GOLFING IN THE SOUTH PACIFIC
Iboarded my early morning Jetstar flight from a chilly Melbourne Airport full of anticipation, as my travel itinerary has me landing in the tropical Nadi, Fiji in six hours time. The destination is Natadola Bay and the Intercontinental Resort on the Fiji’s Coral Coast, home to the countries number one ranked and newest championship golf course located on the south west coast of Fiji’s main island Viti Levu.
After a smooth flight, I was collected by my complimentary shuttle and after a comfortable forty-five minute costal drive south, I checked in at the magnificent five-star InterContinental Fiji Golf Resort & Spa. The resort is located on Natadola Beach and features restaurants and bars, a luxury spa, swimming pools and conference facilities. My room had all the modern conveniences one would expect from such top class resort including wireless internet and cable television, so I could keep in touch with golf happenings back home. However, I had no time for taking in what the resort had to offer; as I headed straight to the driving range and short game facility for some much needed practice prior to my round the next day.
The practice facilities where first class and after a couple of buckets of balls and plenty of bunker practice I felt comfortable to take on a course, that has a reputation of being very unforgiving to errant shots.
That evening I headed to the Vatu Lo bar to meet up with some other golfers that I had met on the practice range. The Vatu Lo bar has spectacular views across the golf course and was a great place to watch the sun go down while sampling some of Fiji’s best beers. For the record my favorite was the Vonu Pure Larger; a very nice drop indeed. To compliment the amber ale, I dined on some succulent local seafood, choosing the Sigatoka River prawns battered in coriander accompanied by a traditional dish of freshly caught reef fish called “Kokada”. Feeling very satisfied after sharing golfing stories and experiences with my new friends in fine surroundings enjoying great local Fijian food, I adjourned back to my room for an early night before tomorrow’s round.
I awoke to another day in paradise with a classic South Pacific vista from my hotel room. After breakfast I headed to the course and in the pro shop I met the resident professionals Amitesh and Apenisa. Two absolute gentlemen, and in my opinion you could not meet a friendlier, more welcoming team at any pro shop anywhere in the world. I subsequently proceeded to pick their brains about the championship layout designed by Fijian former world number one and three time major winner Vijay Singh, and about techniques and strategies I could use to tame the tough Natadola Bay layout. In summary, they advised me to “to be accurate off the tee and if the wind does pick up throughout
your round take one extra club than you may think” Oh and also “due to the thick vegetation, make sure you have plenty of spare balls in your golf bag, just in case”!
Bearing all their combined local knowledge and wisdom in mind, I confidently placed my tee in the ground on the first hole and threw caution to wind with my best driver swing. The first hole is a par four and I stood perched on top of an elevated tee with one of the best views you could possibly imagine for an opening hole. It really does set the scene for the course and the round ahead. My tee shot seemed to stay in the air forever as it found its way safely onto the fairway below. I safely found the green for a two putt par and just prior to reaching the signature hole, the par three forth hole even with the card I passed a little white building. It was the Somosomo church that had been retained by the course architects as maybe an opportunity for golfers to seek some potential divine intervention for any wayward shots that may occur in the remaining fifteen holes.
The staff in the pro shop had told me all about this hole and its Pacific Ocean backdrop. It certainly did not fail to disappoint, with three bunkers guarding a green that slopes from front to back and ocean to the left it would be a brave golfer to fire at a back left flag location. However, I had the golfing gods on my side, so why not. A little too much draw and my four iron just landed on the left side of the green rolling off onto the fringe. Phew! I escaped with a par and gazed up to the heavens upon leaving the green.
The next two holes were solid back to back par fives, which require water carries from elevated tees, are a good test and reward strategic positioning rather than brute force.
I reached the back nine and the par four tenth hole at one over the card satisfied with the strategic, tough, but fair nature of the front nine holes I had just played. The tenth is a testing gentle dogleg right hole, with trees strategically positioned down the right side of the fairway. I drove safely down the left hand side right near the native bala-bala tree distance marker; these trees can be seen throughout the course are said to be home to ancient spirits. Unfortunately however, I misjudged my approach shot to the green just short and found the deep greenside sand trap.
Regrouping from my previous rookie error, I stood on the eleventh tee, a strong par five aiming to make amends. By this stage of the round the breeze had picked up considerably and I was in store for a genuine three shot par five; so I punched my drive low into the wind with an abbreviated swing. The eleventh is a real classic hole with fairway bunkers and an undulating deceptively narrow fairway.
The back nine continues with some fabulous short holes that provide golfers with some realistic birdie opportunities. The most memorable being the short par four twelfth where a creek guards the right hand side the fairway and extends all the way up to the front of the green, preventing players simply blazing away with their driver. Rather, a lay-up and well judged approach shot is required. My other favorite was the short par three fifteenth, a hole that requires an accurate wedge or short iron into a small green surrounded by sand; every course needs one these holes.
After some medium to short length holes, the course closes with two solid finishing holes. A reachable par five dog leg to the left and the strong par four eighteenth, where there are a series of fairway bunkers lurking to trap your tee shot, including my pulled drive. A long iron approach shot is then required to a generous undulating green with bunkers again ever present.
As I sat back and contemplated my round in the traditionally designed styled Fijian clubhouse, I couldn’t help but think of how important this course could be in the development of the game of golf in the region, with the staging of the million dollar PGA Fiji International tournament and the appearance of local golfing legend Vijay Singh. Natadola is a simply unique course with fifteen ocean side holes, spectacular panoramic views and quaint traditional Fijian charms; such as the tee markers shaped as coconut openers called “neckbreakers”. This excellently manicured course will certainly attract a lot of attention and interest in the sport, with hopefully many local youngsters being inspired to swing a golf club.
I will definitely be back again and look forward with anticipation to the watching how the big names tackle this course in future tournaments.
Steve Khatib founder of Golf Dynamics is an internationally respected authority on all matters golf, owing to his affiliations through many years spent with the worlds leading golf minds in the USA. Steve presents several popular radio and television programs throughout Australia and has been awarded PGA Teacher of the Year, PGA AAA Specialiast Coach and Master Clubfitter accreditations.