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Golf In The Land Below The Wind

Golf In The Land Below The Wind

Paul Myers

July 19th, 2013


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Any place once known as “The land below the wind” must surely appeal as a golf destination, especially if it’s in a coastal environment. Wind, after all, can cause big problems for a small white ball in flight – as anyone who has played oceanside courses like New South Wales, Barnbougle Dunes or The National will attest.

But that’s not all. Throw in pristine jungle, the tallest mountain in South-East Asia, wildlife reserves, an eclectic mix of cultures, a rich colonial history, affordability, a moderate tropical climate and some wonderful golf resorts and you’ve got a perfect golf tourism destination.

This is Sabah, Malaysia’s most eastern state on the northern tip of the island of Borneo.

But before praising Sabah’s golf virtues, let’s set things straight about the wind: Sabah does have wind in the form of (usually) pleasant cooling coastal breezes. What it doesn’t have, and what its former epithet implies, are typhoons that regularly batter the coastlines of destinations to Borneo’s north-east, usually in February/March and September/October.

Sabah’s capital, Kota Kinabalu – where Australia’s Finance Minister, Penny Wong, was born and spent her first eight years – is what many residents of major metropolises might describe as the perfect entry point for a golf holiday. Such as it is, the “city of KK has less than half a million residents, is only 10 minutes from the airport, sits handsomely beside the turquoise waters of the South China Sea and has a championship golf course on its doorstep.

What more do you want? Well, try another beautiful golf resort course along the coast just 45 minutes away, complete with an on-site orang-utan wildlife sanctuary that, in itself, provides a totally unique experience.

Located closer to the Philippines than the Malay peninsular, Sabah is a potpourri of cultures and religions. Its three million inhabitants comprise 32 ethnic groups that live in peaceful harmony. Almost a third of the population is Filipino or Indonesian and 10 percent are of Chinese origin.

Formerly known as British North Borneo, Sabah and much larger neighbouring Sarawak are Malaysia’s two most eastern states on Borneo. They joined the Malay federation after North Borneo achieved independence from Britain in 1963.

Sabah’s two premier golf courses are, respectively, part of Sutera Harbour Resort and Shangri-La Rasa Ria Resort.

Recognising their potential to substantially increase international golf tourism, the resorts have put aside competitive differences to form a destination-marketing program called Sabah Golf (www.sabah-golf.com).

Sabah Golf showcases some of the most friendly, accessible and enjoyable golf in South East Asia, which means that Sabah may not be flying under the golf tourism radar much longer.

The two courses hosted the World Amateur Inter-Team Golf Championship in 2012, at the same time as a group of 25 tour operators from Europe, Australia and other markets were visiting the properties before the International Association of Golf Tourism Operators inaugural convention in South East Asia, held in Malaysia’s capital vity, Kuala Lumpur.

Their verdict? A big thumbs-up for Sabah as a legitimate golf tourism destination. As any tour operator will attest, most golf tourists are looking for something different and Sabah certainly fits this bill.

Fred Sparksman, who operates Golf & Gourmet tours from his base on the NSW mid-north Coast, describes Sabah as one of the hidden gems of Asia. “It’s laid-back, ideal for families with high quality resorts and wonderful scenery,” he says.

“The golf is great, but what is also appealing about Sabah is the nature,” adds German tour operator, Manfred Rauno. “Sabah isn’t well known, but when people learn about its wonderful flora, fauna and natural attractions – as well as the golf – I am sure they will want to come.”

Sutera Harbour, a large complex that, as its name implies, nestles on its own mini harbour on the edge of Kota Kinabalu, boasts 27 holes of championship golf designed by former Australian tour pro, Graham Marsh.

Host of the One Asia qualifying school final in February 2013, as well as one of the stages of the Q School in 2012, Sutera Harbour’s golf credentials are considerable. Split into three nines – Garden, Lakes and Heritage – every hole plays within sight of the sea, the city or the resort hotels. Despite a relatively flat layout, Marsh’s clever use of mounds and bunkering ­– combined with man-made water – makes it an interesting and enjoyable test of golf. Coconut palms present a visual differentiation between holes and frequent views across the South China Sea to the Manukan Islands inject a scenic element to the complex.

Sutera Harbour also has the only night golf in East Malaysia, providing a pleasant outlet during the mild evenings that characterise this part of the tropics and, if you’re willing, enabling 17 hours of golf to be played each day!

Among the best holes are the short par-4, 24th hole on the Garden layout that plays right beside the water and has a precariously placed green. Miss it to the left and you’re dead; play right and you’ll have an awkward chip to the pin.

Green fees for 18 holes for hotel guests are MYR250 (approx. $A85) weekdays and MYR330 (approx. $A112) at weekends.

Shangri-La Rasa Ria Resort is home to Dalit Bay Golf Club, situated at the entrance to the property. This beautiful water and woodlands course rests in the shadow of the 4095 metre-Mt Kinabalu, the highest mountain in South East Asia.

Set within the 160-hectare resort that nudges the South China Sea at Pantai Dalit beach, the golf course was designed by another Australian, Ted Parslow. Bordered by the Tambalang and Mangkabong rivers with stunning vistas to Mt Kinabalu in the distance, it offers a classic wetland golf experience with water on every hole.

The course can be easily walked, or golfers may take carts if they wish. The mountain scenery provides a perfect backdrop for an enjoyable round at any time of year.

The signature hole, the par-3 11th, plays across the mouth of the Tambalang River, right beside the South China Sea. Like every hole on the course, a precise shot is needed to avoid a wet result.

The green fee for 18 holes is MYR320 a person (approx. $A108) including buggy and insurance) and MYR260 (approx. $A88) for nine holes.

A special highlight of the Shangri-La Rasa Ria Resort is its nature reserve, established in 1996 in collaboration with the State Wildlife Department of Sabah. The reserve protects endangered species of fauna in Sabah and species that that are endemic to the region.

Here visitors can see at first hand how orang-utans and other species are being protected from human intervention. Typically, young orang-utans are brought into the reserve where they are fed and nurtured until able to fend for themselves, when they are released back into their natural habitat.


Stay & Play Packages

Sutera Harbour Resort: from MYR 680/room/night (approx. $A630) for two people, based on minimum three-night stay with buffet breakfasts, two rounds of golf each and spa treatment.

Shangri-La Rasa Ria Resort: from MYR 1195/room/night (approx. $A405) for two people, based on minimum three-night stay, two rounds of golf each and return airport transfers.


Getting There/What to Do

Malaysia Airlines and AirAsia fly direct to Kota Kinabalu from Kuala Lumpur. Air Asia flies direct from Singapore, Hong Kong and Jakarta and major cities in Malaysia.

Dragonair and Malaysia airlines fly direct from Hong Kong, while Silkair flies direct from Singapore.

As well as golf, among Sabah’s other highlights are a visit to Kinabalu Park, which in 2000 became Sabah’s first World Heritage site, and to Mt Kinabalu itself; a steam train trip on the 58-kilometrre North Borneo Railway, which first operated in 1914; and a short boat trip from Sutera Harbour Resort to Manukan Island, the second largest island in the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine National Park.


For more information, visit www.sabah-golf.com

Sabah - Sutera Hbr

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