IT IS difficult to quantify which is more abundant in Fiji: the ubiquitous utterances of “Bula!” from beaming Fijian faces or the many sets of goal posts at either end of a 100-metre by 70-metre patch of lush green grass. Whether for rugby league or union, these often-makeshift ‘H’s are emblematic of a country’s love affair with the two football codes.
Yet other shapes and familiar forms are beginning to rise in number across the grassy spaces of the Fijian Islands. Aside from its rugby exploits (the nation can now boast an Olympic gold medal thanks to the deeds of its dominant male sevens side) are six 18-hole golf courses, two of which have been built since midway through last decade.
Getting to and affording the price of accommodation at luxurious and exclusive Laucala Island to play the David McLay-Kidd-designed course on one of the easternmost Fijian outposts is likely to be beyond most people, however the better known and far more accessible Natadola Bay Golf Course is not so out of reach.
Host of the four-year-old Fiji International on the PGA Tour of Australasia, Natadola Bay is now a primary reason to pack the sticks on any trip to Fiji. Attached to the stunning InterContinental resort next door, Natadola Bay is a leisurely 50-minute drive south from Nadi Airport to the south-western corner of Viti Levu, Fiji’s main island. It’s secluded and spectacular, a grand getaway location with a golf course to match. One not for the faint-hearted, though.
Natadola is as tough as they come in a healthy breeze and more than a handful even in a zephyr. Dense scrub and vegetation line both sides of most holes and while the playing corridors are generous enough, they are hardly obese. Some pretty hefty numbers have been recorded at the Fiji International, which points to how tough the course is for finely tuned professionals, to say nothing of amateurs and holidaying resort guests. The odds, however, are now tipping nearer to the golfers’ favour.
In the nine months since last October’s Fiji International, Natadola has transformed with some welcome course changes. It’s no slight on the original design that a little softening was required, rather it’s more an acknowledgement that sometimes with golf courses in exposed locations, you only learn the full intricacies of a layout after some trial and error.
“There were originally only to be changes to around three or four greens, which extended to 13 greens, but due to timelines was reduced to 10,” says Steve Lalor, the Australian who’s been Natadola’s course superintendent for most of its eight years. “There were also some other strategic changes with new tees and bunkers on several holes. The changes were made initially as a recommendation from the PGA from a playability standpoint. Some of the greens only had one or two pin positions for the Fiji International, so we looked at all the greens and decided to make changes to those that showed similar characteristics
as the worst greens already earmarked for change.”
Vijay Singh, who was involved in the original design phase of the course, was highly involved in this latest chapter. “He made several visits, each with great ideas and scenarios on how the hole should play, including the shaping of greens, location of tees and bunkers,” Lalor says.
“The alterations have given the golf course a better flow; the design is consistent throughout. The designer tried to keep the feel of the course but accentuated the details that weren’t present originally. Having Vijay on board gives a perspective from the pros’ side of the course and parts of the design were created to make the course more strategic not only for the pros but also for the amateurs to play. Natadola Bay is a difficult course to play when the wind is blowing and I feel some of the changes will assist the average punter to enjoy the round more so. Fairways have been widened, greens have become larger with less undulation, which will give most golfers a fairer chance to make par.
“The holes with the biggest changes that I feel most will find better are the new third, fourth and ninth holes. These are a little longer but are more playable holes and slightly more forgiving than before.”
One aspect of the course hasn’t changed: the genuinely stunning settings on offer. Both nines touch the coastline in dramatic style, with oceanside par 3s at the fourth and 13th holes, but for many the best holes are the ones away from the sea. Holes six to nine sit across the road from the main part of the course and use jungle-like terrain and enormous elevation changes to fine effect. Tee shots at the par-5 sixth and par-4 eighth holes hang in the air seemingly forever before returning to terra firma. Both holes rise again for the greens, while the short seventh and par-4 ninth do not. The latter of this pair was in desperate need of a green makeover as not nearly enough of the L-shaped, creekside putting surface at No.9 was ‘pinable’. It is now far flatter but remains tucked against the rocky, babbling creek.
Will the changes result in a better Natadola Bay course? One man in particular should know.
“At TPC Sawgrass, which hosts the Players on the PGA Tour, they have just re-done the 12th hole. The comments have been that they will play this year’s tournament, see how it plays and then modify it again if needed,” said Andrew Langford-Jones, the PGA Tour of Australasia’s tournament director for the Fiji International. “That is basically what has happened with Natadola. After three years of playing tournament golf it was obvious that some changes needed to be made and they are being made now.
“For the pros, I think it will be a fairer test of golf. Some of the ridges in the greens have been eliminated, which has resulted in more pin positions on each green,” Langford-Jones added. “But the best thing to come out of the re-design is that the greens are friendlier to players of all standards. The jungle is still the jungle; it has been cut back in a number of areas, which will also make it easier for amateurs. Plus, the landing zones have been significantly increased in area so it is much more user-friendly for the amateur golfer. Anything that sees the pros shoot 10-under to win a tournament is a definite challenge and for the amateur golfer it will be excellent fun.”
Travelling along Viti Levu’s southern coastline between Natadola Bay and The Pearl Resort at Pacific Harbour, you’ll pass a scenic pocket of land in the province of Serua that took on extra significance after Fiji won its first-ever Olympic medal at the Rio Olympics last year. The coach of the gold medal-winning rugby sevens coach, Englishman Ben Ryan, was granted the 1.2-hectare site as a gift for bringing Olympic gold to the Fijian people. Ryan has since moved on from his role, but not before receiving a Companion of the Order of Fiji and his plot of land.
Were it still existing on its own, the golf course at The Pearl Resort may not be enough to draw many international golfers to its fairways, however add the four-star resort and it is worth the 100-minute drive east from Natadola to add variety to a golf trip to Fiji. The Pearl sits against a marina precinct at Pacific Harbour, 50 kilometres from the Fiji capital, Suva. The resort describes its Robert Trent Jones Jnr-designed golf course as “adventurous”, an excursion through tropical rainforests and across winding canals. Formerly known as Pacific Harbour Golf & Country Club, the course opened in 1977 and hosted the World Amateur Team Championship a year later as Australia won the Espirito Santo Trophy and the American side raised the Eisenhower Trophy. It can also claim one of Greg Norman’s 80-plus worldwide triumphs, the 1978 South Seas Classic.
The course is a feast for the senses in terms of some of the surrounding fauna. The overall design does have several basic qualities, though, including lipless bunkers that won’t trap a scampering ball. It is, however, an extremely pleasant place to play 18 holes, made even more so by the serene setting. The layout is something of a fader’s paradise (right-handed ones, at least) as six holes curve from left to right, versus just one that bends the other way. The opening hole is one of the toughest starts you’ll encounter in this part of the world. A wall of jungle along the right side dominates the view from the tee of the 388-metre first, while a sneaky and skinny watercourse flanks the left side for those golfers steering clear of the big trouble. The green is arguably best approached from the left half of the fairway, so there is no need to risk the right side.
The Pearl’s conditioning is largely weather dependent and don’t expect to get a lot of run on the fairways. We played from the yellow tees, one set forward from the back markers (which see the course pushed to 6,285 metres), and found the 5,805-metre journey was amply long. Only one par-5, the dogleg-right third, hits the 500-metre mark as both the back-nine three-shot holes are reachable by many – if accurate enough. The par-5 sixth presents that lone occasion when a right-to-left tee shot is advantageous and can trim significant distance off another hole that’s carved from the rainforest.
The most daunting moment comes at the par-3 eighth hole. Having hopefully survived the index-1 seventh hole, a tough par 4 in its own right, the next test is a 200-metre par 3 with water short and right of the green that stretches to the fringe of the putting surface. Even playing from the 139-metre yellow markers doesn’t dilute the challenge by much.
The best outlook of the course comes on the 16th tee, which sits well above the fairway on a par-4 where a broad canal runs along the left side and eats into the short grass 40 metres or so before the green. It’s one place guaranteed to let you feel the ocean breeze as you send a drive down to the fairway far below. The same canal borders the par-3 17th hole but isn’t seriously in play, before one last left-to-right tee shot is called upon at the 363-metre home hole as the tee is set deep within a chute of mahogany trees.
Walk, Don’t Drive
Denarau Island, beside the main island of Viti Levu, is the largest integrated resort in the South Pacific. This is where thousands of Aussies come each year to splash out on cocktails and pampering. Situated less than 10 kilometres from Nadi Airport, this is also the home of the most accessible of the country’s leading golf courses and one trans-Tasman travellers should experience.
Denarau Golf & Racquet Club is a beautiful 18-hole golf layout that is walking distance from the island’s main tourist accommodation hub. With brilliant views, resort-style play and professional instruction on hand, visitors can quite literally walk up, hire clubs and receive the full Fijian experience.
Guests of Sheraton and Westin resorts enjoy special privileges at Denarau Golf & Racquet Club, with room charge-back making it all too easy to lock in your round and extras.
There are plenty of highlights across this layout, but four water-carry par 3s will leave a lasting impression as you navigate sand, sea and coconut palms before a short stroll back to your resort pool for a post-round beverage caps off a perfect day in paradise.
My last glimpse of Fiji turned out to be of perhaps the nation’s most important slice of turf, from a golf perspective. As my flight home ascended above the endless blue waters of the Pacific, the side of the plane I was seated on received a perfect view of Nadi Airport Golf Course where Vijay Singh honed his game by hitting innumerate practice balls in his youth. The three-time Major champion augmented a combination of determination and discipline (plus more than a little bit of raw talent) into one of the great golf careers of all time. His repeated returns home to support the Fiji International could ultimately fuel the same combination of character traits in his successor, sparking a new wave of sporting heroes from these isles of smiles.
Where To Play
Denarau Golf & Racquet Club
(0011) 679 675 0643
Green fees: $F130-$F167
Laucala Island Golf Course
(0011) 679 888 0077
Green fees: included in guest rate
Natadola Bay Golf Course
Maro Rd, Natadola
(0011) 679 673 3500
Green fees: $F230 ($F165 for hotel guests)
The Pearl Resort
Queens Rd, Pacific Harbour
(0011) 679 773 0022
Fiji Golf Club, Suva
Lautoka Golf Course. Lautoka
Where To Stay
InterContinental Fiji Golf Resort & Spa
Maro Rd, Natadola
The Pearl Resort
Queens Rd, Pacific Harbour