In the swing
A trio of unique golf experiences in Brunei and Sabah
SURROUNDED by a pond filled with flowering water lilies, we are in a landscape as beautiful as those painted by Claude Monet. It is, however, a golf course in Brunei, a pocket handkerchief-sized nation on the Southeast Asian island of Borneo.
The French theme isn’t quickly forgotten. The next hole, the seaside 15th at the Empire Hotel & Country Club, is edged with a paved esplanade that has antique gas lamps surely more suited to the Champs-Elysees than a Jack Nicklaus-designed course. The Empire course has its frustrations in the form of bunkers, which line the mostly narrow fairways and seem to be in contention for world’s deepest and steepest.
On the first nine holes, my golf balls seem madly attracted to sand and I could do with abseiling gear.
Challenging, yes. But that’s what this championship course means to be.
Brunei is known for its proboscis monkey, the male of which has a long red nose and a seemingly permanent erection. We don’t see any, but there are plenty of other kinds of monkeys skittering about.
Next door is the luxurious Empire Hotel, a whitemarble and gold palace with oversized rooms that symbolise the wealth and comfort enjoyed by much of the population of this oil-rich state. You probably won’t find the Sultan of Brunei teeing off in front of you (though he does occasionally play), but you are quite likely to see one of his 7000 cars in the hotel driveway. Unlike those belonging to his subjects, the ruler’s conveyances do not have registration plates. Today he’s using a grey Lamborghini.
Turning back to golf, the Empire’s resident pro, former Canadian champion Ahmad Bateman, waves as he whizzes by in a cart. An hour with him costs the equivalent of about $100, or $400 for five lessons.
The Empire course is one of three we visit on our trip to play some of the best courses in Brunei and Sabah. All are beautifully laid out and landscaped.
The city of Kota Kinabalu in Sabah, Malaysia, is a 30-minute flight from Brunei and contains the resorts of Sutera Harbour and Shangri-La Rasa Ria. Everyone loves the 24th hole at Sutera Harbour. You tee off across a sandy beach and over an inlet, watched by cheeky young men fishing from canoes.
Our local playing companion tells us they are calling out, ‘‘Take us to Australia!’’
We arrive just as the sun is setting and it feels like a brush with paradise. From a practical point of view, it’s good to know the game isn’t over despite the dwindling sunlight. Like most of the course, the remaining holes
are floodlit. This is also the best time to play, as the heat and humidity back off after dusk and the fast greens slow a little. It’s not unusual for guests to play Sutera’s three nine-hole courses — Lakes, Heritage and Garden — in one day, perhaps 18 holes before lunch and the rest late in the afternoon, in time for the wonderful sunset and a finish under lights.
There are water features on 22 of the 27 holes here and even the best players drive the odd ball into the deep blue. But because much of the course runs along the sea, there are calming views to compensate.
The Scots are credited with the invention of golf in the 15th century, when they used to hit a stone with a stick along coastal sand dunes. So it is interesting to find a trio of Scots teaching at the Borneo Golf Academy at Sutera Harbour, tutoring guests and nurturing the skills of young locals, some of whom work as caddies at the resort. The academy has lesson packages from about $65 for a one-hour, one-on-one lesson to about $1400 for an intensive five-day program working 61/ hours a day with a professional.
The Sutera Harbour complex has almost 1000 guestrooms and is spread over 155ha bordering the South China Sea. There is a conventional hotel and a second accommodation structure built to resemble a traditional Malaysian longhouse. The golf complex is within easy walking distance and a shuttle bus also connects the facilities.
A two-hour drive inland from Kota Kinabalu is craggy Mount Kinabalu, which at 4095m is one of the highest mountains in Southeast Asia. Kinabalu National Park is World Heritage-listed and its amazing array of fauna and flora makes it one of the world’s most important biological areas.
On the other side of Kota Kinabalu from Sutera Harbour, the Shangri-La Rasa Ria is a genuine surprise —
a five-minute walk from the hotel takes you to an orangutan sanctuary where orphaned young are cared for until they are old enough to be returned to the wild. There are usually about 10 youngsters in the sanctuary and watching them swinging about is compelling. There is also a 72m canopy walk, with views of the sea and the resort below.
Next door, the Dalit Bay Golf and Country Club has an 18-hole course that is quite different to the others. Built on a former mangrove swamp, the manicured green fairways are framed either by water or dense forest — and the man selling bags of used balls through a razor-wire fence on the back nine has an extremely successful business.
Our golf cart is equipped with a course GPS and we take our own bunker rake. We soon give up on computer calculations and get on with hitting the ball in the (general) direction of the pin.
‘‘The world comes here to play golf,’’ says club pro Aaron Johnston, who found his way to Dalit Bay from Perth. He has been teaching in Asia for 10 years and reckons this course is Sabah’s best.
It’s one saved, but I tally 10 missing balls — a personal record
For the first few holes, I grapple unsuccessfully with the psychological challenge of so much water. I’m beginning to wonder, as I ferret deep in my golf bag for another ball, if I might have set a record. How many balls can be lost to water hazards and clumps of lemongrass in one round of golf?
I consider myself fortunate to have found one of my balls stuck in the side of a palm tree. It’s one saved, but I tally 10 missing balls — a personal record.
As my gaze follows one ball into a pond I see what I think is a crook duck, but it turns out to be a monitor lizard going for a swim. The game is not a total disaster. I manage a par and finish the final hole with a long putt for a bogey.
An 18-hole round at Dalit Bay costs less than $90, including green fees, cart with rake and insurance.
For those not golfing at Shangri-la Rasa Ria, there’s free catamaran or dinghy sailing, windsurfing and kayaking. Eateries include a street that operates like a buffet and serves traditional Malaysian hawker food. It’s a little bit Disneyland- esque, but the food is authentic and good.
Golfing on these well-designed and maintained courses in Sabah and Brunei, against backdrops of forest and sunsets over the South China Sea, proves unique and memorable.
Susan Bredow was a guest of Royal Brunei.
left Sutera Harbour Golf and Country Club, Sabah right Empire Hotel and Country Club, Brunei below right Dalit Bay Golf and Country Club, Sabah