The Itinerant Swinger

MERAJ SHAH checks out the best golfing destinations in the world

laxuary-1 The hallowed Old Course at St Andrews in Scotland is where golf began, 600 years ago

St. Andrews in Scotland has always been and will be for all eternity, the ultimate golf pilgrimage. But, things have really progressed since the sport left the “home of golf”. Today, Asia is the new frontier for the game, and Thailand is all set to become the most visited golf destination in the world. China, in its inimitable style, has established humungous golf resorts with as many as a dozen courses each, while South Africa has become the biggest hub for golf tourists this side of the Suez Canal.

Black Mountain GC, Hua Hin, Thailand Hua Hin in Thailand is a perfect golf getaway

Still, a bucket list for golfers has to begin from where it all began 600 years back—the Old Course at St. Andrews. That hallowed home of the game, where King James IV dropped by the pro shop to pick up a new set of clubs in 1506, and where nature and wind were the only architects until Old Tom Morris created the current layout in the 19th century, is not a golf course as much as it is a shrine. And, sadly, that’s why you might have to wait over 18 months to get a game. Golf has been played on the links courses of St. Andrew since 1400 AD and it’s an inseparable part of local life and culture. As the 600-year history of the game at St Andrews has unfolded, what used to be a single rudimentary course, winding its way through heather and bushes, has evolved into multiple championship layouts.

Not only do visiting golfers have the opportunity to soak in the tradition of the game, they can choose from no fewer than 11 courses. With 117 holes, St. Andrews Links is the largest golfing complex in Europe! All 18-hole courses can be booked in advance though there’s a long waiting list of about 18 months for those wanting to play at the hallowed grounds of the Old Course. St. Andrews is quite compact and all the 11 courses are within ten minutes driving time from the town centre, which means you’ll be playing more and travelling less.

laxuary-3 Hainan in China has 10 classic golf courses close to each other

It’s not just about playing though: golf buffs can visit the Royal & Ancient club, which runs the Open Championship and now governs the rules of golf everywhere except in the US.

Even if you can’t get a round at the Old Course, make sure you tee it up at the ‘New Course’: ‘new’ is relative at St. Andrews and the course was designed by the legendary Old Tom Morris in 1895! With its incomparable heritage, and current relevance, St. Andrews continues to be the premier destination for all golfers.

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While you wait for that game at St. Andrews, consider humble Hua Hin in Thailand—a mere six hours from Delhi and four from Mumbai. The beach resort getaway may once have been a sleepy fishing village, but today there are more than ten championship layouts criss-crossing the verdant locales of what used to be the late Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s summer retreat. Hua Hin is Thailand’s oldest seaside holiday town and has been the preferred haunt of the royal family. Just a couple of hours by road from Bangkok, Hua Hin and the adjacent Cha Am offer the golfer a choice of over 10 championship layouts within an hour’s drive of the town centre. Add to that the town’s air of leisure and charm, which has remained unspoiled, and you have the perfect getaway for golfers in Asia.

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Or consider sampling the fruits of the leviathan effort that the Mission Hills group has put into creating an extraordinary ten-course resort in the tropical islands of Hainan in the South China Sea. The design team of Schmidt-Curley has transformed a lava landscape into a world-class golf resort (in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it China-special 18 months) which includes the championship Blackstone layout. What can you say about a resort with 10 classic golf courses within golf-cart riding distance? Just for the sheer variety and convenience, Mission Hills Hainan is in a league of its own in Asia. Sequels often end up being unfairly matched with the original. While their resort in Shenzhen city might have all the famous player-designer signature courses, Mission Hills's new multiple golf-course facility on this tropical island in the South China Sea can more than hold its own against its more celebrated predecessor.

Hainan has a dramatic volcanic landscape and the course designers, the Arizona-based firm of Schmidt-Curley Golf Design, have attempted to incorporate the inherent character of the land into the courses. However, the courses are very distinct in all other aspects. That dissimilarity becomes quite clear as you tee it up.

If you can, do stay at Vanajanlinna Castle (pic, above) —an exclusive hotel adjoining the course. The hotel offers some of the most picturesque locations in town overlooking the Gulf of Finland.

If you’ve made up your mind to go for something truly out of the ordinary, head for the summer rush of the midnight sun in Helsinki, Finland. The sun’s up for only half the year, but more than makes up for its absence by never setting in the summer months. How does an 11pm tee-off time sound? It’s a tantalisingly short golf season in Helsinki: a long winter means that golfers get a window only between May to August. In these months, the sun does its best to atone for its absence by coming out for as long as 21 hours. And that’s why you’ll often find hardy Finns playing as much as 36 holes in a day. And boy, do they have a choice—150 courses in the country give the 1.32 lakh golfers there a huge smorgasbord of layouts to tee it up at. The one that’s not to be missed is the Vanajanlinna GC, about an hour’s drive from Helsinki. Enthusiasts will love the Tim Lobb design set among birch and pine forests, as well as its exquisitely laid fairways. Another absolute gem is the Thomas McBroom design Kytaja GC and its spectacular twin championship layouts. If you can, do stay at Vanajanlinna Castle—an exclusive hotel adjoining the course. The hotel offers some of the most picturesque locations in town overlooking the Gulf of Finland.

And, if you do get that tee-time at St. Andrews (and especially if you don’t) make sure you take a detour to Northern Ireland. Scotland may lay claim to being the traditional home of golf, but Northern Ireland wins hands down when it comes to having the best golf courses. In less than an hour of driving from Belfast, paved streets make way for country roads that wind through the famous glens of counties Antrim and Down—here, you can play your way along the coast from one links course to the other, with a few parkland layouts, too. Most of the links are packed into a long strip along the Atlantic Ocean front.

Besides the world famous Royal County Down and Royal Portrush (which require prior bookings), the best way to go about playing golf here is to have no fixed itinerary. A car can be rented for as little as £20 a day and golf courses lurk around every bend, tucked away between the many lakes and dramatic coastline. And it’s entirely possible to play small, quirky inexpensive layouts, of which unquestionably the most spectacular is Ardglass, situated on the southeast coast of county Down.

Whatever you do, don’t put that golf vacation off. Especially not on account of a lack of faith in your game. Once you’ve tackled some of these courses, you’ll feel like Goliath returning to scorch that cute little parkland layout at home.

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