In the swing

A trio of unique golf ex­pe­ri­ences in Brunei and Sabah

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Asia - SU­SAN BRE­DOW

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

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