in your golf heart for her.



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In addition to the preceeding destinations, GolfStyles writers and editors have experienced locales such as Argentina, Australia, Austria, The Bahamas, Bermuda, Canada, Dominican Republic, Egypt, France, Germany, Iceland, Italy, Jamaica, Japan, Mexico, Morocco, Norway, Portugal, South Africa, Spain, and Sweden, to name a few. Some 209 of 249 countries play golf, with Turkmenistan joining the ranks in 2018. It’s doubtful we’ll get to the new Nicklaus-designed Ashbagat Golf Club there, but that leaves about 170 more countries we can experience with golf clubs and open minds.


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