Golf around the world

Why am I a golf fanatic? Arnold Palmer has the answer: “Golf is deceptively simple and endlessly complicated,” he remarked. “It satisfies the soul and frustrates the intellect. It is at the same time rewarding and maddening – and it is without a doubt the greatest game mankind ever invented.”

He didn’t mention it’s addictive. Golf has not only invaded my leisure time at home but it now decides where I vacation.

I view every game as an adventure, especially when I am on new turf. You never know what you’ll encounter – thieving chickens in Hawaii, rutting elk in the Rockies, vortexes in Arizona. Local customs provide an education, too. In Malaysia, the clubhouse locker rooms feature prayer rugs and massage tables, and the caddies are all women who weigh about 80 pounds soaking wet. In Tasmania, golf is so laid-back you’re often expected to deposit your greens fee in an honour box.

Having chased the dimpled white ball over five continents, I’ve been rewarded with some unforgettable experiences. Here are some of my most memorable.

Get thee to a monastery on Lake Garda, Italy
Where would two golf fanatics goo celebrate a 20th wedding anniversary? It took a little convincing, but I talked my husband, Bill, into checking into a monastery. Palazzo Arzaga, a 15th-century monastery converted to a five-star golf and spa resort with two courses and an academy, has put northern Italy on the map as a golf destination.

Once a vineyard, Arzaga I, the resort’s 18-hole course designed by Jack Nicklaus II, delivers distant vistas of snow-capped Alps as it winds around a series of five lakes, its fairways lined with oak and robina trees.

On the elevated first tee of Arzaga II, a nine-hole links-style course designed by Gary Player, one aims for the striking silhouette of an ancient Drugolo castle. As on many courses in Europe, you need a handicap certificate (max 32).

Booking an early morning tee time leaves plenty of après-golf hours to discover Garda’s many attractions: touring historic Sirmione with its fairy-tale crenellated castle ruin, searching for the Casa de Giulietta and the most famous balcony in the world in Verona, and sampling vino at local wineries. Not your usual après-golf activities, but this is Italia.

Free-range fowl in Kauai, Hawaii
I should have heeded the warning. At the Prince Golf Course on Kauai’s north shore, the GPS (Global Positional Satellite) on each cart warns you to hide your vittles or risk having them stolen by the feisty free-range chickens whose turf is hole number nine. I had left my plastic-wrapped Spam musabi (a local delicacy of fried Spam atop sticky rice) on the seat of the golf cart while I approached the tee blocks. As I was taking my practice swing, a couple of cluckers had the audacity to gobble it up.

The Prince, with a slope rating of 145, is rated both the number 1 and the toughest course in Hawaii. From dramatic ocean cliffs to jungle-choked ravines with natural hazards including a waterfall, designer Robert Trent Jones Jr. shows no mercy from start to finish. I was playing so dreadfully, the chickens turned out to be welcome comic relief. 

Elk etiquette in Banff, Alberta
“Scenery to bankrupt the English language” is how Teddy Roosevelt described the Canadian Rockies. Indeed, it’s hard to concentrate on your swing with snow-frosted mountain peaks, azure glacier lakes, and elk, bear and geese that have the right of way.

With so many creatures roaming the links and leaving their mark, special rules are printed on the scorecard: if your ball strikes an elk, the shot can be retaken; if your ball lands in elk damage (hoof print or droppings), it can be moved by a club length but no closer to the hole.

Teeing off with a large male just a putt away can be a bit disconcerting, but the starter assured me the beasts were harmless. Then he added, “Unless it’s autumn rutting season. Then, if you see a male with a head full of antlers, keep your distance.” Rated one of the 10 best in the world, the Fairmont Banff Springs course was originally designed in 1928 by Stanley Thompson. Following a recent restoration, it remains Alberta’s must-play mountain marvel.

Tarzan and Jane at El Tamarindo, Mexico
It’s a jungle out there, and you’re going to love it. El Tamarindo is an ecologically designed resort sculpted out of a Pacific paradise south of Puerto Vallarta. “When I started in 1993, it was wild,” says golf architect David Fleming. “I was nicknamed Indiana Jones, and we had amazing adventures with the wildlife – jaguars, wild boars, sea turtles, parrots. But don’t worry. The dangerous ones don’t golf.”

It took Fleming about four months to get the lay of the land and then figure out a routing for the holes so as not to disrupt the tree canopy.

On hoyo number 1, a wild boar was strutting importantly down the fairway. From the cliffside tees on the signature ninth hole, we had a monkey’s eye view of whales breaking the turquoise surface of the jagged cove below. Unlike most North American courses where you often feel like a wallet on a conveyor belt, you may never see another player at El Tamarindo. In fact, the management acutally encourages picnics and swims between holes.

My “Tarzan” and I had our own thatched palapa bungalow, private plunge pool, hot tub and an almost deserted beach at this hideaway in a rainforest reserve. A golfer’s earthly heaven.

Crystal therapy in Sedona, Arizona
For many New Agers and psychics, Sedona is a state of mind. About a two-hour drive north of Scottsdale, you turn off the main highway and are immediately engulfed by the spectacular red rock formations of Oak Creek Canyon.

Sedona is said to be home to several vortexes – electromagnetic energy fields emitting upward from the earth – which are purported to energize and inspire visitors.

At the Sedona Golf Resort, I was making cynical remarks about the vortex-seeking New Agers (secretly hoping those electromagnetic forces might add a few more yards to my drive) to my golf companion, a local hotelier, when he shared an “only-in-Sedona” story. Seems he’d been saving up to buy some pricey new Callaway clubs when one day he found exactly what he wanted – a three and a five wood lying at the bottom of a construction site near his office. Now he visits his “vortex” regularly, hoping to pick up a Callaway driver.

Vortexes or not, the ever-changing play of light on the famed red rocks leave you with powerful and lasting memories. Tuck your camera into your golf bag for a trophy shot of the Sedona Golf resort’s signature 10th hole with its undulating green framed by the spectacular Cathedral Rock.

Robber monkeys in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia“Monkey take,” cautioned our caddie Latifah, as she tied my camera to my golf bag at Templer Park Golf Course on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur. Apparently, the apes here have a penchant for stealing sunglasses, lunches and anything not fastened down. My camera was secured, but a roll of film tucked into an unzipped pouch on my golf bag ended up in a tree with its thief. Later on, Latifah was adamant that I not search for a ball that had landed in the rough. Moments later, I saw a sign warning that this was cobra country.

Apart from the live hazards, heat and humidity are brutal in this part of the world. You’ll want a crack-of-dawn tee time, lots of bottled water and cold towels to wrap around your neck.

Northern Ireland where the grass is greener
Northern Ireland has been described as a 1,000-hole golf course scattered with towns and villages. Indeed, there are more than 80 courses to choose from. And it’s a bargain. A spectacular seaside course that would cost about $100 in Canada costs about $40.

For posterity, you’ll want to play the two famous links courses, Royal Portrush, with its rugged setting on the Causeway Coast, and the legendary Royal County Down, nestled into huge sand dunes beside the town of Newcastle, where the Mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea.

What’s especially pleasant about playing here is the relaxed attitude the Irish have about the game. Even in summer, getting a tee time is a cinch. Power carts are available at some clubs, but most golfers walk or hire a push “trolley” to propel their clubs around the course.

They’re also relaxed about the weather. What I call torrential, the Irish call “soft rain.” Hail, sleet, wind and fog don’t seem to faze them. Make sure to bring a brolly, rain suit and all-weather gloves so you can keep up with Pat and Mike. You can always warm up with an Irish coffee in a local pub.

Bragging rights in Kenya, Africa
In Kenya, I hit a golf ball halfway round the world. The third tee of the Mount Kenya Safari Club in Africa is situated in the southern hemisphere while the green – 174 yards away – is in the northern hemisphere.

I hadn’t planned to play golf during my safari, but who could resist this nine-hole pitch-and-putt course that bisects the equator? Lots of celebrities, including the late William Holden, have flocked to this swanky resort. In fact, my caddy informed me that I sliced my ball into Stephanie Powers’ garden.