Although wallowing on a hot slab in a steamy room may do nothing for my short game, I can at least now add taking a Turkish bath in Turkey to my list of appropriate achievements, which presently includes eating a frankfurter in Frankfurt and having a hamburger in Hamburg.
Finding a Turkish bath in Turkey was predictable, but to come across a whole host of top quality golf courses in the southwest corner of the country was something of a surprise. Clearly ancient ruins, spectacular waterfalls, historic towns, majestic mountains, interesting cuisine and an extraordinarily benign climate aren’t enough in themselves to attract today’s discerning tourist. To compete effectively with all the other appealing destinations it’s absolutely essential even for the very cradle of civilisation to offer golf as well, not least because we golfers, with our high disposable incomes and frightfully good manners, make attractive tourists who are happy to holiday in what would otherwise be regarded as low season.
Belek is the town that finds itself at the heart of Turkey’s golf boom. Twenty years ago it didn’t even have a pitch and putt. Now it has a string of so-called championship courses and many more in the planning stage. With 300 days of sunshine a year and a thin sweater only required on occasional mornings between December and March, it’s not hard to see what makes it so well suited to golf.
Just three-quarters of an hour from Antalya International Airport, it’s right on the Mediterranean coast where dozens of five-star hotels are already catering for conventional sun-seeking tourists on a stretch of coastline that has been dubbed the Turkish Riviera.
The courses conveniently occupy the land that lies right behind the hotels. Carved out of the pine and eucalyptus forests, they are, for the most part, gently undulating with tree-lined fairways and a fair sprinkling of water hazards. What perhaps is most remarkable about them is the speed with which they have been built. It typically takes nine months from the moment the first excavator fires up its engine until the opening tee shot is struck. Construction generally begins early in the New Year so the course being built is ready for the autumn.
Having opened in 2002, Antalya Golf Club is comparatively old and well established. It has two courses, the Pasha and the slightly newer Sultan, both of which were designed by that affable Irish former tour pro, David Jones. Nice guy though he undoubtedly is, he’s sited the opening hole on the Sultan right next to a lake. Although the required carry is remarkably modest, it’s an early shock to the system and a foretaste of things to come.
Altogether there are about a dozen water hazards on the Sultan, they are not located so as to frighten the more accomplished player, although they may well cause some anxiety among higher handicappers. Frankly, I had more trouble trying to remember the words to the 60s hit “The Sultan of Swing” than I did keeping my ball dry.
The greens were perfectly true and in excellent shape, while the course overall was both fair and fun. Easy to walk, not too long and with glorious views towards the snow-capped Taurus Mountains from every hole and a glimpse of the Mediterranean from the fifth, it was a lovely way to begin the trip.
Somewhat easier, is the neighbouring Pasha course. About 600 yards shorter and considerably more open, inviting and unthreatening, it had the feel of a female course, which I trust doesn’t sound too patronising. Don’t misunderstand me, it was no stroll in the park as there were plenty of problems, not least of which were the numerous bunkers. But it’s a course where, refreshingly, length off the tee isn’t a prerequisite to a good score. It clearly is a very popular course – with both men and women – and was comfortably busy on the day I was there.
Precisely what that extra something is which separates an outstanding course from simply good courses is hard to define, but we recognise it when we see it. And you’ll certainly see it if you play the National Golf Club. Again David Jones had a hand in the design, as did his compatriot David Feherty. Together the Ulstermen have produced a simply exhilarating course which exudes class and quality.
You can talk about the wide variety of shots that you will be required to play, mention the memorable holes such as the 2nd, which is a passable imitation of the 17th at Florida’s TPC at Sawgrass, and talk about the great greens and top-class condition the course is in. But, at the end of the round, you would struggle to explain what it is exactly that makes the National the best course in Belek. The holes are all nicely separated and distinctive, the significant elevation changes certainly help and there are loads of nice details such as little wicker cups by the tees into which you should put your broken tee pegs, but all that doesn’t entirely explain why the course feels so classy. However, to restore some balance, the opening four holes are rather tough and consequently the pace of play can be slow at the start of the round. Be patient because it will pick up and the wait is well worth it.
Carved out of the coniferous forests, the Championship course at Gloria is, as one might expect, quite glorious. As an example of the speed with which things happen here, the course was opened in 1997 and played host to the Turkish Open on the European Seniors Tour the very next year. Like the other courses around it, Gloria’s not short of water and there are seven sizeable lakes to negotiate. Although not entirely straightforward in that there are plenty of hazards, the Championship course is an honest one where the dangers and problems are clearly set before you on the tee. Another nine holes were recently added to create the Verde course, which is marginally easier but equally enjoyable.
WHY WE LIKE IT
Belek’s considerable appeal is already attracting golfers from right across Europe, especially from the UK, Scandinavia, Holland and Germany. It’s blessed with pretty well everything you want in a golf destination and is mercifully inexpensive. So if you don’t have too much this Christmas, why not try a little Turkey in the New Year?