By Philip Hall
The idea of “mountain golf” has long held widespread appeal for what it enables: long vistas, dramatic elevation changes from tee to green, and cooler temperatures (especially in equatorial regions). It’s more accurate, however, to think of “mountains”, in the plural, for they rarely rise alone above the broader landscape. Typical they form a chain or range, and golf courses naturally find their homes in the resulting seam and valleys, surrounded by multiple peaks.
Yet “mountain golf” in Indonesia means something vastly different. The most imposing peaks are volcanic and, accordingly, they do stand alone as ever-present monoliths on the tropical horizon. What’s more, in Java and Bali, they have for many centuries occupied an equally dominant place in the local culture and mythology.
The golfing choices on both islands are almost impossibly rich, but “mountain golf” here means more than playing beside active volcanoes, some of which spew smoke 300 days a year.
It means playing under the watchful eyes of the gods.
Nowhere is this divine gaze more prominent than in Yogyakarta, the cultural heart of Java and home to two excellent courses — Borobudur International Golf & Country Club and Merapi Golf Club — both of which play in the ever-present shadow of Mt. Merapi.
There are many myths and beliefs attached to Merapi, but locals believe an ancient spirit kingdom lies beneath it, ruled by Empu Rama and Empu Permadi, two figures purposely buried when they ignored the gods’ divine intention to place the mountain there (Merapi means “fire of Rama and Permadi”). This subterranean kingdom includes a palace (or kraton) populated by the spirits of ancestors who died as righteous people. The spirits of these ancestors occasionally visit their descendants in dreams to provide prophecies or warnings.
This is a channel to consider when pulling a club at Merapi GC’s gorgeous, 153-meter 4th, where the putting surface sits above the tee as a line of cross-bunkers extends from greenside, across the fairway, nearly back to the teeing ground. With Mt. Merapi as backdrop, the optical illusion — a canny creation of Australian designers Thomson, Wolveridge & Perret — is complete. In other words, club selection might benefit from a bit of prophecy. Short of that, consult your caddie.
The towering Merapi is similarly inescapable at Borobudur International, a sporty 18 just 12 km from the ancient Hindu temple that inspired its name. But the divine is even closer than that. Mt. Tidar — so called, though it’s little more than a hill — abuts several holes here, and according to Javanese legend, Tidar is thought to be the island’s epicentre, the place where the gods “nailed” Java to the earth to prevent it from shaking during volcanic eruptions and slipping into the sea.
Indonesia is a large country, comprising 17,000 islands, and while Java is the second largest (and most populous), it remains a patchwork of distinct cultures. Further down the Archipelago, in East Java, different mountains and varied set of mythologies hold sway. The two must-play courses in this region appropriately lie in the shadow of Arjuno-Welirang, the “twin” peaks (the technical term is stratovolcano) that dominate the landscape south of Surabaya, the capital of East Java and Indonesia’s second largest city.
Arjuno is the Javanese rendition of Arjuna, a hero of the Indian epic Mahabharata (Welirang is Javanese word for sulphur). Fittingly, Arjuna is the mascot for Golf Wonderful Indonesia, a cooperative of courses, hotels and tour operators best equipped to reveal all the golf and cultural bounty this country has to offer. (See more info and package details at www.golfwonderfulindonesia.com
At Finna G&CC in Prigen, south of Surabaya, the architects at Thomson, Wolveridge & Perret created another absorbing, tournament-ready 18 whose broad, natural contours are accented by a collection of features not ordinarily scene on the same golf course: British-style pot bunkers, stands of lemongrass, terraces of rice paddies, tropical water features and the odd stone monolith. The spectacular par-3 12th manages to incorporate all of these on a single, thrilling hole. Naturally, Mt. Welirang serves as immediate backdrop to the entire tableau.
At nearby Taman Dayu, Jack Nicklaus tried his hand at shaping the Javanese foothills, and he succeeded brilliantly, in a completely distinct fashion. The opening holes plunge downhill, a thrilling run culminating at the magnificent par-4 5th, which plays to a double fairway before tacking right around a natural ravine occupied by rice terraces.
The closing holes at Taman Dayu — a pair of stunners where final approaches must negotiate the same rushing stream — are clearly man-made. At Finna, the effect is more natural and rugged. Either way, these are two of the best resort golf venues in all of Southeast Asia. Indeed both clubs offer magnificent on-site accommodations, a range of luxury villas and cottages to suit groups of any size.
Surabaya is known as the jumping off point to East Java’s wondrous natural attractions, including Alas Purwo National Park (Javanese legend says the Earth first emerged from the ocean here; the park’s name means “First Forest”), and the incomparable Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park, one of the great hiking and trekking destinations in all of Southeast Asia.
Yet Surabaya’s location also places it a mere stone’s throw from the island of Bali, and no discussion of mountains and gods (and golf) is complete without mention of the so-called Island of the Gods.
As we’ve learned, Indonesia owes much of its folk mythology to Hinduism, the dominant cultural and religious force on the Archipelago up until the 13th century, when Islam slowly forced Hindu culture further east. That influence ultimately stopped at the eastern shore of Java, which explains why Bali is home to much of Indonesia’s Hindu minority, not to mention sacred mountains and superb golf all its own.
Rising more than 3,000 meters above Bali’s northeastern beaches, Mount Agung (another stratovolcano) is the highest point on the island, dominating its northern horizon and mythology. The Balinese believe Mount Agung is a replica of Mount Meru, the central axis of the universe. One legend holds that the mountain is a fragment of Meru brought to Bali by the first Hindu immigrants. Though it sits nearly 100 km from island’s bustling tourist centers, Agung is never out of sight and (for the culturally astute) never out of mind.
Only at New Kuta GC do the mountain gods fade from view, yet only because this Golfplan design, opened in 2009, occupies a swath of coastline on Jimbaran Bay, which faces south. From the cliffs that form the boundaries of several extraordinary holes on the back nine, one looks out on the Indian Ocean, away from Mt. Agung, and down to the beach where surfers attempt to tame some of the most righteous waves on Earth.
At Greg Norman’s Nirwana Bali GC — part of the Pan Pacific Nirwana Bali resort — the vibe is restored. With half a dozen seaside holes and a dozen more artfully carved from the lush interior, this is one of the Aussie’s finest design efforts to date. Yet there are 13 Hindu temples located out and about on this diverse routing, and just off the cliff-to-cliff, 185-yard, par-3 7th sits the oft-photographed island temple at Tanah Lot. It’s right there, just offshore, perched on its own rocky cliff. Each evening at sunset, the devout wade across the shallow surf in the hundreds amid a faintly orange, billowing cloud of incense.
When golfing in Indonesia, the divine is never far away.
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