Beauty and the Beach
"I have aspired to create a golfing experience that truly arouses all the senses,” explained Bernhard Langer last November when unveiling the latest – and surely the greatest – addition to his 15-strong course design portfolio.
The carry from the 11th tee is evocative of Pine Valley, while a snap-hook is assuredly not the way to go. Admittedly the setting, nature and climate of this Indian Ocean paradise gave the Ryder Cup captain a head start as he set about transforming a fun-sized, 100-acre island accessible only by a short boat trip from the east coast of Mauritius. Langer’s own senses would certainly have been working overtime when first encountering the sights, sounds and scents of a site he himself describes as “beyond compare”.
Like the archetypal desert island, the One&Only Le
Touessrok Golf Course, just five minutes from the
renowned 5-star resort of One&Only Le Touessrok, is duly blessed with the full check list of fantasy features.
Deserted white sand beaches border the turquoise sea and an interior of swaying palms and Casuarina pines. Beneath the distant necklace of crashing waves, the coral reef unfolds like a scene from Finding Nemo. Such Bounty-advert clichés might pull in the honeymooners and epicureans but they don’t automatically guarantee a great
golf course. Blasé as it sounds, the tropics are overflowing with layouts whose diet of palm tree-flanked fairways too often prove samey and superficial and lack a consistent spark of design genius. That charge could never be levelled here, with hole names like Lava Rock, Razorback, Tidal Pool, Plateau Verde, Rock Ledge and Carry Me Home providing colourful clues to the enthralling topography
and architectural challenge on offer.
In his charming observations in his book On Golf, Timothy O'Grady suggests that great golf courses invariably pose a series of “conundrums”, in which, “as in an allegory, the architect is continually asking questions of the golfer”.
On this golf course, an ultra-inquisitive Langer has indeed devised an exotic golfing puzzle, a most atypically tropical brain-teaser that engages the player not merely over 18 holes but long after when reflecting onthe course's ever-changing moods and chin-scratching technicalities. However, the course's former name of Ile aux Cerfs (French for ‘Island of Deer') is a misnomer, as there have no deer here for many years – not that they have gone the way of the dodo (Mauritius' most famous former resident), and there are tentative plans to re-introduce them.
The adventure starts as soon as you amble on to the jetty at Le Touessrok, where the choice between two five-minute ferry trips is the first of several lay-up-orgo- for-it decisions that lie in store.
Basking in sunshine across the bay is the impossibly beautiful Ilot Mangénie, where you could have spent the day stretched out under a thatched parasol while friendly beach hands named Robinson, Cousteau and Captain Hook administer ice-cold towels, rum punches and the finest pizzas known to man.
Being a golfer, however, you will dutifully board the boat bound for another island, out
of sight on the far side of IlotMangénie. Make that The Far Side. There you will spend the day rather differently – launching tee shots across breathtaking mangrovefilled canyons; tacking along carpets of emerald fairways flanked by dark lagoons and menacing lines of lava; and pitching to inexorable plateau greens, some with dastardly drop-offs on all sides. It's too late to turn back as your golf bag is slid into the boat's especially moulded compartments and you glide through a lagoon spiced with a mini Everglades network of marshy inlets.
If you prefer, a speed boat will deliver a short, Live and Let Die-style adrenalin rush, as depicted in the resort's glossy advertisements. Certainly if 007 himself was to play another golf match in his immortal screen career, the One&Only Le Touessrok Golf Course would be the perfect venue. Most disarming is the sense of mystery and anticipation as the boat approaches its destination from the leeward side. Dense mangrove forests guard the coast, keeping the island's secrets fascinatingly out of reach, with an unassuming wooden jetty the sole sign of civilisation.
Your first impression is of a tropical hideaway for a super villain, perhaps a combination of Dr No's Crab Key in the Caribbean or Dr Shatterhand's sensual Japanese garden of death in You Only Live Twice.
But if you hear a Patois-Creole inflected “we've been expecting you,” it will only be the golf-cart driver to take you up the hill to the traditionally thatched clubhouse that finally brings the first glorious glimpses of the golf course. Starting with a par-four of extraordinary beauty and subtle drama, the super-villain is soon revealed as Langer himself, who clearly let his imagination off the leash to conjure a fiendish test of golf within this hypnotically aesthetic landscape.
The PR blurb assures us that we can see the sea from every hole. And so we can. But while most seaside courses would kill for this selling point, here it is a mere distraction from the true task at hand.
You're advised to choose carefully from the four (sometimes six) tee boxes, and with an extra shot of
humility as your eyes feast on the opening drive, one of several daunting carries over treacherous canyons from which there is no escape. From the back tees, the course runs to 7,082 yards, making it the longest in Mauritius. The scorecard cryptically refers to these black boxes simply as ‘Langer', presumably because only the architect himself (or someone else with at least a couple of Masters jackets in the closet) would be daft enough to tee it up from the tips.
From here the über-macho treats include a 236-yard carry over a tidal pool at the 5th to a handkerchief of fairway, followed immediately by a 661-yard par-five threaded with waste bunkers and another 600-yarder at the dogleg 11th, bordering the beach. Indeed, the lovely loop of 11, 12 and 13, where the course opens up with views of the sharp volcanic peaks of the Bambous Mountains, is the favourite stretch of one Ryder Cup prospect, Raphael Jacquelin, who raved eloquently after becoming the first European tour pro, post Langer, to sample the layout.
High-handicappers wisely disregarding both the championship (blue) and tournament (white) tees will find some solace in the red boxes which, while taking the total down to a mere 5,000 yards, are deliberately dubbed ‘forward' – rather than ‘ladies' – in order to appease the many male takers. And there's no shame in this (so we're told), for while the more gentle angles and carries take the heat off the tee shots, there's no hiding from the course's most intense examination: the exacting approach shots to eyewateringly small and proudly placed greens.
Langer's putting surfaces are mostly refreshingly flat and relatively straightforward to negotiate – once you're on them. But almost every one here is cunningly sited, with the architect's obvious obsession with elevated greens ranging from delicate Dornochstyle run-offs (as at the 1st, 10th, 15th and 17th) through to precarious citadels (2nd, 3rd, 4th, 8th, 9th and 11th) that would have graced the mighty PGA West or Kiawah Island Ocean Course.
While the bump-and-run recovery is largely precluded by the fluffy Seashore Paspallum grass, Donald Ross and Pete Dye would have admired Langer's philosophy of so firmly reinstating the pitching-wedge as the most important club in the bag.
This time it's your sense of touch that needs to be aroused. Perhaps it was down to Langer's love of links golf, or maybe a reaction to the soulless, mega-sized surfaces of the many mediocre resorts that he's been forced to face on tour.
But whatever club is in your hands, the One&Only
Le Touessrok Golf Course represents an intriguing test of course management skills, with hole names like Cat And
Mouse and Split Decision betraying Langer's own tactical approach to golf. The latter, the par-five 4th, is the first of several risk/reward options.
A bold drive flirting with the left-hand lake helps to avoid the vertical bank protecting the right side of the green, but the timid will face a breakwater-length line of lava eating into the ‘safe' side of the fairway at driving distance, beyond which a controversial (semi-hidden) lake lurks to devour a sliced second shot.
And so the journey continues, with pitches over marshy inlets and teasing backward-tilting putting surfaces to set up an exhilarating three-hole finish where, at each, do-or-die drives over the mangroves will have you quaking in your FootJoys.
It would be trite to say there are 18 signature holes but certainly two-thirds of them are strikingly memorable, as you move between the extremes of the steamy, swampy 7th through to the driveable par-four 14th on the hilly high ground that is almost Gleneagles-with-palm-trees. Only the following par three, a plain pitch to a tiny green in a non-descript clearing, is a relatively weak ‘make-up' hole, and even this could be readily improved through landscaping.
Along with the island's deliberately downbeat commercial façade, the extraordinarily natural feel of course is light years removed from the overblown, impersonal architecture of so many modern multi-million dollar developments. This was assisted by having the financing structured independently of the site, ensuring that there are no villa projects here – or indeed a building of any description (apart from the discrete clubhouse) anywhere to mar the view.
This creates another conundrum given that, on paper at least, this extraordinary course is obviously a commercially conceived venture affiliated to a luxury hotel chain pitching for tourist dollars (or Mauritian rupees) in a highly competitive climate.
The mastermind emerges as Sol Kerzner, the force behind South Africa's lavish Sun City and the founder of the Million Dollar Golf Challenge. But here, with his $10 million-dollar challenge (the surprisingly modest total build cost), and the ultra-upmarket One&Only resort brand that made it possible, he has moved into a more rarified atmosphere. The finished project was also, paradoxically, helped by a protracted planning debate that lasted a full five years before permission was finally granted and, only then, subject to a string of environmental conditions.
The eco-friendly stipulations protecting the wetlands, beaches, indigenous trees and, most crucially, banning the dynamiting of the ubiquitous volcanic lava could have stopped the project dead in its tracks. But Langer has used this to his advantage, for example, at the short 3rd, where he boldly sited the green atop a 20-foot mound of rock that was prevented from being flattened.
Miss it at your peril.
With fairways forced to follow the natural contours there are blissfully few signs of the bulldozer, ensuring minimal disruption to the island's status quo.
Deer aside, the One&Only Le Touessrok Golf Course remains a haven for fauna such as mongoose, turtle, heron, pheasant and Mauritian Parakeet, and flora such as the leggy banyan trees, and hibiscus and ficus flowers – not forgetting the exotic scaviola beach plant chosen as the emblem to adorn the golf merchandise.
Behind the scenes a vast team of 60 greenkeepers and landscapers wield $1 million of maintenance kit while sticking religiously to organic fertilisers and chemicals under Audubon Society management practices. There is even a special nursery cultivating rare indigenous plants to prevent the threatened ebony trees and gastonia plants from extinction.
The course's remote location, both locally and internationally, will ensure that it will remain one of golf's best-kept secrets, while immediately joining the A-list of truly cult far-flung classics such as Casa de Campo in the Dominican Republic, the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island and Sand Hills in Nebraska.
Certainly there will be those who, after dispensing a sleeve of Titleists into the canyon fronting (and indeed backing) the 18th green, will argue that this layout will overawe the average player that Le Touessrok is attempting to attract. In that respect, there are plans to widen three greens whose putting surfaces are barely ten paces wide in places. Others will curse the ‘lava lottery', where shots can kick cruelly into beds, banks and gullies of exposed volcanic rock from which there is no local relief (as at, say, the desert courses of Arizona). To avoid racking up a cricket score by playing ping pong, it's a case of taking your medicine: stroke and often distance, too.
One&Only Le Touessrok Golf Course has already earned a reputation as the toughest, as well the most beautiful, of Mauritius' five courses. It will be intriguing to see how the slope raters formally quantify it when they visit later this year, and how the world's top tour pros (not least Langer himself) fare when the first big money is on offer.
A high-profile skins game organised by IMG (who, incidentally, have the course maintenance contract) is a possibility, while even the European Tour may well be tempted within a few years. In the meantime, the finals of the World Corporate Golf Challenge will be held here in
June, although you can bet there won't be much business
done on the golf course that week.
As you recuperate later on Ilot Mangénie after a spot of ferry-hopping, you will surely reflect on the sensory
overload, just as Langer predicted, with the course's simultaneous mix of heady seduction and technical drama likely to leave you a chastened, but wiser, golfer. And on your inevitable return, you'd be forgiven for imagining your friendly Mauritian boatman as Charon, the mythical ferryman, rowing you ominously across the River Styx to this tropical golfing Underworld.
It certainly is another world.
All you need to know about...
ONE&ONLY LE TOUESSROK GOLF COURSE
The jetty for the Ile aux Cerfs course is two minutes walk from the luxurious One&Only Le Touessrok hotel, a lavish Moorish themed complex set around four delightful beaches and two freeform, spill-over swimming pools.
The hotel was recently refurbished
to include a mini-Venice of modern
ocean-view suites (complete with
plasma TV screens and vast freestanding baths) on a lovely headland known as Frangipani Island.
Sharing flagship status in the One&Only hotel brand is the famous Le Saint Géran, basking beside a beautiful beach just 20 minutes further up the coast. Known for its casual elegance and traditional local furnishings, Le Saint Géran also has a 9-hole, par- 33, Gary Player designed golf course that is the perfect warm-up for the the new test. The kikuyu grass here makes the modest 2,700 yards play much longer. From June 1, guests of One&Only Le Touessrok and One&Only St Géran will receive unlimited golf on the One&Only Le Touessrok Golf Course.
This includes boat transfer to the course on the island of Ils aux Cerfs and back, 50 range balls, plus free shuttle between the two hotels.
One&Only Le Touessrok GC
Trou d'Eau Douce, Mauritius
Tel: (00) 230 402 7720
UK sales office: 01753 899800
One&Only Le Touessrok
Tel: (00) 230 402 7400
One&Only Le Saint Géran
Tel: (00) 230 401 1668
(020) 7434 4375
Tel: 08701 200300
Exclusive Golf Tours
Tel: 0870 870 4700
Tel: 028 9751 2403
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Tel: (020) 7962 9664
Tel: 01344 844622