Yes, the hallowed crests and vales of St Andrews in Scotland are still the holiest grail. Yes, the links courses in Ireland are still the true test of any semblance of mastery over this fickle, cruel and magnificent game. But there’s a whole new set of experiences out there for golf nuts—from multiple-course repasts in Thailand and China to exotic midnight rounds in Finland. This year, make sure you indulge your vice at the greatest golf destinations out there.
Right on top of that list is where it all began 600 years ago: Old Course at St Andrews. That hallowed home of golf, 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.
Get on that waiting list by all means, but while you wait, consider the humble Hua Hin in Thailand. More than 10 championship layouts criss-cross the verdant locales of the Thai king’s (His Highness Bhumibol Adulydej) summer retreat town today.
Or consider sampling the fruits of the leviathan effort that Mission Hills group has put into creating an extraordinary 10-course resort in the tropical islands of Hainan in South China Sea. But 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 11 pm tee-off time sound?
If you do get that tee-time at St Andrews, make sure you take a detour to northern Ireland. Drive down from Belfast to Counties Antrim and Down, where the current crop of the world’s best players—Rory McIlroy, Graeme Mc Dowell and Darren Clarke—cut their golfing teeth. The breathtakingly rugged Royal Portrush and Royal County Down temper their brutal tests with spectacular views of the coast and are consistently ranked amongst the top courses in the world.
Scotland may lay claim to being the traditional home of golf, but there’s no question over which region produces the best golfers in the world—northern Ireland wins hands down.
In less than an hour of driving from the capital city of 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.
The best way to go about playing golf here is to have no fixed itinerary. It’s entirely possible to play small, quirky inexpensive layouts, of which, unquestionably, the most spectacular is Ardglass, situated on the south-east coast of County Down.
And it’s not just the history. Yes, golf has been played on the links courses of St Andrew since 1400 AD. But as the 600-year history of the game at St Andrews has unfolded, what used to be one rudimentary course 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 less than 11 courses to do so at. With 117 holes, St Andrews Links is the largest golfing complex in Europe. All 18-hole courses can be booked in advance even though there’s a long waiting list of about 18 months for those wanting to play at the hallowed grounds of the Old Course. It’s not just about playing though: golf buffs can visit Royal & Ancient, which runs the Open Championship and now governs the rules of golf everywhere except the US.
Even if you can’t get a round at Old Course, make sure you tee it up at ‘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 to the game, St Andrews continues to be the premier destination for golfers from all over the world.
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 its resort in Shenzhen city might have all the famous player-designer signature courses, Mission Hills’ new multiple golf course facility on this tropical island in South China Sea can more than hold its own against its more celebrated predecessor.
Hainan has a dramatic volcanic landscape and the course designers, Arizona-based firm Schmidt-Curley Golf Design, have attempted to incorporate the inherent character of the land into the courses. But the courses are very distinct in all other aspects. That dissimilarity becomes quite clear as you tee it up.
Hua Hin is Thailand’s oldest seaside holiday town and has been the preferred haunt of the royal family since the latter part of the 19th century, with several palaces built by erstwhile kings. Just a couple of hours by road from Bangkok, Hua Hin and adjacent Cha Am offer the itinerant swinger a choice of over 10 championship layouts within an hour’s drive of the town centre. Just over five hours’ flying time from New Delhi (and less from Mumbai) and a surfeit of world-class courses in Hua Hin make a compelling case. Add to that the town’s air of leisure and charm, and you have the perfect getaway for golfers in Asia.
It’s a tantalisingly short golf season in Helsinki: a long winter means golfers get a window only between May to August. But during 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 Finn fourballs playing as much as 36 holes in a day. And boy, do they have a choice—150 courses in the country give the 1,32,000 golfers a huge smorgasbord of layouts to tee it up at. But the one that’s not to be missed is the Vanajanlinna GC, about an hour’s drive outside Helsinki. Itinerant swingers will love the Tim Lobb design, set amongst birch and pine forests, and its exquisitely laid fairways. Another absolute gem is the Thomas Broom design Kytaja GC and its spectacular twin championship layouts.
A golfer, Meraj Shah also writes about the game