Borneo: Golf in the wild!

Destination to savour in Sabah

Borneo: Golf in the wild!

The meteoric rise in golf in the Far East has ensured that even the most out-of-the way places are well served by high quality courses. GolfMagic travelled to Northern Borneo, to discover if this outpost of Malaysia has more to offer than its famed native tribes, orang-utans and amazing sunsets.

Capital city of the state of Sabah is the resort of Kota Kinabulu - about a 90 minute flight from Kuala Lumpur on the Malaysia mainland - a multi-cultural destination where the people are friendly and helpful, supported by a strong British and Antipodean golf influence. 

Most people's perception of this island, slightly bigger than France or Texas, and sharing its borders with Brunei and Indonesia, is of inhospitable rain forest, first discovered by David Attenborough's eye-popping TV adventures in the 1960s. Nothing could be further from the truth. The country has thriving, bustling communities serving tourism with great relish. 

Wherever we travelled, English was widely spoken and understood and the courtesy offered us was exceptional. The weather was warm and humid, punctuated by short sharp showers at certain times of the day that you could almost set your watch by. So little problem in choosing your tee times. 

It was surprising just how many golf clubs are within easy reach to our hotel (the Tanjung Aru Shangri-La) ten mins drive away from the airport.  As well as Kota Kinabalu Golf Club, the Sutera Harbour, Sabah and Dalit Bay Golf and Country Clubs were comfortably accessible, along with Mount Kinabulu golf course in the shadow of the third highest peak (13,435 ft) in South East Asia, which bears its name. 

Owned by the Shangri-La Hotels group, the Dalit Bay course was carved out of a mangrove swamp by designer Ted Parslow 13 years ago but close to the town of Tuaran and 40 minutes drive from KK, is seen as a little too far out of the capital for locals to visit.

As a result it makes an ideal weekday option for the traveller based in the city.

What impressed me was how Parslow utilised the natural mangroves, rivers and lagoons to make the course both pretty and challenging demanding the golfer be able to shape their shots off the tee to find the ideal position to attack the excellent greens. 

By most standards it's not a long course, but it requires accuracy with your short irons as most greens are small and easily missed from the fairway.  Tricky up and downs for par keep the pressure on.

Rather than bring my own clubs and risk loss or damage through the modern airport system, I took the opportunity to hire and was impressed by the quality of equipment by top brands on offer everyhere in the region.

Aaron Johnson is the director of golf here and nominates the seventh as his favourite hole.

"It's a tricky straight par-4 with out of bounds left and water right!" he says.

Woven around two elegant hotels and a bustling marina, is the Sutera Harbour Resort course - a 27-hole Graham Marsh design with water featuring on many holes. The test here is to keep your ball in play but it's a tough ask because tree-lined fairways demand accuracy off the tee and the greens are well guarded by bunkers.

Neil Douglas, a Scottish PGA-trained pro runs a successful academy with Fraser Pook enabling golfers to significantly improve their game through tailor-made packages. Practice facilities include an aquatic driving range, short game area and an enormous putting green, where the Malaysian Ladies National team has benefitted from the facilities.  It's little wonder that golfers based in Hong Kong and Singapore also take advantage of the resort.

An added bonus at Sutera Harbour, especially now that it has over 1,000 members, is that the course can be played under floodlights, when that spectacular sunset goes down. 

Says Douglas, who still rates the Road Hole at St Andrews Old Course has his all-time favourite: "The signature hole here is the fourth on the Heritage loop of nine. It's a long par-4 that needs an accurate long iron to the green once you found position in the dog leg from your drive."

The Northern Borneo state of Sabah is blessed with fabulous choices for golf - most asking between the £20-£60 for 18 holes, depending on whether you're claiming a guest or visitor rate.

All have views and scenery that will stick in the memory for years to come.

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