As overseas golfing destinations go, I’m not a big fan of playing golf in China. The country’s expensive, both on and off the course; language is a big issue unless you’re in Shanghai or Beijing; and food can be tricky. I’d make an exception for the Mission Hills Resorts in Hainan and Shenzhen-Dongguan, but that’s simply because those are one-of-a-kind experiences that ought to be on every itinerant golfer’s bucket list. However, that’s where I would draw the line—until I travelled to Kunming, that is.
Now, I had heard that there was decent golf to be played in this city in Yunnan province—a hop-skip-and-jump away from Kolkata—but what really tipped the scales were the weather reports. With the mercury in Delhi already rising well over 30 degrees Centigrade, Kunming’s forecast predicted light rain and cool climes.
I wouldn’t be surprised if you haven’t heard about the ‘Spring City’ of China: the only non-Mandarin-speaking visitors the city gets are golfers. And for good reason too: Kunming’s location, nestled as it is between snow-capped mountains to the north, tropical rainforests in the south and rivers and lakes in the central highlands, offers the perfect natural milieu for golf. The Chinese took to golf late, but have played catch-up in a hurry, and are too smart to pass up such a natural proposition. So you have it—seven golf courses in relative proximity dot the undulating Kunming landscape, of which at least three are world-class championship layouts. And in case you’re wondering, Yunnan cuisine is perfect for Indians—nothing bland about it!
It’s a gamble christening a golf course ‘sunny’, especially when it’s no walkover.
Chances are that after they’ve been mauled on a few holes, players aren’t likely to see the sunny side of things. But the Sunshine Golf Club wins this wager simply by dint of its cinematographic vistas and absolutely picture-perfect layout. The best place to stop, soak in the views, and forget all about your game (unless you’ve been playing well!) is the seventh tee. The elevated position gives you a vantage point to admire the course even as you contemplate the shot on the picturesque par 3: just about 130 yards and a good 100 ft below, with water running all along the right side of the green. Don’t be surprised if your caddy serves you neatly chopped fruit on every hole: the course has a surfeit of fruit trees—apples, peaches and plums, to name a few. Sunshine GC scares the player at the outset with tight fairways, narrow landing areas and tricky greens, but things get easier as you get along and the overall outing is possibly the best golf experience you can have in Kunming. A word of caution though: there’s a fair bit of real estate surrounding the course and a wayward tee shot can cost you more than just a stroke.
It’s not often you find a resort, which has two marquee names on its designer rolls, especially when it has only two layouts, and the Spring City Golf and Lake Resort is one of those rarities. Both—Jack Nicklaus and Robert Trent Jones Jr—have inscribed their initials on the resort’s two championship courses—the Mountain (Jack Nicklaus) and the Lake course (Robert Trent Jones Jr). A stunning reaffirmation of the courses’ calibre—in a country that has more than 300 world-class layouts—is the fact that both have been ranked the top two courses in the country by Golf Digest China magazine in the past and continue to feature in the top five in the biennial rankings.
With all due respect to Trent Jones Jr, given the option of playing one of the two, I opted for the Nicklaus creation. A word of advice for all players teeing it up here: take the cart. The elevation changes are an inherent part of the layout and unless you’re in top physical shape, walking the course is likely to be too strenuous an activity than you’d care for. The views are especially distracting: right from the outset, the Yang Zonghai Lake stretches along the right side of the fairways—slicers will find themselves playing off the drop zones along its banks way more than they’d care for—while a range of hills stretch to the horizon. The ‘Mountain Course’ does justice to its name and you’re on an even keel for most of the 7,000-plus yards that the par 72 layout stretches over. As with most of Nicklaus’ creations, the constant undulations make getting the correct yardage a tricky affair and golfers would be well advised to carry GPS distance devices.
While you’re in Kunming, it makes sense to make the two-hour drive to Stone Forest. Considered one of the first wonders of the world (at least in China!), the forest is littered with wind-and-water-carved limestone formations over 400 sq km. If you’re wondering what would happen to a golf ball ricocheting off those, then test your theory at the equally impressive Stone Forest Country Club, which has no less than three layouts designed by Brian Curley. Reminded me a bit of the Boulder Hills GC in Hyderabad, except that the latter is hardly as dramatic.
All in all, Kunming is worth a visit just for the golf, and the nightlife isn’t bad either if you’re interested in shaking a leg after the day’s play. But the clincher really is its accessibility—Kolkata golfers can literally pack in a couple of rounds over a long weekend and, even from Delhi, it’s easier to get to than even Thailand. Now, if only China reciprocates with a visa-on-arrival for Indians—that would seal the deal.
A golfer, Meraj Shah also writes about the game