The Philippines is a beautiful golfing destination worth a visit. It’s green, exotic, sweaty and fun.
TWO socioeconomic worlds collide in the populated Southeast Asian hotspot of Manila, but there’s no such disparity with Filipino golf. As MATT CLEARY discovers, a little bit of patience (and pilsener!) can lead to rich golfing treasures in this part of the globe – starting with the world-class Boracay Island.
MANILA is a giant, heaving, teeming metropolis of 12 million people, all of whom seem to drive at once, all through the day, and all through the night. It’s like that city in that film with Bruce Willis in the future, where Bruce drives a flying cab and dives it straight down into the smoggy grey depths to save Leeloo, “The Fifth Element.” Well, sort of. It’s a mighty big city.
Yet there are many elements to Manila and the greater archipelago of 7000 islands called the Philippines that aren’t familiar to Australians, particularly in terms of golf. And their tourism people know it. They know that Australians who’ve played in Thailand, Malaysia, China or Vietnam might be looking for some ‘New Asia’ to golf and feast upon. And locals want the Philippines to be it. And there are a lot of reasons you’d go. But it’s an emerging market, and not without barnacles.
For a start, getting around Manila is a sure test of your patience. Every few kilometres there’s a line-up for a tollgate. A 10km trip to a golf course from our mid-town hotel took two hours. A one-hour trip to a course out of town took three to get back. My hotel window on the last night overlooked the tarmac of Manila Airport. I could literally see the terminal. It would have taken 10 minutes to walk. By hotel shuttle bus it took 52 minutes – I counted.
Your lesson here, oh wandering golf tourist, is to start out early and hope you miss the worst traffic. But you won’t miss the traffic, because Manila is traffic. It could be the worst traffic in the world. Bangkok might have claims, though it’s largely motorbikes and tuk-tuks. New York City is chock-full of cabs, though people know not to drive in The Big Apple. In Manila it seems everyone is driving to the same place at the same time. It makes peak-hour in Sydney look like a Bungendore Sunday. But it is an experience all the same.
What our party – a dozen-strong posse of journalists invited by Philippines Tourism to showcase their fine land of golf – did to fill in time was fill an esky with cold San Miguel Pilsener and enjoy the road-trips home as best we could. And it was a nice way to get to know one’s fellow tourists. Plus there wasn’t much in the way of sightseeing. Manila is slums and KFCs, along with massive billboards, crazy telegraph wires, modern malls and skyscrapers and super-flash hotels with stars equivalent to anywhere in the world. Except to get into the malls and hotels in Manila you have to go past sniffer dogs and metal detectors, and be patted down by men with machine guns. And that’s every time, every entrance, every flash mall and hotel in the metropolitan precinct. And that, again, can test the tolerance levels of laidback Aussies.
Yet a 40-minute flight from the teeming mega-city is Boracay Island, recently described as “the best island in the world” by someone who wrote it in a magazine. If you’re a country with 7000 islands, you could make a case that one of them is world class. But the best in the world? Boracay has claims.
Boracay Island is palm-lined beaches, azure waters, sand so crisp, white and sugary you’d swear it is sherbet. One balmy evening we enjoyed a barbecue buffet on the beach under a blood-red moon, drinking cold San Mig on a long table by a lamp-lit grotto as dancing acrobats amused us with fire. True story. Top pleasure. Cracking island, Boracay Island.
The golf? Fairways and Bluewater Newcoast Boracay Golf Resort is flat and tropical with waterfalls. It’s like a Disneyland resort, except natural, at least mostly. It’s like, say, Cypress Lakes in the Hunter Valley of NSW, or The Palms at Sanctuary Cove, or a tropical Moore Park in Sydney. There’s some fine, fun golf holes, and generous fairways. The greens are spongey and slow, at least at certain times of year. It’s hard to get a decent roll on greens constantly microwaved in thick equatorial heat. Greenkeepers do it tough on the Equator.
Yet on the four courses our group played, the layouts were the equivalent of any resort courses with challenge. You can’t eat them up. But nor are they going to eat you. Bottom line is they’re good fun. You’ll need good ball-striking to continually hit putting surfaces. But you aren’t going to be eviscerated if you miss.
A good example is Eagle Ridge Golf and Country Club that has 72 holes designed by Isao Aoki, Andy Dye, Nick Faldo and Greg Norman, and enough tee-boxes to suit all standards. Another is Mount Malarayat Golf and Country Club, an hour from town. It has three nine-hole layouts – Mt Lobo, Mt Malipunyo and Mt Makulot – and is a resort course where one can “take it easy in the cool highland climate of Lipa, bask in the windswept beauty of landscaped evergreens with a spectacular view of an expansive verdant mountainscape”. The resort certainly delivers on its promise: manicured, wide open and a heap of fun.
And then we ate a heap of pork.
Indeed the Philippines is a mouth-watering food-fest. The opportunity is there for mighty breakfast buffets, long lunches and big dinners. Cold beers and chilled red wine are delicious in the steamy conditions. The food is sort of an Asian-American-British fusion, as you might expect of a former colony of the latter two countries located in said continent. It’s delicious, and almost always pork. Or seafood. Homer Simpson would enjoy Filipino fare – there are all the cuts from his “wonderful, magical animal”, the pig.
For dinner one evening, we ate on an outdoor “Skydeck” on the roof of the Bay Leaf Hotel, overlooking the city skyline and Manila Cathedral. And there we drank beer and wine, and ate delicious fare, and held slightly stilted conversations about golf with beautiful young women in business dress. When rain drove us indoors, the young women sang to us. At each meal we were met by several local business types, handing out cards and taking group photos. Your lesson: take a heap of cards. You never know who you’ll meet and network with over there. And if they can afford to play golf in Manila, chances are they’re some sort of swinging business executives. (Not that it’s expensive for Australians. But the median salary in the Philippines is $751 – a year.)
There were business types aplenty at Valley Golf and Country Club, 10 kilometres from the middle of town, the exclusive 36 holes – South Course, North Course – where each player is assigned a caddie to read putts and look for their ball, and a stonkingly beautiful woman to hold an umbrella and open their beer. Lining up a putt you might feel a nice little breeze around your ribcage. That’s your caddie, fanning you. It’s a little odd. But you get used to it.
Overall our caddies, old or young, were invaluable people. At Boracay my caddie could’ve been 106. She looked like David Hasselhoff on a sun-bed. Wizened human. But her reads? Stone expert. Each read was spot on, centre of the cup. And for nine holes I shot 2-over par, which is good for me, an 8-marker more erratic than Saddam on the drink. The back nine I bogey-golfed home. But it wasn’t The Hoff’s fault.
On the day we turned up at Valley G&CC, the members put on a show. Each player was announced onto the first tee. And a 100-strong entourage all applauded the good shots and the bad. My booming drive was greeted with admiration – “Ooooh!” – and then commiseration – “Oooh” – as it hooked into the trees.
From there it was great fun dodging and weaving huge established trees and interesting holes over humps including a par 3 that starts on the top of a hill and feeds 100m down. There were also a heap of different tee-boxes. Quality track, the South Course, which is keen to host overseas players. If you let them know you’re coming they’ll find a tee-time for you on either of the courses, perhaps with a member. And you should play there if you’re in Manila. It’s a fine course where the members drive around in carts and smoke cigars with not a care in the world. After golf there were awards and we drank some Korean firewater called Soju, which is hot and fiery and good. We took more group photos, accepted more business cards, and laughed into the night with the highly hospitable high-flyers of Valley Resort G&CC.
Yet driving home through the slums, it did jar a little. The disparity of wealth is confronting.
Countless tens of millions of Filipinos live in corrugated iron humpies and keep thin chickens for food. You can drive down an alleyway lined with corrugated iron humpies, thin chickens, mangy dogs, nude kids, and shirtless men smoking cigarettes, and then come to a boom-gate, and … boom, you’re in another world. Pleasure World, a green oasis of palms and rainforest and cleanliness separated from the polluted mega-city by razor wire and men with machine guns.
So it’s safe to say it’s a bit different from Bungendore. But the food is hearty and tasty in equal measure. You can drink beer and be amused by fire-dancers on the sherbet sands of the world’s best island. And the golf? The locals’ enthusiasm for the sport is infectious. Legend has it the Brits introduced golf to Manila in 1886, while they were working for the Manila Railway Company. They built a three-hole course in paddy fields south of Intramuros, and the nation has loved it ever since.
Now, it’s a golfing destination worth a visit. It’s green, exotic, sweaty and fun.