Golf in Malaysia
The world, they say, is shrinking. Well, I don't know about that as physical fact since it's rather difficult to measure, but it is certainly getting easier and faster to get from one side of the planet to the other. The Far East has long beckoned and certain areas, like Thailand, have built a formidable
reputation as an excellent golfing destination, complete with sparkling-eyed lady caddies to boost your golf and your ego, and golf courses to go with it. To the south of Thailand lies the Malaysian
Peninsula, running from the Thai border near the fantasy island of Langkawi right down to the causeway which links the country with the city-state of Singapore. Golf is hardly new to Malaysia, having been introduced way back in the colonial days, and one or two of the clubhouses I visited didn't seem to have been painted since then. But that aside, a new range of excellent golf courses has sprung up, fuelled by local and overseas (mainly Asian and Japanese) money, building excellent courses and superb clubhouses.
With first-class hotels and easy transport by air or road, and ferries to its islands, Malaysia is now a force to be reckoned with when it comes to golf. Yes, it's a long way to go - 6,000 miles or thereabouts - but the 12-hour flight seems to pass quickly and, once you get there, it is definitely worth it.
Our first destination was the island of Penang, a 40-minute flight back up the west coast of the country. A fairly large island with its own airport, Penang is basically divided into two parts: the capital, Georgetown, and the northern beach area, which is where the best resort hotels are based around golden sands right out of the travel brochure. Paragliding and other water sports are popular here, too, and once you see the beach you'll find it hard to tear your
self away, even for something as alluring as golf.
Penang only has one golf course on the island itself, BUKIT JAMBUL, an oasis of green amongst the high rises just outside Georgetown. The course is a bit of an enigma. Designed by Robert Trent Jones Jnr, it is laid with what is known locally as cow grass - a broad-leafed plant that you might expect to find in cow pastures but not on a golf course. The ball is likely to plug in the fairway yet the layout, carved out of the natural terrain and rock, like many Trent Jones courses, is superb. Doglegs, little carries over water, sloping fairways and all manner of uphill, downhill and sidehill lies await you on what really is a super little course, but it all seems a touch claustrophobic with the high-rise apartments towering over the course. Having said that, I did enjoy the course and would happily play it again. I also witnessed the most spectacular sunset ever that evening.
On the Island of Penang. Bukit Jambul is a Robert Trent Jones Jr design
The longest bridge in Asia (13.5 kilometres) spans the Penang Straits, linking the island with the mainland at Butterworth - a colonial name if ever there was one - but the golf courses here are far superior. The ultra-modern clubhouse at the PENANG GOLF CENTRE is almost worth travelling halfway round the world to see and the courses - for there are two - match it.
The East and West courses are similar in layout, with many water hazards and some testing holes, including the 610-yard 5th on the West. A palm plantation surrounds the course, giving some magnificent landscapes, and providing a home to a sensational variety of colourful bird life. It's well worth taking your time here and having a camera ready.
The other top-class golf
club in the area is the
designed KRISTAL GOLF GOLF CLUB. The clubhouse perches on a hillside looking out over the course, which runs through the hills and valleys. This is truly a wonderful golf course with some testing holes which will have you playing every shot in the book. The greens are true, the grass is good and the course maintained to a very high standard. Water comes into play on several holes and accuracy is more important than distance.
Lush! A truly tropical feel is all yours at the Kristal Golf Club
Before leaving Penang, you must make a visit to the Kek Lok Si Buddhist temple (Temple of Supreme Bliss), perched on a hillside outside the capital. It is the country's largest temple complex and comprises a series of monasteries and temples culminating with a pagoda known as the 'Steps to Heaven'.
Further north, close to the Thai border, is the paradise island of Langkawi, with one of the most exclusive resort hotels in the world, the Datai Beach. There are two courses on Lajigkawi, the LANGKAWI GOLF CLUB and the DATAI BAY GOLF CLUB. The latter is the one you will most want to play, although beware of its seemingly narrow fairways and the dual character of the course, which is hilly and links-like on either nine.
Further south in the highland area is the amazing resort of AWANA GENTING, a mountain-top group of hotels, casino and theme park reachable by the longest cable-car system in the world, where you are whisked 6,000 feet up the side of a mountain in amazing tranquility. It's worth going just for the views. The course is 3,000 feet high and has been continually voted the most picturesque course in Malaysia, and although I prefer ocean views, I can see why.
It is a great test of golf as well, with some really fascinating holes that you will want to go back and play over and over again, yet sadly the course was in comparatively poor shape when I was there. Again, the cow grass is blamed, but I fail to see why, at this altitude, a good single-blade grass cannot be grown. It is cooler and wetter, and although the course sits on clay, making drainage a problem in the rainy season, there are sufficient run-off areas to allow for a good drainage system to be installed. The Far Eastern economic recession hit harder than perhaps we realised. I would love to be able to run this course and do it properly - given the money, of course!
Kuala Lumpur, being the capital of Malaysia, is a must on anyone's travel itinerary. Part of the recent Sean Connery movie Entrapment was shot there, and the film gives a good representation of this bustling, yet surprisingly green and clean, metropolis. Traffic can be a problem (so what's new in a capital?) but a new monorail and rapid-transit system is in the process of being opened in order to ease transport problems in the city centre.
The entire city is dominated by the twin 1500-feet Petronas Towers, the tallest buildings on earth. Sadly, you can't go the top (what a missed marketing opportunity) but the view from below, looking up, is enough to give you reverse vertigo.
The capital is surrounded by several excellent courses but two in particular warrant a mention here - THE MINES, host to the World Cup of Golf this year, and SAUJANA, the home of the Malaysian Open.
The Mines is constructed on the site of the world's largest open-cast tin mine, which operated between 1902 and 1982, and features the spectacular Palace of the Golden Horses Hotel, modelled after the Sun City Hotel in South Africa.
A huge lake over a mile long is the central feature of The Mines, with the golf course skirting it for much of the back nine, though only two holes require you to play across part of it. The course is tough, as you might expect for a World Cup venue.
Despite its toughness, the course is not too long, playing to just under 6,900 yards from the tips, yet the greens - slick during my visit - will be running at over 11 on the Stimpmeter for the World Cup. With some potentially frightening pin positions, it will make the accuracy of the approach shot critical. For such a prestigious course, it will come as no surprise to learn that you can play it only by invitation or by staying at the Palace of the Golden Horses - which would be an experience in its own right without the added benefit of being able to play the course.
Saujana is different, set in a different area of Kuala Lumpur and conveniently having an excellent Hyatt hotel on site. As well as excellent practice facilities and a large clubhouse with all mod cons, Saujana has two courses, the Palm (nicknamed the Cobra), on which the championship is played, and the Bunga Raya (Hibiscus) Course. Both are magnificent lay¬outs, particularly if you do as I did and play off the championship tees at over 7,000 yards. Pure masochism. But what a golf course.
You can't let up for one minute or the Cobra will bite you. The start is difficult enough, with a 392-yard dogleg par-four to get you going. Hit the left of the fairway long or reload.
The 2nd hole is harder: a 216 yard par-three played across a swathe of jungle to a three-tier green. It is rated the most difficult golf hole in Malaysia. I agree! If you are on the green but above the hole, you might be chipping back up from the fringe for your third shot.
And so it goes. The 3rd is over 600 yards, the shortest par-three measures 170 yards, and you finish with another 600-yard par-five. By the time you have got used to it a little, you come to the 413-yard uphill dogleg 8th - named 'Stadium' for obvious reasons when you see it - and you will see yet again that you need to play the shots of a lifetime to secure a par.
Having scorched a drive down the right side of the fairway - 250 yards, perhaps - the second shot has to carry a huge area of dead ground and cross a wall before reaching the relative safety of the green. But that's only if you hit the right side.
Come to think of it, the course seems longer than that flight!
Golftoday Golf Course directory - Golf Courses in Malaysia