Java Tees Among paddies and volcanoes, great golf courses

Editor: On his continuing tour of Distant Greens series, Paul Sochaczewski.
now takes us to Java, home of beautiful and exotic golf courses

Java is home to 130 million people, making it one of the most densely populated places on Earth. The island is also home to 20 recently active volcanoes, making it the planet’s most volatile large land area—and 107 golf courses, making it one of Asia’s best, and least-appreciated, golf destinations. The courses on Indonesia’s most populous island, conceived by designers from Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer to Greg Norman and Robert Trent Jones Jr., roll next to paddy fields, provide magnificent views, and yes, can even be found on the flanks of steaming, sputtering volcanoes. One, Mount Merapi Golf, is also the home of the Mermaid Queen, the legendary consort of the influential sultan of Yogyakarta and the susuhunan of Solo.

Best of all, many of the finest courses are “semi-member” clubs that welcome visiting businesspeople and tourists during the week, when they are often refreshingly empty. (Walk-on guests are discouraged on weekends, though, when the courses are busy.) And they’re relatively inexpensive—it’s not uncommon on a weekday to pay less than $30 for a greens fee and caddie for a round at one of the better courses in the Jakarta area.

And for those nongolf days, Java provides plenty of other things for a traveler to do, notes Zainal Soedjais, president of the Indonesian Golf Association, from nature and culture to heritage and art, not to mention food. (Think pristine rain forests, sultanates where courtly traditions and rituals still live, the 1,200-year old Buddhist temple of Borobudur, hand-crafted batik— and, of course, satay.)

With all this, why doesn’t Java draw golfers the way, say, Thailand does?

Murdaya Widyawimarta, president director of the busy Pondok Indah golf course and chairman of the Indonesia Golf Course Owners Association, blames poor marketing of the sport by government tourist departments.

Officials in Indonesia have the wrong idea about golf, seeing it as a luxury, says Christine Wiradinata, executive director of Damai Indah Golf and Country Club. One sign: “Golf courses have to pay the same high tax rate as massage parlors and karaoke bars,” she says. “We need to reposition golf to show how well-managed courses save nature, reduce global warming and employ thousands of people.” These would be courses that, for example, introduce nature to otherwise barren land.

Whether despite or because of the sport’s elitist image, some in Indonesia’s growing middle class have picked up golf with enthusiasm. “There are some 100,000 active golfers in Indonesia, most of them living in Java,” says England Rachman, executive secretary of the Indonesian Golf Association. “Young professionals have money, and they’re exposed to golf on TV.”

They’re taking up a sport with a long history in Indonesia. Jakarta Golf Club, more often called Rawamangun, dates to 1872; the narrow, tree-lined layout in the middle of the city is where former President Suharto, the late Indonesian strongman, regularly played.

Today a golfer has a much wider choice. Following the advice of golfing friends in Indonesia, I set off on a quick tour of Java to play some of its most interesting courses. Some highlights:

Jakarta-Bogor region

Within 60 kilometers of the noisy, congested, cosmopolitan capital of Jakarta you’ll find 36 courses, some among the finest in Asia. The greatest concentration lies along the Jagorawi toll road, which connects Jakarta with Bogor, an hour to the south. Near Bogor, the topography becomes more hilly, and hence more interesting for golfers. Most Bogor-area courses offer stunning views of either Mount Gede or Mount Salak, the city’s twin volcanoes. The city claims a global record for thunderstorms, averaging 322 annually over a stretch of several years early in the last century. The tally has been questioned, but odds are certainly pretty good that an afternoon round will be interrupted by a storm, so tee off in the morning.

Cengkareng Golf Club

Minutes from Jakarta’s Soekarno-Hatta international airport, this popular course has the clearest strategy for drawing golfers—male golfers, anyway— of any course in Jakarta. “Our girls are iconic,” says Ian Roberts, the general manager. “Golfers like to be served by attractive women.” They’re in alluring color-coded outfits: waitresses in orange miniskirts, “welcome girls” in peach (to take your clubs from the car), reception clerks in red and caddies in blue and yellow.

Other courses on Java, such as Rainbow Hils and Sentul, have pursued a similar approach.

The course itself is flat, but with plenty of flowers and mature trees, and it’s close enough to the sea to that there’s usually a breeze. It’s also one of the more expensive courses in Indonesia, about $50 for a walk-in greens fee, including caddie charges.

62-21-5591-1111

Web: www.cengkarenggolfclub.com

Emeralda Golf Club

“Is that OB?” I asked after a nasty slice, employing the golf shorthand for “out of bounds.”

“Yes. It’s definitely ‘Oh Beautiful,’” my caddie, Mulnia, replied.

Emeralda is one of dozens of well-managed clubs along the Jagorawi highway. The Plantation course is a rather ordinary nine-hole Jack Nicklaus layout (the 1997 Asian financial crisis halted construction on the second nine), but the two nine-hole Arnold Palmer courses—the River Course and the Lake Course—are pretty and challenging, with contoured fairways.

Added bonus: The course sells good-quality “experienced” balls for a fixed price of about $2.50 for 10, a bargain.

62-21-875-9019

Web: www.emeraldagolfclub.com

Rancamaya Golf & Country Club

An all-day deluge prevented my being able to play Rancamaya. The course, designed by Ted Robinson, is certainly pretty to look at, rich in vegetation that attracts wildlife. That’s just part of its environmental appeal: Water-treatment systems convert “gray water”—waste water from sources other than toilets—into potable water, chemicals are rarely used and an extensive recycling program is in place.

Rancamaya’s approach is particularly welcome in this hilly region, a case history of how not to manage watersheds— deforestation and conversion of agricultural land to build homes and resorts have

exacerbated seasonal flooding in Jakarta.

62-251-242-282

Web: www.rancamayaestate.com

Damai Indah Golf & Country Club

Damai Indah offers two courses, about 40 minutes apart from one another: Bumi Serpong Damai (BSD), designed by Jack Nicklaus, and Pantai Indah Kapuk (PIK), designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr.

Courses in and near the city, like these two and Pondok Indah, can act as green lungs for those parts of the metropolis, as well as de facto nature reserves. A bird census in 2007 indicated that 56 species live in or visit the BSD course, almost twice as many as when the course opened in 1992. This is what environmentalists call “restoration ecology”—the BSD course was built on a disused sand quarry.

BSD was the first of seven Jack Nicklaus-designed courses in Indonesia. Located west of Jakarta in Tangerang, it’s open, with wide fairways, lots of sand and very undulating, newly renovated greens. I particularly enjoyed the par 4, 292-meter 6th hole, which overlooks the Cisadane River, here relatively clean and fringed by vegetation.

The PIK course is among the busiest in Indonesia, with some 6,000 rounds played each month. It’s a walking course—no carts—and nine holes have lights for tropical evenings, when the sun sets around 6 p.m.

62-21-537-0285

Web: www.damaiindah-golf.com

Editor: Be sure to follow Paul in the next part of this post as he continues his tour of Java and its exquisite courses

(c) Paul Spencer Sochaczewski, Reprinted with permission.  Be sure to read Paul Sochaczewski’s new book The Sultan and the Mermaid Queen (Editions Didier Millet 2008), and can be ordered at Amazon.com

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