IT was a Eureka moment.
One of modern golf’s greatest players was taking in the stunning Malaysian island surrounds of Langkawi during a site visit when a lightbulb appeared.
“You know what? I think it would be great if we had no bunkers at all on this golf course,” Ernie Els tells Australian Golf Digest, recalling the initial conversation he had with senior design associate Greg Letsche about how The Els Club would look.
“We were admiring the sheer beauty of the site – with the rainforest, the Andaman Sea, the streams and the mountains … it was kind of a Eureka moment.”
It’s not unheard of for a golf course to be devoid of sand traps – the only bunker at Arrowtown Golf Club (near Queenstown, New Zealand) is a practice bunker – but it is rare for a layout to be so critically acclaimed without one of the game’s most distinguishing features.
In March this year, Golf Digest (US) unveiled The Els Club Teluk Datai at No.83 in the World’s 100 Greatest Golf Courses. Yet the only sand in sight is that which abuts the coastline surrounding Langkawi, looking across the Andaman Sea towards Thailand.
Opened in 1992, The Datai Langkawi (a member of the Leading Hotels of the World) quickly rose to prominence for its spectacular setting among a 10 million-year-old rainforest, access to a pristine private beach and dining experiences so rich and diverse you never need to leave the property. Combined with The Els Club, it’s no mystery why it’s considered one of Asia’s premier resort golf destinations.
“There’s a beauty and a uniqueness about The Els Club Teluk Datai that makes it very special and memorable,” says Els.
Initially, there was an 18-hole course against the water’s edge called Datai Bay Golf Club. However, it wasn’t until four-time Major winner Els and his team reworked the routing in 2014 the golf world took notice.
In a climate with an average monthly rainfall exceeding 200mm for seven months of the year, keeping bunkers in play – and in a condition expected from discerning travellers – was problematic in the early days of Datai Bay Golf Club.
Minimising the impact of exorbitant maintenance expenses became part of the design brief. Rather than seeing it as any kind of restriction, Els looked at it as an opportunity to do something rare.
“We really didn’t need the bunkers,” Els says. “We had a wonderful design premise in place.
“Once that was decided, you start to see other advantages. Not just in terms of construction but also the ongoing maintenance of the golf course. This is a rainforest – you get a lot of rain! And it would have made bunker maintenance quite challenging.
“Having no bunkers gave us some aesthetic, strategic and practical design solutions. There were actually no downsides, only advantages. And people love it.”
With so many sights and sounds to consume, you could almost finish the round before realising you’re playing a golf course completely devoid of sand traps. As you tee off on the 328-metre par-4 first, the breathtaking Mat Cincang mountain range is at your back. As you approach the fifth, sixth, seventh, 16th and 17th, the impossibly blue Andaman Sea laps at the course’s edges and stretches as far as the eye can see.
“Trust me, when people play this course they won’t miss the bunkers,” says Els. “It’s a pretty unique experience playing golf here. The wildlife is amazing – you’ve got monkeys, iguanas, fish eagles and all sorts of other exotic birds. Monkeys occasionally steal golf balls … but that doesn’t seem to upset anyone. I wouldn’t be surprised if the main thing golfers are thinking after they’ve left Langkawi is how soon they can come back again.”
A pair of par 3s share a double green at the fifth, playing out of the rainforest directly towards the ocean, while the 17th plays parallel to the coastline. Water also comes in the form of scenic creeks snaking their way through the holes six, seven and eight. Once you reach the 10th, you can’t help but be awestruck by Gunung (mountain) Mat Cincang standing sentinel over this 355m par 4 – making for a truly inspiring tee shot.
“We have four holes that play alongside the sea, and another three holes are adjacent to streams. There’s a pond on one hole and, of course, you have the rainforest all around you,” says Els.
“We’ve also created little grassy hollows within the green complexes. From a designer’s perspective, we really didn’t miss the bunkers. The Els Club has wonderful shot values just as it is.”
With the correct dosage, and location, isolation can be heaven on earth. Langkawi – an archipelago of 99 islands off the west coast of Malaysia – is so far removed from life’s daily grind it may as well be on the moon. A one-hour flight from Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur, the ‘Jewel of Kedah’ is a popular (but not too popular) holiday destination for couples and families.
The drive into the resort snakes its way up the prehistoric rainforest and delivers guests into a canopy that blends in so superbly with the resort itself it appears to be the world’s most luxurious tree house.
Upon arrival and welcoming glass of champagne, a tour of the villa took 10 minutes just to explore the amenities, notably a bathroom the size of an apartment and a gold-plated fan set into the high-vaulted ceiling that was unlike anything this writer had ever seen. From the spacious villas to the golf course itself, The Datai is an opulent lesson in minimalistic style.
Excursions into the rainforest and hypnotic and sunset cruises were relaxing, but the most indulgent experience here comes at The Datai Spa. Treatment rooms are individually set into the rainforest for your own personal piece of paradise. Their location refutes the need for a spa room soundtrack as the creek meandering in front of the room, combined with the natural birdlife, perform this musical role with ease.
I was treated to the Tungku Batu therapeutic massage – an ancient heated stone treatment used by Malay healers to reduce pain and increase blood circulation. Once off the massage table, a cup of ginger tea and one more glance at the rainforest and there was no desire to rush back to the rat race in Australia.
It took 14 hours, two planes and an hour transfer to get to The Datai Langkawi.
Now that journey makes perfect sense.