TO GREENER PASTURES
Golf nut Jimmy Thomson tours the world taking a swing at those little white balls
STANDING on the side of a hill near Siena in Tuscany, cursing a small white ball buried in the finest imported sand, I realise there is nothing quite like golfing on foreign courses. It’s an education. As the brisk Atlantic breeze at Troon or Turnberry in Scotland turns your slices into hooks, you appreciate why links courses need no trees and little water to attract your golf balls.
There’s virtually nowhere in the world that’s out of bounds: from floodlit golf in India to post-match foot massages in Canada, from taking in some tango between rounds in Argentina to having your chakras checked, along with your swing, in California. In some countries you can play on courses that look as if they have been manicured with nail scissors — because they probably have been — and hire a caddy for the price of a beer. He (or, in Vietnam, she) will know the course better than the veteran club members, even though they have probably never played it. You end up feeling like a pampered pro, despite playing like a hopeless hacker.
You tip the caddie extra for stifling laughs and groans. Take my word for it: gin and tonic tastes better when an African sun is setting over the 18th hole. And even a par-three hotel course in Tuscany has its challenges as well as its charms.
Which is where golf tour operators come into their own. Thanks to them, there’s a lot more than just scenery to distract us from the awful knowledge that, wherever we go, our fluffs, yips, slices and shanks go with us.
In South Africa they know a bit about combining golf and wildlife, and Cruiselite Tours offers a 15-day golfing safari for those who want the best of both worlds. Golfers are able to squeeze some game-watching between rounds at venues such as the Skukusa Golf Course, the Gary Player Country Club, the picturesque Elephant Hills Golf Course (where caddies often have to clear the course of wildlife), and half a dozen beautiful Cape Town courses.
Non-golfers can go on game drives and walks in such wildlife wonderlands as Kruger National Park and the Drakensberg Mountains, Mpumalanga. The trip also takes in Johannesburg, Lesedi Cultural Village, Sun City, Cape Town and Victoria Falls, where there are adventure activities such as whitewater rafting and bungy jumping (and they say golfers are crazy). More: www.sa-venues.com.
If you want to practise your swing during the day and your tango at night, Argentina is the place. The prosaically named Golf in Argentina group offers a number of tours that are as serious about the game as Argentineans are about their national dance. For instance, one tour starts in Buenos Aires with a round at the Pilar golf club, followed by an afternoon sightseeing in the city and a tango show during dinner. Next day, tackle La Orquidea and the day after play the famous Jockey Club before flying to Mar del Plata, where Acantilados Golf Club, Miramar links course and Playa Grande await, as well as the beach and casino. Alternatively you could form your own party and use an agency such as Coolabar, which organises everything from low-budget hit-and-run trips to luxury golf and tango tours; you tell them what you want and they’ll make it happen, including trips across the border into Uruguay. More: www.golfinargentina.com; www.coolabar.com.
The US is awash with top-class golf courses, so the Zagat guide to its top golf courses — the result of a survey of more than 6000 keen golfers — is invaluable if you intend to plan your trip independently. The Zagat guide contains ratings and reviews of 1095 golf courses, based on more than 500,000 rounds last year. The guide also includes golf travel tips: it’s like a Lonely Planet guide for golfers.
For the record this year Zagat rates Whistling Straits, Wisconsin, the best course while Pebble Beach, California, has been voted the US’s most popular course for the fourth year running. The guide includes all sorts of vital information such as green fees, which vary greatly: from less than $US40 ($47) to more than $US500 a round at the snazzy Shadow Creek, Nevada. More: www.zagat.com/shop.
But, while traveling around exotic countries has its own charms, in the US you’ll want to spend more time on the fairway and less on the road. With that in mind, you can’t go past Myrtle Beach in South Carolina, which has more than 100 public courses along its 100km Grand Strand coastline. More: www.mbn.com; www.lacosta.com/golf; www.golfholiday.com.
An alternative is to stay at a golf resort, preferably with a spa attached for any less golf-obsessed companions. La Costa Resort and Spa has two PGA golf championship courses that have challenged greats from Jack Nicklaus to Tiger Woods. Just 30 minutes north of San Diego and 90 minutes south of Los Angeles, it is near the beach and features 17 tennis courts, four heated outdoor swimming pools, five whirlpools and a children’s camp.
Its recently renovated spa includes an ayurvedic Chopra Centre, and renowned golf fitness instructor Roger Fredericks has introduced flexibility training sessions to augment the basic golf instruction.
Canada isn’t the first country that springs to mind when one thinks of golf but the International Association of Golf Tour Operators recently named British Columbia as the golf destination of the year for North America.
It’s not hard to see why when Golf Canada West has clever ideas such as Pampered Putters, a program for women golfers that includes spa treatments, guided hikes, horseback break- fasts and foot massages (in a limo while being whisked off to lunch); and that’s in addition to some great golf courses.
Golf Canada West also brings out your competitive side with a two-day, 72-holes-a-day contest for a cash prize. Feel the pressure the pros endure — even if you don’t play like one — while you thrash your way around courses with the Canadian Rockies as a spectacular backdrop. More: www.golfcanadaswest.com.
If Canada isn’t on your A-list of predictable golf destinations, then India will seem positively bizarre. But the British didn’t leave only cricket and snooker when they slunk home after a couple of centuries of colonialism, and there’s an added piquancy to golfing in the subcontinent.
The Great Indian Golfing Experience takes you from the monumentstrewn fairways of Delhi Golf Club to night golf at DLF Golf and Country Club, also in Delhi. There’s a nine-hole course in the shadow of the Taj Mahal at Agra while the Rambagh Palace Polo and Golf Club in Jaipur, Rajasthan, boasts an 18-hole par 72 course.
In between, there are all the usual Indian treats — elephant rides and tours of forts and palaces — but golfing in India has its own appeal, if only to say that you’ve done it. More: www.indiagolftours.com.
Given that Vietnam is Communist-run and golf has long been considered a bourgeois pursuit, this country was slow to pick up on the trend. But the climate is perfect for lush grass and water hazards and, increasingly, much of the accommodation in Vietnam is world class, so golf courses and resorts are springing up everywhere.
From the Song Be Golf Resort (a walking course where the caddies are female) near Ho Chi Minh City in the south, via the Dalat Palace Golf Club (originally a nine-hole course created for emperor Bao Dai in 1922) in the central highlands to the spectacular King’s Island Golf Resort and Country Club, 45km from Hanoi, there are at least 15 top-notch courses and another 10 under construction.
Golf in Vietnam has several packages, including a seven-day, fourcourse excursion. Vietnam Golf Tours offers up to 10-day, five-course guided tours for groups of six to 16 while Luxury Travel Vietnam has trips from two to 19 days for the terminally golfmad. More: www.golfinvietnam.net; www.vietnamgolftours.com; www.luxurytravelvietnam.com.
Bali is getting in on the golfing act with the luxury Melia Bali Villas & Spa Resort, Nusa Dua, offering a three-day golf escape package that includes two nights’ accommodation in a superior room, breakfast and one 18-hole green fee at either the Bali Golf and Country Club or Nirwana Bali Golf Club. The Bali Handara Country Club is also nearby if too much golf isn’t enough.
Non-golfers, meanwhile, can enjoy the Melia spa’s traditional Balinese massages and beauty treatments. The resort has a fitness centre with pool and sauna, tennis, squash and badminton, and a lagoon-style swimming pool. More: www.meliabali.com.
This destination’s relative proximity to golf-obsessed Japan means Thailand is getting into the golf market in a big way. Thai Airways Royal Orchid Holidays has a variety of mostly short-stay holidays, many based in the holiday hot spots of Chiang Mai, Phuket, Pattaya, Hua Hin and, of course, Bangkok. Reports are that the courses are immaculate and challenging; and all this proves Thailand isn’t just about buddhas, beaches and kickboxing. More: www.thaiairways.com/Royal— Orchid—Holidays.
So to finish, appropriately, where it all started. As with most of Britain, Scotland is littered with decent golf courses but if you want something special, take the luxurious Royal Scotsman golf tour from July 19 to 23.
It’s not cheap — expect to pay about $15,000 — but it includes four nights aboard this very special train and two nights at the stately Gleneagles Hotel. The golf includes the King’s Course, Gleneagles and Carnoustie, venue of this year’s British Open. Then it’s off on the train to play Royal Dornoch, Nairn and Cruden Bay. Meanwhile, non-golfing companions will see more distilleries and stately homes than you can shake a five-iron at. More: www.royalscotsman.com.
A swipe at tradition: A female caddy watches players on the green at one of Vietnam’s growing number of quality golf courses