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Par for the courses

David Neville Williams travels far and wide in search of the finest greens

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Golfers have one huge advantage over most other sports enthusiasts. While soccer and cricket fans, for instance, have to content themselves with the challenge of fantasy teams, golfers can actually live the dream. They can literally follow in the footsteps of the top pros, the likes of Tiger Woods, Paul Casey and Padraig Harrington, and see just how their game measures up, stroke by stroke, to that of their superstar heroes.

This is undoubtedly one of the main reasons why top golf resorts around the world continue to enjoy a boom. Add the obvious attractions of luxury hotels, stunning settings, gourmet food and fine wines, plus history, culture and hospitality, and it’s easy to see why this 21st century success story shows no sign of slowing down.

There is an amazing range of luxury golf resorts stretching across the globe from America to China, Australia to Mexico. The biggest problem facing most golfers is deciding which of their dream courses they should play first!

Florida offers an astonishing array of magnificent golf resorts. The aptly-named Sunshine State boasts 1,200 golf courses, with no fewer than six listed in Golf Magazine’s Top 100.

Golfers aiming to emulate the stroke play of the PGA professionals, just need to book into the Sawgrass Marriott Resort & Spa, at Ponte Vedra Beach.

There they can drive, pitch and putt their way round the legendary Stadium course, home of The Players’ Championship.

The course, once a swamp sold for $1 in 1978, has been called “a baby-faced assassin” for the way it can dazzle a player with its beauty and then surprise him with a multitude of devastating water hazards. The Sawgrass Resort, which promises to combine elegance with ease, is recognised by golfers, families and MICE planners as one of the top resorts in the States. It has also been rated one of the Top 10 Best Golf Resorts In The World by Travel & Leisure Golf magazine.

If you want to take a tip from a top pro, you could do worse than listen to Curtis Strange, twice U.S. Open champion and captain of the 2002 American Ryder Cup team. He recommends The Greenbrier, in West Virginia, reckoned by some to be one of the most extraordinary golf resorts on the planet. The elegant 721-room hotel, nestling in the scenic Allegheny Mountains, is more imposing than Buckingham Palace and the White House put together. Since 1778, it has regularly attracted presidents and movie stars seeking comfort in its six-star facilities, dining and service.

The Greenbrier also has impeccable credentials from a golfing standpoint. A former venue for both the Ryder and Solheim Cups, it offers three championship courses, a 65,000 sq ft practice range, four putting, chipping and pitching greens, and coaching at the Sam Snead Golf Academy. Away from the greens, there is falconry, fly fishing, riding, outdoor tennis, shooting, white-water rafting and mountain biking, along with an acclaimed cookery school and swish spa.

“It is the complete resort,” says Strange. “To go and play golf at the Greenbrier…that’s just about as grand a time as you could have.”

On the other side of the world, on the isolated coast of northern Tasmania is Barnbougle Dunes, co-designed by Australian and European Tour winner Michael Clayton and Tom Doak, with its rolling dunes, marram grass and breathtaking ocean vistas. “One of the things I love about Barnbougle is the relaxed atmosphere of the place,” Clayton says. “There are none of the restrictions that are so much a part of the Australian private club scene. It’s very friendly, and guests feel none of the intimidation that public golfers experience when visiting a private club.”

Barnbougle is a relatively new resort, having opened just five years ago – but by 2006, just two years after opening, it made Golf Magazine’s “Top 100 In The World” list. Reckoned by many to be Australia’s premier golf resort, the accommodation is quirky but luxurious – offering guests the chance to stay in  spacious cottages designed specifically for foursomes, with two rooms, a modern bathroom, and a patio offering splendid sea views as well as golf course vistas. Just a short stroll away is the clubhouse and first tee, along with a good restaurant, snack bar and lounge reflecting the unique charm and style of the northeast of Tasmania.

For the adventurous golfer to whom distance is no object there is the lure of the world’s longest golf course at Jade Dragon Snow Mountain Golf Club, in the northwestern corner of China’s Yunnan province. Ringed by 13 majestic peaks and situated at the base of a Himalayan glacier, it is a record-busting 8,548 yards long, which prompted one footsore golf writer to muse: “One can only hope that no one feels compelled to build a course that’s any longer!”

Elsewhere in China is the impressive Mission Hills Golf Club at Shenshen, a World Cup course designed by Jack Nicklaus and named last year (2008) as one of the ten “most influential golf courses of the last 20 years.”

Since opening in 1994, it has been held up as the prime example of golf’s outstanding international growth in the last two decades and was host to China’s first international golf tournament, the 41st World Cup of Golf in 1995.

The potential for attracting golf tourists in great numbers has been recognised by the opening at the Mission Hills Resort of the only five-star hotel in China to have been awarded the nation’s Golden Pillow Award for being the best business holiday resort. Perfectly situated in the heart of the course, the resort houses 317 bedrooms, each with a balcony offering a panoramic view of the entire course. Some golf insiders now predict that, thanks to the example of Mission Hills, China will boast more courses than Scotland by 2015.

For golfers visiting Japan, there is a bewildering array of superb courses and golf resorts. In fact, there are more golf courses – about 2,500 – in Japan than the rest of Asia put together, and the standard is extremely high.

Two of the finest courses are to be found at Hirono and Kawana.

Hirono has hosted all the major Japanese championships and presents the supreme test of golf, even though it is less than 7,000 yards from the back tees. The club was founded in 1932 by Englishman Charles Alison, who designed many of Japan’s best courses, and is 15 miles from the city of Kobe, Japan’s main seaport.

At the Kawana Golf Resort, on the mountainous Izu Peninsula, there are two courses – the Fuji and the Oshima. The Fuji course, designed by Alison in 1936, is rated the best and, taking golfers around a striking elevated headland with Mount Fuji in the distance, is a favourite with many who adore the Pacific Ocean and mature woodlands.

Famous guests who have stayed at the traditional   include Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio, who spent their honeymoon here in 1954, and John Wayne.

Golfers seeking exotic surroundings can certainly find them in abundance in  Indonesia. Golf has long been established on the 18,000 islands that make up Indonesia and there are now 150 courses. The best is the Nirwana Golf Club on beautiful Bali. It features a glorious Greg Norman layout which endears itself to many players by looking more difficult than it plays. Nevertheless, the 7th hole is especially challenging, requiring players to hit a cliffside tee shot across a stretch of ocean to a well-guarded green. The experience is made all the more enjoyable by the ever-changing panorama of glorious coastal views and ancient temples.

As Greg Norman says: “When I first saw the site I was taken by the dramatic location, the fascinating local culture and the rolling hills covered with rice paddies. I was determined to keep all these features…and am proud to have played a part in developing this world-class course.”

Located on the beautiful southwest coast, the Nirwana Bali Resort was the island’s first fully-integrated development of its kind and offers a peerless array of luxurious facilities on a site combining the best of both modern and traditional Balinese architecture in a lovely natural environment.

The undisputed No 1 golf resort in South Africa is the Durban Country Club, which has hosted more South African Opens than any other club and is regularly ranked one of the Top 100 in the world.

Established in 1922, it is an oasis of calm away from the hustle and bustle of the cosmopolitan city and just a kilometre north of the “Golden Mile“ beach. Set on the edge of the Indian Ocean, behind a tall ridge of sand dunes, players enjoy a course that winds its way through lush tropical vegetation.

The clubhouse is an impressive, stately, white gabled building in Cape Dutch style, surrounded by scrupulously groomed lawns, a swimming pool and various club amenities. Its restaurants offer fine or casual dining, plus an intimate cocktail bar and traditional bar.

For golfers looking for something completely different, Mexico is well worth considering, with the relatively new El Camaleon Resort, near the Playa del Carmen beach destination, already established as a major attraction. This 18-hole course, designed by the great Greg Norman, was opened in 2006 and winds through three distinct landscapes – mangrove jungles, limestone canals and stretches of Caribbean oceanfront – providing awe-inspiring views.

Just to add a touch of romance, there is a lovingly preserved ancient underground cavern, discovered during course construction, close to the opening fairway.  The year it opened, El Camaleon made history by becoming the first golf course to host an official PGA Tour event in México and the first  PGA Tour event ever held outside of America or Canada.

The course, just 45 minutes south of Cancun, is the centrepiece of the luxury resort development of Mayakoba which includes the 401-room deluxe hotel The Fairmont Mayakoba.

Looking for something closer to home? Well, Europe certainly has its fair share of world-class golf resorts.

Tourist bosses in Portugal spotted the possibilities of tapping into the golf market a long time ago – and continue to reap the benefits, not just in the Algarve but in other areas, too.

On the glorious Estoril coast, golfers can live it up like royalty at the Penha Longa Golf Resort, staying at a 194-room hotel that dates back to the 14th century. Over the years, it has been a favoured retreat of Portuguese royals and foreign dignitaries. This graceful palazzo-style estate, with two challenging courses, is set among the spectacular rolling hills and clear lakes of the southern Sintra mountains.

With five exceptional dining facilities, two world-class championship golf courses and a state of the art spa, there is little need to leave the resort – although there is a casino, the largest in Europe, at nearby Estoril.

The classy championship standard 18-hole Atlantico course was designed by Robert Trent Jones Jnr and opened in 1992 to such a chorus of acclaim that two years later it was chosen to host the Portuguese Open.

In neighbouring Spain, one of Europe’s most popular golf resorts is to be found at Montecastillo, to the northeast of Jerez. With its magnificent, late 19th century El Castillo clubhouse with crenulated walls, it is quite reminiscent of the clubhouse at Wentworth. The course, nestling deep in the heart of the sherry region, was created by Jack Nicklaus in 1992 and is long and demanding.

The resort occupies 400-acres and includes a five-star hotel, whose guests in recent times have included the Manchester United team, indoor and outdoor swimming pools, plus tennis courts and soccer pitches. Recent improvements have included the planting of 100-year-old olive trees around the course and the installation of a new drainage system.

For sheer Italian style, charm and sophistication, the Castelconturbia Golf Club, at Agrate Conturbia, in Piedmont – just 12 miles from Milan’s Malpensa Airport – takes some beating.

Opened in 1984 and designed by Robert Trent Jones, it features three nine-hole loops – The Chestnuts, Pines and Oaks – and is reckoned to be one of Italy’s most challenging courses.

It has played host to the Italian Open and has some wonderful mountain views. The whole area is cloaked in history and the Castelconturbia course dates back to 1898 when it was one of only two in the whole of Italy, having been built by Count Gaspar Voli, who was well and truly bitten by the golf bug after paying frequent visits to Scotland.

While many golf resorts have a link with one superstar, the Sport Club Berlin, on the banks of Germany’s tranquil Lake Scharmutzelsee, boasts design links with two – Nick Faldo and Arnold Palmer.

Palmer laid out the first course 14 years ago and Faldo saw the opening of his first Continental European design two years later in 1997. Top players  reckon Faldo’s layout is a fastidiously-designed but brutal masterpiece best left to serious golfers. The par five 11th hole, for instance, features an astonishing 14 bunkers. It’s small wonder that the course has hosted a number of major tournaments including the German Open.

The resort is set in 300 acres and away from the greens there are 11 conference and function rooms, three restaurants, a sailing marina, and a helicopter landing pad.

A huge vote of confidence in the future of golf resorts has recently come from the sport’s undisputed No 1, Tiger Woods. The American golfing genius is designing courses for new major resorts in Dubai, North Carolina and Mexico.

The first course he is designing, the “Tiger Woods Dubai,” is an incredible multi-million pound project involving palaces, mansions, and a boutique hotel, alongside a gigantic, luxurious clubhouse and striking golf academy. When it opens next summer, it will doubtless attract golfers in their thousands from all over the globe.

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