WHILE a round of golf at any of Singapore's premier country clubs is an undeniably appealing prospect for even the most discerning member of the golfing fraternity, there's still an occasional urge to rustle up a few buddies, pack the clubs and a small suitcase and jump into a car, on to a ferry or aboard a plane to head for a totally different golfing experience, just a (relatively speaking, anyway) stone's throw from here.
This part of the world is teeming with first-class golf experiences, but there are just a handful of courses that Singapore golfers return to, as BT discovered when polling some avid travelling golfers. The Greg Norman designed and IMG-managed Nirwana Bali Golf Club is high on the list, thanks to its scenic natural beauty and imaginative layout. The 214-yard par-3 seventh, for example, scores as one of the most dramatic holes, requiring a strong iron to enable the ball to travel from a cliff top, across a patch of ocean and on to the green. Top-notch facilities include a club house and a range of luxurious accommodation.
Singapore-based businessman YS Nam is an ardent fan of Nirwana, which he says is on a par with the Gary Player-designed course at Ria Bintan, probably the consensus choice among day-trippers.
'The difference is that with Nirwana you get very close to the locals,' he says. 'There are rice paddies, farmers working, scarecrows - it has such great natural beauty.'
Mr Nam, who also plays The Vines (Perth) and Blue Canyon (Phuket), meets up with a golfing group several times a year to play in Singapore or Ria Bintan. 'We have a golf group called Green Tee (green' meaning something good for charity and tee' for golf tee), and when we play golf, we contribute to a number of charity organisations,' he says.
Whenever he plays Ria Bintan, he marvels at the beauty of its Ocean course and its well-maintained greens and appreciates the way that it is just a short ferry ride away.
Although women golfers are not averse to all-girl golf excursions, 'husbands are welcome to tag along if they like', says Jeanette Sim, Tanah Merah Country Club's lady captain, when referring to her frequent trips (twice or three times a year) to Kunming's Spring City Golf & Lake Resort with a group of friends. 'I really enjoy playing there because the weather is fantastic, and one can go anytime of the year, even though occasionally it can snow. Also, both golf courses there are very good and well maintained.'
Spring City general manager Arthur Yeo says the number of Singaporean visitors has increased by 10-20 per cent over the past two years. Apart from the agreeable weather, he believes that the 'Bent' grass used on the course is another draw. 'The greens become very fast, and this type of grass is ideal for golfers,' he says.
Spring City is located on the banks of the Yang Zong Hai Lake and comprises two 18-hole courses, designed by Jack Nicklaus and Robert Trent Jones Jr. It opened in 1997 and has been listed by US Golf Digest as the top course in China, among other awards won.
Esther Duley, an executive with Standard Chartered Bank, is another professional businesswoman who likes to get together with a few friends several times a year for a social round overseas. 'While I really enjoy playing at The Vines because it's a great walking course, my favourite for convenience,proximity and beauty is Ria Bintan,' she says.
The Vines is set in magnificent bushland in Western Australia's Swan Valley and it comes with two 18-hole courses and a range of resort facilities. Ms Duley is not alone in her high estimation of Ria Bintan - it is one of Golf Digest's Top 100 Courses, and has also received Best Golf Course in Asia and Indonesia awards. Other golfers who spoke with BT were unanimous in their high rating of the club, which seems to be a top destination for golf without the requirement of an overnight stay.
Financial adviser Wong Kwan Nga visits the club a few times a year to stoke the competitive fires among his regular group. Each time, they play a friendly but still competitive tournament among themselves, making a day of it by catching the first ferry there and the last ferry back. He plays the 27 holes which make up the Forest and Ocean courses.
'The holes are really scenic and the course condition is better than Phuket's Blue Canyon and Nirwana Bali - I think Ria Bintan is the best course in South-east Asia.' Mr Wong says the response for playing friendlies in Singapore is not always as good. 'We therefore tend to play in Bintan, and while it's a long day, everyone thoroughly enjoys it.'
Eugene Park, a businessman with a handicap of 18, is a member of the same golfing group. 'It's a lot of fun to play new courses and really bond with the other players,' he says. 'Sometimes, if we play in Singapore, it's hard to get the guys to go out for a drink afterwards,' he says. 'I've played Ria Bintan, Nirwana Bali and Spring City - the latter is really nice, the design is good and the weather and course maintenance are fantastic. But my favourite would have to be Ria Bintan - not that many people realise there's a course of that quality so close to Singapore.'
PrimeTime, an association for business and professional women, has been holding monthly golf games in Singapore but plans to start playing every three months in Johor's Palm Resort and Ria Bintan in the new year. Lucy Simonsen,co-chair of the golf committee, believes it's a good thing to play further afield. 'It's a nice change, as playing in Singapore can be a bit limited.'
Ria Bintan golf manager Harris Abdullah says golfing traffic has been up over the past couple of years, especially from corporate groups based in Singapore. 'The number of lady golfers has also risen, especially on weekends,'he says. 'There are a number of reasons why our club is so popular with Singaporeans: the unique layout of the course, its natural beauty, and the fact that we provide the service, from arranging the bookings for our customers through to picking up both them and their golf bags at Bintan, to the service in our club house.'
Singapore-based C&E Holidays organises around 100 golf trips a year to 25destinations around the region and beyond. Golf tour manager Sazali Bava says the number of Singaporeans travelling to play golf has jumped by up to 50 percent. 'More Singaporeans are playing golf outside Singapore because it is quite expensive here,' he says. 'They like to travel regionally in a group of friends to top destinations like Mission Hills (Shenzhen), Kunming, Thailand and Bali -it's all at our doorstep.'