My playing partners huddled around me as I stood on the 12th tee at the Royal Johor Country Club as Retief Goosen and his royal playing partner passed by on the adjacent fairway. The protective screen was to avoid offending His Royal Highness and the two-time major champion with the unwelcome sight of my knees.
Royal Johor has the distinction of being the only club in Malaysia that doesn’t permit the wearing of shorts. And I had the dubious distinction of being the only player in the 100+ field to be bearing his knees. The fact that it was uncomfortably warm and sticky was, of course, no excuse and so I relied upon the fact that I had flown in late the night before, was still jet-lagged and hadn’t prepared myself as thoroughly as I traditionally do for such an important event as the Iskandar Johor Open Pro-Am.
Being improperly dressed wasn’t the only mistake I made. It was a shot-gun start and my team started at the fifth. Rick Kulacz, a young Australian pro got us underway with a huge drive. At the time I thought my playing partners were just being polite in inviting me to tee off second, but I now realise they were probably endeavouring to get me off the tee and out of sight as soon as possible. Anyway, my drive, whilst comfortably more than 100 yards behind Rick’s, betrayed no hint of jet-lag and, although just off the fairway, was perfectly serviceable. I was therefore rather miffed when my caddie promptly picked up the ball. Seeing the puzzled look on my face, Hisham, one of my delightful playing partners, whispered, “Texas scramble.” It wasn’t until we’d played another half-a-dozen holes rather poorly and had consequently thoroughly bonded that he felt he knew me well enough to bring up the delicate subject of my shorts.
As Alex, another member of our cheery group, pointed out, the format rendered us amateurs largely redundant. On all but the par threes, our tee shots were never going to improve upon Rick’s and only rarely was any of our approaches likely to be better than his. And so only when it came to putting were we likely to be of any help. My most telling contribution was suggesting that Rick should perhaps putt last, thus benefiting from having watched our efforts miss. Initially baffled that the young Australian didn’t care for my cunning ploy, I subsequently realised that he was keen to putt first so that he could then practice his bunker play whilst the rest of us were busy missing our putts. Still, I was hardly in a position to rebuke him because he was at least wearing long trousers.
For the record, my team scored 7 under and Rick Kulacz single-minded approach secured him a share of 14th place. Oh, I nearly forgot, my shorts are safely back in the bottom drawer of my cupboard.
Apart from not permitting shorts, Royal Johor is typical of the courses to be found in Malaysia in general and of the 19 or so in the State of Johor in particular. Rather American in style and loosely sort of tropical parkland, it’s lush, lovely, enjoys plenty of elevation and is eminently playable. The high rainfall, which mostly comes in daily mid-afternoon downpours, whilst ensuring that the grass grows happily, renders maintenance somewhat troublesome. But the occasional soggy patch and rather sluggish green is a small price to pay for remarkably cheap golf in the most beautiful of surroundings.
Designed by the Director of the Public Works Department and built by the government, the first nine holes were completed in 1970. Soon afterwards, work began on the second nine and the first 18-hole course in Johor was fully opened in 1974. With a ‘Royal’ tag conferred upon it in 1984 and being the first in Malaysia to host a pro tournament, its pre-eminent status was unchallenged and it rapidly established itself as THE club for the movers and shakers of Johor society.
That position, however, is now being seriously challenged by a new wave of courses built in recent years to accommodate the burgeoning demand from neighbouring Singapore as well as elsewhere in Asia, principally Japan and South Korea. Although there is concern in some quarters that supply is in danger of outstripping demand, new courses are still being created.
One of the newest is Horizon Hills Golf and Country Club, which is dramatically different from the others. Instead of surrounded by jungle, it lies on the edge of a huge residential development being built as part of Nusajaya, a 24,000 acre regional city on the southernmost tip of Malaysia. Spectacular in scale and handily located little more than half-an-hour’s drive from bustling Singapore, Nusajaya includes a huge harbour, industrial and business parks, offices to accommodate the relocating Johor State government, smart new residential areas and, most important of all, golf courses, of which Horizon Hills is the first.
Sitting on the delightful terrace of the handsome new clubhouse overlooking the course, I foolishly perused the local rules on the back of the scorecard. Having recently developed something of a prodigious hook, I was alarmed to read that out of bounds lay to the left of holes 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17 and 18. Smug slicers were in no position to gloat either as out of bounds lay to the right of holes 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7. Apart from looking forward to the 12th hole with an almost indecent sense of anticipation, I should reveal that the out of bounds markers were so far away that they posed no serious threat.
In fact, the course, which occupies what looks like a valley floor, is refreshingly wide and open with sweeping fairways and generous greens. Big bunkers and numerous water hazards provide its main defences. A pleasure to play, it’s undoubtedly popular with the residents who have moved into the adjoining neighbourhood.
When it opened back in 1993, Starhill Golf and Country Club was the most expensive in the area. Principally targeted at the Japanese market, membership was 85,000 Ringgits, which is about $20,000. Today it costs a tiny fraction of that and the green fee is remarkably modest as well.
Starhill Golf & Country Club, Bintang Course
Like all the clubs in the area, it’s fairly crowded at weekends but pretty quiet during the week. Curiously, because the weather is more suitable for golf in the morning, the afternoons are busier. Incidentally, April and May are regarded as the best golfing months.
Starhill Golf & Country Club, Bukit Course
With 36 excellent holes divided between the Bukit (Hill) and Bintang (Star) courses, there’s plenty here to keep golfers happy. Before you tee off, take a look around the stunning, Moorish-styled, air-conditioned clubhouse. Enjoy the panoramic views from the dining-room over the courses that have been carved out of a rubber plantation. Sadly, thanks to the termites, not one rubber tree has survived.
More appealing examples of wildlife are the numerous kingfishers. Large and with that distinctive, striking, blue luminescence, they flash across the fairways and enjoy all the ponds, lakes and streams rather more, perhaps, than do the golfers. Both courses are delightful, eminently walkable if you don’t mind working up a gentle sweat and not too intimidating.
Two more top quality courses can be found at the splendid resort of Pulai Springs. The expert hand of Robert Trent Jones Junior can be appreciated at this classy and comfortable venue that has hosted the Malaysian Masters. The accommodation here is superb and the golf is every bit as good. Of the two top-notch courses, I slightly preferred the hillier Melana, not only because there are some wonderfully intimate par threes but also because there are several breathtakingly elevated tees. The only downside to Melana is that there’s no option other than to take a buggy.
Set in more than 800 acres of a former palm oil estate, Palm Resort Golf and Country Club goes one better in offering no fewer than three stunning courses. Undoubtedly the best conditioned courses of all those I visited, Allamanda, Cempaka and Melati were in immaculate nick. Allamanda was being prepared for a qualifying round for the Hong Kong Open and is presumably the most challenging of the trio. Whispering streams, pretty bridges, impressive lakes and spectacular flower beds all contributed to the enormous appeal of this wonderful resort that also boasts a remarkably inexpensive 330-room Sofitel.
WHY WE LIKE IT
Although a considerable distance from the USA, the Malayan province of Johor is only a short drive from Singapore. Whilst flights are not cheap, both golf and accommodation are. Consequently, a golfing holiday to this part of the world is a viable option for those looking for an unusual destination, especially as the courses are all comfortably within a short drive of one another. And don’t forget your shorts!