By: Dave Silbar
Strolling down a tight, palm-tree-lined fairway, shoulder to shoulder with a young woman, who could pass as a runway model, may seem like a dream scenario.
However, this scene is how golf is played in the Philippines. The model is actually my caddie, and she is part of the pampered experience that Manila’s Valley Golf and Country Club offers. It’s my fifth different course in as many days, and, as I look back, this particular round served as a culmination of everything I’ve experienced during my golf journey to the Philippines.
Standing on the tee of yet another beautiful, ultra-tropical hole at Valley Golf, my caddie is now multitasking—that is, holding the umbrella to protect me from the 90-degree heat while using her other hand to create a breeze on my back with a pink polka-dotted Japanese fan.
After making the 10-foot putt for par, thanks to the keen read by my caddie and now friend I come to the following realization: it really is ‘More Fun in the Philippines,’ as my hosts with the Association of Inbound Golf and Tourism have been touting all week.
A five-day trip last October to a country which lays claim to some of the best beaches in the world, delicious cuisine and some of the friendliest people in the world, now also delivers great golf!
You’ll find that the Philippines can be a worthy off-the-beaten-path golf destination, although getting there is a journey in itself. The Philippines are 13 hours ahead of us in North America, so plan to lose a day when departing and gain a day upon your return. Fly Japan Airlines or Cathay Pacific and you’ll quickly realize why they are among the best in the business; both airlines present food and services worthy of any AAA Five Diamond Resort, even in economy class.
Golf in the Philippines is reserved for the wealthy. Most clubs are either 100% private or semi-private, although accessible for tourists with a phone call, or booking through a tour operator.
My week in paradise consisted of six courses in six days and not one of the courses disappointed me. I was challenged at each layout, and I felt undeserving of the overwhelming hospitality that was extended to each golfer. It is customary at most Asian courses for you to have a female caddie, they tend to be between the ages of 20 and 50, and wear bright-colored uniforms and have warm, friendly smiles. An average caddy tip is 500 Philippine pesos (about $11), but a $20 U.S. bill will be greeted with much delight and appreciation from these hard-working women. Treat them nice and by end of the day, you’ll have made a new friend in the faraway land.
A caddie’s life outside the course is anything but easy, so when you can give them an extra gift such as chocolates, a brand new Pro V1, or in my case, a small cooler bag to hold a bottle of water or Gatorade, their appreciation is genuine. My caddie at Valley Golf was a 28-year-old single mother living with her parents and two young children. She wakes at 4:00 am five days a week and travels an hour and a half each way on sardine-packed public transportation to the course.
The Philippines is not on the list of the Ten Most-Visited Asian countries, a list dominated by China, Malaysia, Thailand, South Korea, and Singapore. As tourists fall hard for the charms of mainland Asia, the Philippines is trying to catch more overseas eyes with its long time, aforementioned “It’s More Fun in the Philippines” campaign. It’s also chasing golf tourism, with its golf clubs, tour companies, and hotel chains working together in that pursuit.
My first round was at South Forbes Golf City, a short, mountainous course about 90 minutes south of Manila. Our host and the director of golf, Eugene Dimaano, was quick to offer a free shirt to anyone who didn’t lose a golf ball, as the last time that happened was seven years ago. From the get-go, it wasn’t hard to figure out why. The elevation changes on South Forbes are akin to a rollercoaster, with tight winding fairways and five straight par 3s that complete Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, which is what locals call the front nine.
If there is one star that steals the show, it’s the Fairways and Bluewater Resort and Golf Club located on the island of Boracay. A 45-minute plane flight from Manila, this could be an ideal place to spend your entire vacation. With its white sand beaches and clear blue waters, Boracay was voted the “world’s best island” by Travel + Leisure magazine in 2012, ahead of Bali, Galapagos, and Maui. As solid as any AAA Four Diamond resort in the U.S., Fairways and Bluewater is far and away the nicest resort on an island known worldwide. With numerous activities offered inside this gated resort community, it lays claim to the island’s only golf course, and it is spectacular. Major elevation changes, sweeping island and ocean views, waterfalls and pristine lakes, this is one course that seems to have it all. Even a downpour on the first hole did not come without a memory as my new friend from Malaysia and I waited out the storm from behind a waterfall that was behind the first green.
Another of the week’s biggest standouts was Mount Malarayat. The challenging 27-hole championship layout offers magnificent mountainous scenery on every hole and was designed by the California-based J. Michael Poellet Design Group. The par-5, seventh hole has a spot as one of the top 500 golf holes in the world by Golf magazine, while Asian Golf magazine named Mount Malarayat the best course in the Philippinesin 2009. Severe, multi-tiered greens are a major feature of the Mount Malarayat golf course. These are double and triple tiers. Sometimes the tiers work sideways rather than head on. No. 7 on the Makulot course is among the country’s most famed holes, featuring a downhill drive to a well-bunkered fairway that tilts left to right. Once you round the gentle corner framed by brown rushes, an impressive lake and green complex come into view.
Overall, golf in the Philippines is a treat—a virtual oasis of calm. The clubhouses are large and ornate, with palatial facilities, attentive staff, and terrific 19th hole atmospheres. Beautifully designed by some of the world’s finest golf architects, the courses were both fair and challenging, with reasonable green fees—the most expensive was around $120 U.S. One of the most outstanding is Mount Malarayat, just $63 for a weekday tourist and optional cart less than $30.
After experiencing all things golf in the Philippines, I want to conquer more golf in this hemisphere and of courses you can never get enough of truly authentic Filipino food!
Needless to say, my fond memories of golf in the Philippines was beyond ‘fun’ and closer to a life-defining experience for this dyed-in-the-wool travelling golfer.