Swing by Borneo

Written by meraj shah | Updated: Aug 27 2014, 20:24pm hrs
The azure waters of the South China Sea and the early-morning light, glinting off the striking dagger-like summit of Mount Kinabalu, frame a pretty picture, as the airplane banks into its final descent into the capital city of the Malaysian state of Sabah. The full panorama from the waters edge pans across what looks like a modern city (albeit bereft of skyscrapers) to forested hinterland, sweeping all the way up to a mountain range. Its an astonishing sight and one which vindicates the fairly long journey it has taken to get here from Delhi: five hours to Bangkok and half of that to Kota Kinabalu.

Over the last few years, Kota Kinabalu has evolved into a golf vacation hub in Malaysia. With as many as 12 championship courses, all of which open for the visiting golfer and with residential star-rated properties with top-notch facilities, Kota Kinabalus golf tourism is booming. The citys repertoire of courses is rather diversechampionship layouts, resort links, an up-and-down mist-shrouded hill course, traditional old-world clubsand you would be hard-pressed to play all.

The jewel in the crown in Kota Kinabalus golfing firmament, the Sutera G&CC, is a stunning amalgam of picturesque views and a world-class layout. Its the perfect way to begin your golf odyssey in Kota Kinabalu because the experience is fool-proof: you cant go wrong with 27 holes, eminently playable for golfers of all abilities, and with the best seats in the house to witness Kota Kinabalus famous sunsets. Three NinesLakes, Heritage and Gardenand night golfing facilities mean this course is the busiest in Kota Kinabalu. That also means that players can begin their rounds at dusk and wrap up 18-holes by 10 at night.

From the clubhouse, the first set is the Lakes Nine. It winds around the biggest lake and provides a fitting introduction to water hazards, which are, by far, the most common elements of golf courses in Kota Kinabalu. The Heritage Nine has sweeping vistas of the city with typical tropical shrubbery and trees marking the outer boundaries. The Garden Nine, as the name implies, has lush landscaping and foliage typical of the tropical rainforest in Borneo. The signature hole, the 24th, is part of Garden Nine and provides a stunning view over the South China Sea. It requires a precise drive between fairway traps and a challenging second shot to an undulating green, skirted perilously by the ocean.

The Nexus Golf Resort is the pick of the championship layouts in Kota Kinabalu and, unabashedly, a players course. This course can be good fun, but only if you play it off the right tees: trying to feed the ego by going at it from the tips is certain hara-kiri unless youre a single-handicapper and in good nick. Nestled between a long sandy beach and a range of low hills, and armed with 12 meandering lakes, liberal bunkering and unpredictable ocean breezes, Nexus is pretty, but brutal. Consider the signature holethe 188 metre par-3 12thwhich actually offers the faint-hearted a cop-out in case they dont have the nerve to go for the green. The direct route to the green requires a serious carry over water, though if youre up to it, the green offers very makeable birdie opportunities. Coming after that stern test, most golfers fall prey to the beguiling bait of the par-5 13th, which, at 390 yards, seems a roll-over. It isnt and theres another water body to be negotiated if you decide to go for the green in two. Hook, line and sinker.

Set by the coast in Tuaran district and a 45-minute drive from Kota Kinabalu, the Dalit Bay Golf & Country Club is adjunct to the most luxurious property in the regionthe Shangri La Rasa Ria. The proximity to the sea is used to good effectbays, inlets and an assortment of smaller water hazards come into play in no less than 16 holes. The course, built on what was regrettably once a mangrove swamp, consists of the Mengkabong Nine and the Tambalang Ninenamed after the two rivers, which abut the course and flow into the South China Sea. The Tambalang is visible on two holes, notably the signature 11th holea 170m par-3, which stretches across the river mouth and requires a precise middle-to-long iron on a gently sloping green flanked on either side by bunkers. Players actually have to hit a daunting drive over the riverfront, which comes into play on the par-4 13th. This isnt an easy course by any stretch of imagination, and definitely biased towards the longer hitter. Besides stunning views of the landscape, expect a melange of animals in the gallery, including otters and monitor lizards.

The Mount Kinabalu Golf Club is a breath of fresh air. Literally. As you ascend the winding road towards the Pinosuk Plateau at the foothills of Mount Kinabalu, the temperature drops sharply and the warm ocean breeze gives way to a mountain chill. Laid out at 1,500 m, Mt Kinabalu GC is the highest course in Malaysia and provides the most surprising playing experience youd expect on a tropical island close to the equator. The back-nine underwent a complete renovation last year and is in stunning condition. You cant be blamed for calling it a day after nine holes though, because the steep slopes make even that quite a workoutif youre not in shape, then its best to take a buggy. The landscape is nothing short of dramatic and Mt Kinabalu provides the backdrop to most holes, which are flanked by the pristine jungles of Kinabalu Park. Playing here is as much about the golf as it is about the whole experience. And its one thats best reserved for the end of your trip.

There are no direct flights to Kota Kinabalu and youll need to transit from Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, or Singapore. Malaysia Airlines flies daily from all these destinations. Among the budget carriers, Dragonair and Air Asia operate regular flights to Kota Kinabalu. Youll get more reasonable fares via Bangkok rather than Kuala Lumpur.

A golfer, Meraj Shah also writes about the game