I had heard of a Bangkok course that had replicated some of the great holes of the world on the front nine, and for the back they had just lifted the most famous stretch of holes in golf: the back nine of Augusta. So when my wife and I had to go to Bangkok, I had to play these holes.
Some quick searching came up with “The Dream Arena at Royal Gems Golf City.” The website didn’t offer much more, but there was an email address so I got in contact. Their director of sales quickly replied that while it was a members’ course, they’d be happy to give me a tee time on a “special trial rate” for 4000 baht (about $125) which included green fee, buggy and caddy fee. Renting clubs would be another $45 and a pair of shoes would cost me $15. I took my own shoes, but used their clubs: Nike Machspeed forged in an R flex. Maybe I could have asked for S-flex when I booked, but they really only made a difference with driver and 3 wood. It was too hard to explain once the caddy had arrived with them.
The course was in great condition: All the fairways had a very even coverage of Platinum Paspalum, although there was rarely a flat lie. The greens had been cored a fortnight prior, but still ran pretty true (only one putt was noticeably affected) and fairly quick — but obviously not Sunday-at-the-Masters quick. I should also commend RGGC for letting me know in its first email reply of the coring. How frustrating is it to turn up at a course to find you are playing sand greens? The course is still young: The trees are not the hazards of the original, but watch out in 10 years. I was asked to play the back nine first, so no easing into it — straight to what I was here for!
I have never been to Augusta, but apart from the blue dye in Rae’s Creek and greens that stimp at 14, it seemed to be pretty much all there. In fact, it’s more than all there, because the Eisenhower pine remains on No. 17. Knowing the standard first reaction to Augusta, I was prepared for some big elevation changes and that is also there at Royal Gems. It’s particularly downhill on Nos. 10 and 11 and uphill on No. 18. The finishing hole was also into the wind and had a back pin location, making it a driver and a 3 wood for me.
Now, I know you are a golf junkie if you’re on GolfWRX, but I’m not going through all 40 shots (do you like how I snuck that in there? Pretty happy with that for a once-a-month golfer), but allow me to take you through a couple of my favorite experiences: Nos. 12 and 15. Even in replica, I think I would be happy playing these two holes the rest of my life.
No. 12 (pictured above) was all it’s cracked up to be. Downhill. A fair bit downhill. A fluctuating breeze from right to left, slightly into players. Length: 155 yards. Ten percent off is 140 meters, which is right between an 8 and 9 iron. It was downhill enough to be a 9 iron, but I didn’t want to be in the creek like so many I had seen in 30 years of watching the Masters. But I didn’t want to be in the back bunker, splashing out downhill, downwind to the pin and the creek when the breeze dropped. Definite 9 iron now.
Quick, get up there. No, the breeze is back. Ok, wait for it to drop again (fortunately, I had no one with a stopwatch on me, so not only did I avoid a penalty, I got the caddy to take a photo of me at the top of a dummy swing). Right, the breeze dropped off again. The pin was right, but I aimed for the middle of the green. Middle of the green. Hit. Oh yes, please be the right club. Bang. Middle of the green, right where I was aiming. Piece of cake this hole.
But my caddy was having none of this percentage golf: “Second ball, go for pin!” as she tossed me another pill. “Ok, Toohey, same deal. Hit it straight where you’re aiming.”
Again I made good contact, but there was just a tiny bit of pull/fade, it was just a tiny bit higher, there was just more headwind. “Nooo, in the wat-terr.” She could have at least waited for the splash. Or for the Titleist to reach its apex. But before it had crossed the red tees, she knew. And I kind of did, too. But it started just left of the pin and was sliding gently right, gently right, right at the pin…
We golfers live in hope: “C’mon, be the stick!”
Hey, who really wants to make a hole-in-one with a second ball?
My birdie putt? Not enough borrow (I gave it a foot left on a 12-foot putt) and 3-feet past, but I rapped in the comebacker for a pretty satisfying par.
I had a similar amount of fun on No. 15. I managed to leak my drive just into the rough (or should that be “first cut?”) 200 yards out. Like No. 12, again it was downhill, into the wind and with water at the front. I was hitting off a downhill lie, out of the rough (but sitting OK) and with clubs I didn’t know. I would have loved to hit a 3 iron, but my choices were hybrid 3 or 4 iron. I suspected the hybrid was too much (and I didn’t really like them), but that the 4 would be flirting with the pond. So gripping down the hybrid a little, I ripped it. Straight at the pin. It took one hop on the green, popped up on the fringe and rolled over the back… about 20 yards. Oh man. I’m not Phil so I was not going to try hitting some massive flop into the 10 feet between the pin and collar. But I couldn’t run it too far past because that green runs and runs into the front pond. Anywhere but the pond is good.
Of course I chickened out and bunted it too cautiously into the bank, so it stayed on the top. I very nearly holed the next, but no one cares about nearly so I tap it in and walked off another victim of the intricacies of Dr. Mackenzie. With a big grin, bring on No. 16!
The front nine was nearly as much fun, playing spot the hole: there was the church pews (Oakmont No. 3), a big par-5 around the water (Bay Hill’s par-5 No. 6), Sawgrass No. 17 (pictured below. It doesn’t look quite right because it’s a mirror image!), the Road Hole (sans Hotel), the Postage Stamp and No. 18 at the Blue Monster. It was fun identifying them, and then trying to navigate them.
At the finish of the round, I found a typically elaborate clubhouse for this part of the world with big, soft, fluffy towels, a “press here for service” button in the shower (I didn’t press it, and I didn’t ask) and very reasonable prices for food and drinks in the restaurant while the Masters Par 3 tournament played on multiple TV screens. Since I got home, it has been fun to see the pros play Augusta from similar spots as I had — and I am very glad that the Royal Gems greens are a lot slower!
All in all, it was a very enjoyable day. I will definitely be coming back — next time with a mate or two, my own clubs and we might even try to get a two-day booking!
Branson, Missouri Continues to Evolve as a Golf Destination
If you think you know Branson, Mo., it’s time to think again. While the live music venues that put the bucolic Ozark Mountains town on the map continue to thrive, its reputation as a top notch golf destination has grown … and continues to evolve.
Heck, golfers who’ve visited just a few years ago will find the scene almost unrecognizable. Sure, the awe-inspiring Top of the Rock — designed by legendary Jack Nicklaus and holding the honor of being the first-ever par-3 course to be included in a professional PGA championship — is as striking as ever, but its sister course, Buffalo Ridge, has undergone a metamorphosis.
Designed by renowned architect Tom Fazio and originally opened in 1999, Buffalo Ridge has done the unthinkable – make its list of previous accolades pale in comparison to what now graces the land. In conjunction with owner and visionary conservationist Johnny Morris, Fazio has exposed massive limestone formations, enhanced approaches and added water features to make every hole more memorable than the last.
Jack Nicklaus and Tom Fazio masterpieces not enough? Gary Player has stamped his signature in the Ozarks with the recently opened Mountain Top Course. This 13-hole, walking-only short course is unlike anything you’ve ever played.
Strap your bag to a trolley and let your imagination dictate your round. There are stakes in the ground with yardage markers nearby, but they’re merely suggestions. Play it long or play it short. Play it from different angles. The only mandate is to enjoy the course, nature and camaraderie.
The Mountain Top greens are huge and as smooth as putting on a pool table. Nearly as quick, too. And the bunkers are as pristine as the white sands of an isolated Caribbean beach. Capping off your experience, the finishing hole plays back to the clubhouse and the green boasts multiple hole locations that enhance golfers’ chances at carding an ace. Hard to imagine a better way the end an already unforgettable round.
It shouldn’t take you much longer than two hours to get around Mountain Top Course. If it does, you were likely admiring the stunning panoramas. One notable addition to those views is Tiger Woods’ (TGR Design) first public access design — Payne’s Valley (named to honor Missouri golfing legend Payne Stewart) — which is full speed ahead on construction and scheduled to open in 2019. As a treat, the 19th hole was designed by Morris. Named “The Rock,” it’s a short par-3 that promises to be amazing.
Payne’s Valley will be both family-friendly and challenging. It has wide fairways and ample landing areas along with creative angles and approaches that shotmakers love and expect from a championship course.
If two years is too long to wait for new golf, then Morris and his Big Cedar Lodge have you covered with the yet-to-be-named ridge-top course by the industry’s hottest design team of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw. With all the heavy lifting complete, the Ozarks is scheduled to be unveiled in 2018.
Once opened, this par-71 (36-35) track will play “firm and fast” and offer multiple avenues into each green. Both Coore and Crenshaw bristle at the notion that there’s only one way to approach the playing surface. Bring it in high or run it along the ground. Considering the exposed nature of the course and propensity for high winds, the latter may be your best option.
There’s more. Tiger won’t be finished with Branson when he wraps up Payne’s Valley. He’s also designing a family-friendly par-3 course on the grounds of Big Cedar Lodge. There isn’t a date attached to this project, so stay tuned.
These new tracks join the likes of Thousand Hills, Branson Hills and Pointe Royale Golf Village to make Branson a powerful player on the golf destination scene. Combine that with world-class fishing and camping, as well as countless museums, restaurants and points of interest and this bustling Ozarks town is a must-visit spot in Middle America.
Learn more or plan your trip at explorebranson.com.
Ari’s Course Reviews: Oakmont Country Club
Editor’s Note: Ari Techner is a well-traveled, golf-course connoisseur who’s setting out to review the best golf courses in the world. The views and opinions expressed in these reviews are his own.
Oakmont Country Club. The name alone strikes fear into the heart of any mortal golfer. Oakmont has a reputation for difficulty unmatched in the golf world; it’s fear forged in the public’s eye while watching best players in the world struggle during the U.S. Open every 10-plus years or so. There is a notion that Oakmont could hold a U.S. Open just about any day of the year. This is not a course that needs to be tweaked from its daily setup to test the best in the world.
All that said, a close look at the course reveals that there is so much more to Oakmont than just difficulty. Since around 1950, MANY courses have been built with the dilebrate intention of holding a U.S. Open. Most, if not all, of these courses are filled with water hazards, extremely long holes and very little variety. Oakmont is the exact opposite of that, and this is what is at the core of its greatness.
Oakmont Country Club first opened in 1903 and was designed by Henry Fownes, who built it because he felt the other courses around Pittsburgh were not difficult enough. The course was constantly tweaked in the early years by Fownes and his son William. Both Fownes were accomplished players with William winning the U.S. Amateur in 1910 and serving as the playing captain of the first U.S. Walker Cup team in 1922.
Trees, or no trees?
The course was extremely influential in the development of early golf courses in America. It was equally influential in future years by setting trends that have changed the way many other courses have evolved. When Oakmont opened, it was built in an open field and had no trees on the course, adding to the links-like flavor that Fownes wanted from his visits overseas. In the 1950s (after all the Fownes had left the club) Oakmont added thousands of non-native trees to line the corridors of the holes, a look that was a heavy trend of the time. This work was mostly done by Robert Trent Jones, who also modified the bunkers to fit more of his style of the time.
The course continued to evolve over the years with the bunkers being restored by Tom Fazio… but the trees remained. In preparation for the 2008 U.S. Open, Oakmont cut down thousands of trees, returning the course to its open, windswept origins. This was very controversial among the members, and much of the work was done in the middle of the night in the off-season so as not to cause a big stir. After 2008, thousands more trees have been cut down, opening all of the amazing long views across the property. You can see almost every hole on the property from just about every spot on the course. Oakmont was the first course to embrace this massive tree removal and it has turned into a trend with hundreds of classic courses removing their non-native trees and going back to their more open original layouts.
Oakmont is the only course that Fownes designed and I believe that contributes greatly to its uniqueness. Fownes’ version of difficulty did not include artificial water hazards, out of bounds or excessive bunkering fronting greens, and it did not rely simply on longer-than-average holes to challenge the golfer. Instead, it has an amazingly varied mix of holes that challenge the golfer in a variety of ways both mentally and physically. Overall, the course requires you to be a straight driver of the ball, a good iron player and to have a deft short game and putting touch. You also need to be able to think your way around the course while you execute the shots you choose at a high level.
A good variety
Oakmont has its share of length with long par 4s, such as hole Nos. 1, 10, 15 and 18, the monster par-5 12th and long par 3s such as Nos. 8 and 16. What sets the course apart to me, however, are the short holes and the holes that require strategic decision-making off the tee. These include short par 4s such Nos. 2, 11 and 17 and mid-length par 4s including Nos. 5 and 14. These holes can be just as difficult as the long ones, and they require a completely different skill set. The short par-3 13th and short par-5 9th (plays as a par 4 for the U.S. Open) round out what is an amazing set of shorter holes.
The course uses the natural movement of the site very well and has a tight, extremely walkable routing despite being bisected by the Pennsylvania Turnpike at the bottom of the hill in the middle of the property. I particularly love the fallaway greens at 1, 10, 12, and to a lesser degree 3 and 15 where the front of the green is higher than the back. This is a unique look that you do not see in the USA very often. Without the little backboard that a back-to-front sloping green provides, you must hit the ball solid or execute a well played run-up shot to hold the green. The short par 4s tempt the long hitter just enough to make them think about hitting driver, but wayward shots are punished enough to make most think twice. The 17th, at a little under 300 yards, could be the hardest hole on the course, and yet it is definitely drivable for the right player who hits a great drive. The small and extremely narrow green requires a short shot be hit the perfect distance if you decide to lay up to the right down the fairway. Hit it even a little short and you end up in the aptly named “Big Mouth” bunker which is extremely deep. Hit it a hair long or with not enough spin to hold the green and you end up rolling over the green into one of a few smaller bunkers. Carry the bunkers on the left side off the tee into the sliver of fairway up by the green and you have a short, open shot from a much better angle into the fatter part of the green. Such risk/reward and great use of angles is paramount to Oakmont’s genius.
Green complexes are…complex
Oakmont also sports one of the best sets of greens anywhere in the world. They are all heavily contoured and very challenging, yet playable. You can certainly make putts out there if you are putting well, but get on the wrong side of the hole and you are left with an extremely difficult, but rarely impossible 2 putt. They are also very unique due to Fownes only designing one course, as they do not look like any other classic course; they have a feel all their own. They are mostly open in front, coming from the correct angle, and they have many squarish edges. They also cut the tight fringe far back into the fairway, which aids in run-up shots; it also gives a great look where the green and the fairway blend together seamlessly.
The bunkering is also very unique and very special… and they are true hazards. Find yourself in a fairway bunker off the tee, and you are likely wedging out without much of any chance of reaching the greens. The green-side bunkers are fearsome, very deep and difficult. The construction of the bunkers is unique too — most of them have very steep and tall faces that were built up in the line of play. Oakmont is also home to one of the most famous bunkers in golf; the “Church Pews” bunkers — a large, long rectangular bunker between the fairways of holes 3 and 4 with strips of grass in the middle like the pews in a church. There is also a smaller “Church Pews” bunker left of the fairway off the tee on hole 15. Hit it into one of these two bunkers and good luck finding a decent lie.
Ari’s last word
All-in-all, along with being one of the hardest courses in the world, Oakmont is also one of the best courses in the world. It is hard enough to challenge even the best players in the world day-in and day-out, but it can easily be played by a 15-handicap without losing a ball. It is extremely unique and varied and requires you to use every club in your bag along with your brain to be successful. Add that to a club that has as much history as any other in the county, and Oakmont is one of golf’s incredibly special places.
Coming Up: A Big Golf Adventure
My name is Jacob Sjöman, and I’m a 35-year-old golf photographer who also enjoys the game we all love. I will be sharing some experiences here on a big golf trip that we are doing. With me I’ve got my friend Johan. I will introduce him properly later, but he is quite a funny character. According to Johan, he is the best golf photo assistant in the world, and we will see about that since this is probably his biggest test yet doing this trip. Previously on our trips, Johan almost got us killed in Dubai with a lack of driving skills. He also missed a recent evening photo shoot in Bulgaria while having a few beers too many… and that’s not all.
Anyway, the last couple of days I’ve been packing my bags over and over. I came home from the Canary Islands this Sunday and I’ve been constantly checking and rechecking that we’ve got all the required equipment, batteries, and that the cameras are 100 percent functional and good to go for this golf trip. I’m still not sure, but in a couple of minutes I will be sitting in a taxi to the airport and there will be no turning back.
Where are we going then? We are going to visit some of the very best golf courses in New Zealand and Australia. There will be breathtaking golf on cliffsides, jaw-dropping scenic courses, and some hidden gems. And probably a big amount of lost balls with a lot of material produced in the end.
I couldn’t be more excited for a golf journey like this one. Flying around the globe to these special golf courses I’ve only dreamed about visiting before gives me a big kick and I feel almost feel like a Indiana Jones. The only thing we’ve got in common, though, is that we don’t like snakes. Australia seems to be one of the worst destinations to visit in that purpose, but all the upsides are massive in this.
First, we will take off from a cold Stockholm (it’s raining heavily outside at the moment) and then we will do our first stop at Doha in Quatar. Then after two more hours, we are finally heading off to Auckland on the north island of New Zealand, a mega-flight of 16 hours. I believe that could very well be one of the longest flights available for a ordinary airplane. I need to check that.
Flights for me usually mean work, editing photos from different golf courses I’ve visited, writing some texts, editing some films, and planning for the future. Last time, though, I finally managed to sleep a little, which is a welcome progress for a guy that was deadly scared of flying until 2008.
Now, I am perfectly fine with flying. A few rocky flights over the Atlantic Sea to Detroit helped me a lot, and my motto is now, “If those flights got me down on the ground safely, it takes a lot of failures to bring down a plane.”
Anyway, I hope you will join me on this golf trip. Stay tuned!
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