BELEK'S NUMEROUS RESORT COURSES MAKE FOR AN EXCELLENT VALUE-FOR-MONEY GOLF DESTINATION IN SOUTHERN TURKEY.
WHEN RORY MCILROY
thought it best to stay away from Turkey for reasons of personal safety, he was worried that as a celebrity his security might be compromised by extremists. But by failing to fulfil an obligation to compete in the Turkish Airlines Open last November he was doing a disservice to a region that has become one of the most attractive and safest golf destinations in the world today. The Mediterranean town of Belek in southern Turkey is a centre of the country’s tourist industry, its shoreline lined with a multitude of resorts that are the ultimate in luxury, comfort, value and service. It has the Land of Legends theme park. Golf was tagged on as an extra attraction, thanks to enormous reservoirs of water which made it possible to sustain a vast array of golf courses in Augusta-like conditioning.
From my sixth-floor hotel room I looked out over a vast forest of pine trees inland from the sea which is home to 243 golf holes, numerous practice ranges, and sumptuous clubhouses. It is wall-to-wall greenery in a relatively arid part of the world. If golf had never come to South Africa, the golfing tourism experiment in Turkey would be the equivalent of our having 15 courses at Fancourt, and a handful elsewhere.
I was in Belek as a competitor in the annual Turkish Airlines World Golf Cup, one of the most globally reaching corporate events in the game. In 2016 there were 100 individual Stableford qualifying events in 61 different countries from February to October, and I won early on at Pearl Valley. There was another qualifier at Royal Johannesburg & Kensington, won by Sadiq Dindar, and the two of us were South Africa’s representatives at the week-long Grand Finals, where we not only played a 36-hole tournament, but were VIP guests for the duration of the Turkish Airlines Open.
For the competitors it was a five-star experience, starting with business class flights to Antalya in Turkey, and for myself a cultural eye-opener in that I shared golfing partners from the likes of Egypt, Kazakhstan, Iran, Pakistan, Malta, Holland, Brazil and Japan. I’ve seldom seen a more competitive group of golfers. You had to queue for a spot on the practice range prior to our shotgun morning starts.
Here in South Africa we take for granted how advanced we are in terms of our knowledge of a complex game. Conforming to expected behaviour on the course comes naturally to us. For players from golf’s developing countries it remains a minefield of obstacles, extending from rules to etiquette, which they are still absorbing. Ehsan, from Tehran, whose wife never left his side, being both caddie and interpreter, hit the ball beautifully, but was baffled by the intricacies of a tree-lined course filled
with hazards of every description. Stableford was a foreign word to many; competitors were thus told to record their score for each hole, and a computer would work out the points. As a result, everyone kept playing until their ball was in the hole. On each tee we spent several minutes asking each other what we had scored on the previous hole, as if we had been playing blindfolded. Rounds lasted between five and six hours.
We were accommodated at the Titanic Deluxe resort, an appropriately named hotel which looked like it could have dwarfed the ill-fated ocean liner. It was at the far western end of the golfing landscape, on a river rather than the beachfront, and with a 27-hole facility that is far down the pecking order of local courses in terms of reputation. And yet I thought it was rather good, and challenging. Only two of the 98 finalists played to their handicaps over the 36 holes. The first prize, which went to American Thomas Buckley (38-35=73), was a draw in the Turkish Airlines Open pro-am with Masters Champion Danny Willett.
There was time for me to explore some of the region’s other golf courses, to gain an overview of what it had to offer. The courses are compacted, and easily accessible, yet getting to them requires expensive transport. My taxi ride from Titanic to the other end of the golfing strip, the Gloria Resort, driving continuously past golf courses and through Belek, took almost 15 minutes, and the return fare was R640.
You can hire a car, which is useful if you’re travelling to other towns in the region, but the most sensible arrangement for golfers visiting Belek is to seek a package whereby you stay at a resort and have a travel company deliver you to the courses you wish to play. Or you can play unlimited golf at your own resort. Best then to pick one which has 36 holes, to provide variety.
Wherever I went there were buses from Bilyana Golf Holidays ferrying golfers about, and their website has a wide range of out-of-season packages for a week’s stay. In terms of value, Belek is similar to South Africa, possibly cheaper at certain times of the year when you factor in that accommodation is inclusive of meals. Out-of-season, by the way, is not cool and damp. I was there in November, which is autumn, and the weather was truly epic. Warm, calm days where you can lie on the beach and swim in the sea. A perfect season for golfers. In the height of summer it’s extremely hot.
During the Turkish Airlines Open the players stayed at the upmarket Regnum Carya Resort & Spa, adjoining the magnificent Carya course, ranked No 3 in Turkey, but in my opinion possibly the best. Out of season a package there can cost as little as R10 000 a person for a week, with unlimited golf at both Carya and the neighbouring National Golf Club, one of the original courses when the area was first developed in 1994.
Carya is one of two courses which offer night golf through the use of floodlights, the other being Montgomerie Maxx, which hosted the Turkish Airlines Open from 2013 to 2015. It’s a Peter Thomson design, opened in 2008, and redolent of Pinehurst or Augusta National with its towering Stone Pines lining undulating fairways, and beautiful bunkering. It was a pleasant course to walk during the Open, and the greens complexes were fascinating just to look at. The practice putting green was most distinctive, undulating over more than 50 metres. In the clubhouse pro shop there were no Pro V1s for sale, but you could buy a sleeve of three Japanese Honma balls for over R300.
While all the top courses are sideby-side in this area (fenced off from each other), the No 1 ranked layout is curiously outside Belek, further along the coast. It’s not far as the crow flies, but is a lengthy drive. It’s the Lykia Links, and I spent a day there, savouring the uniqueness of this modern seaside layout by Perry Dye, son of Pete Dye.
It’s unique inasmuch that every other course in Belek is parkland in character, while Lykia is treeless among low dunes, linksy in design and looks, although too soft underfoot to replicate the firm conditions of proper seaside golf. But it was fabulous fun to play, in excellent condition, with generously wide fairways, and quiet in the afternoon of the day I visited. It’s also a course where you can appreciate the beautiful mountain range that runs
‘A WEEK AT A TOP RESORT, WITH UNLIMITED GOLF, CAN COST AS LITTLE AS R10 000.’
parallel to the coast.
Lykia Links is ranked No 22 in Continental Europe by the website Top 100 Golf Courses, but it is hard to justify such an elevated standing. The property has no spectacular qualities, and some of the holes nearest the sea were plain in character.
Generally the courses weren’t too busy, even though November has always been a popular month for tourism in Belek. However, visitor numbers have been reduced by the country’s many terrorism attacks, mainly in Istanbul, and McIlroy is not the only golfer to have been scared away. This has obviously lowered prices, so holidaying at these resorts has become something of a bargain right now.
The biggest facility in Belek is the Gloria Resort, with 45 holes, plus impressive practice facilities and a fabulous clubhouse. The Old Course opened in 1997, the New Course in 2005, and the Verde 9-holer is of an equally good quality, although it was deserted on the day I was there. Gloria has been host to numerous tournaments, including those on the European Senior and Challenge tours, plus the women’s World Amateur Team Championships in 2012. Stunning resort villas border the perimeters of the courses.
If I had walked in to the pro shop without a booking and asked to play, the rack rate for 18 holes at Gloria would have been about R1 600, and that’s roughly the average green fee in Belek. This underlines the importance of booking a package holiday which includes golf. The courses are of a uniformly excellent quality, and well looked after, yet there’s seldom a sense of having your breath taken away on the first tee, as you can experience at the best courses in South Africa.
Part of the problem probably lies in the flattish terrain, narrow playing corridors, the absence of views, and also the lack of big-name designers employed to build the courses. Most of them have been British, with Nick Faldo the most famous, having designed 27 holes at the Cornelia Resort, the nearest facility to Belek itself. I didn’t play there, but the holes are said by website reviewers to be somewhat tricked up.
Driving from the airport at the city of Antalya to Belek, about 40 minutes away, the roads were adorned with posters of McIlroy. He, Tiger Woods and Patrick Reed were the three big names due to play in the Turkish Airlines Open, and sadly for the event none of them turned up. Golf’s major stars first came to this part of the world in 2012 with an eight-man exhibition matchplay event, won by Justin Rose, and that evolved into the current tournament which is part of the Race to Dubai Final Series.
That first event was played at Antalya Golf Club, a 36-hole facility attached to the Sirene Belek Hotel, and the Sultan Course is ranked No 2 in Turkey. It differs from all the others in that the back nine appears from above to have as much water as it does grass. Large lakes border several of the fairways, and make for a challenging finish to the round.
If you’re looking for a break from golf, or your resort, the area is home to the ruins of ancient cities which are all worth an outing. This part of Asia Minor was once ruled by the Persians, Alexander the Great, and the Romans, who more than 2 000 years ago built most of the sites that remain, such as at Perge, the Aspendos amphitheatre (upriver from the Lykia Links), and Side, now a resort town.
‘STUNNING RESORT VILLAS BORDER THE THREE COURSES AT GLORIA.’
Previous page: This aerial view of the PGA Sultan course at Antalya Golf Club captures the beauty of the Belek beachfront resorts and the golfing terrain. Above: Denmark’s Thorbjorn Olesen tees off from the roof of a resort villa on the 16th hole at Carya Golf Club. OIesen won the Turkish Airlines Open. Right: Golfers relax at the Gloria clubhouse.
The tenth hole at Lykia Links is one of the most impressive at a course ranked No 1 in Turkey.