It was while on the tarmac at OR Tambo that I regretted not doing my homework thoroughly enough on my island destination for the next few days. Those regrets were quickly erased as I got into the spirit of things and slipped back into my seat and thought of Singapore.
Bintan Island, or Negeri Segantang Lada by its local name, is an island in the Riau archipelago of Indonesia which stretches to just 60 km of tropical paradise. Rich in history, its existence can be traced back to the third century, the island having a long and fabled history which centres around its position as a trading post between China and India. Tales of pirates looting ships on this route add to the mystery of what is quickly becoming known as a ‘must travel’ destination for those within touching distance of Singapore.
Interest in the island had primarily been sparked by the raw natural beauty and idyllic ocean waters surrounding luxury resorts until the likes of Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus, Greg Norman and Ian Baker-Finch descended on the white beaches, emerald waters and lush tropical forests to create a destination that mixes golf with watersport, luxurious spa treatments and family-centred entertainment.
After almost a year of renovations to Ria Bintan’s Ocean Course, a site which designer Gary Player describes as ‘unique’, it was reopened to the public and looks set to continue reaping in the accolades as one of Asia and Indonesia’s best golf courses. The course features 27 holes set alongside pristine white beaches and the clear emerald waters of the South China Sea before entangling itself in the lush tropical forests as the course meanders back inland.
In order to beat the heat, an early tee time is a must as the temperatures begin to soar from 11am. Any grogginess from the early wake up or the previous night’s dance floor excursions are quickly a thing of the past with the daunting view down the fairway from the box on No 1. The long par five has trouble from start to finish with water left and bunkers on the right guarding the landing zone off the tee. It may be the regular afternoon thunderstorms or the humidity, but reaching the green in two is out of the equation for even the most skilled golfers, which means your layup must be approached with caution as a lake guards the right-hand side of the fairway which slopes from left into the hazard. The 1st hole, the hardest on the course, sets the tone for the next half a dozen holes where water, elevation and expertly-placed bunkers threaten to derail your round.
The 2nd hole is a gentle par three which allows you to catch your breath. At only a fraction over 110m from the tee, just a wedge is required to avoid the water on the right and the large bunker to the left. The 3rd is a fine example of Player’s exquisite design on this course as the lake continues to provide a scenic backdrop for a challenging par four. Water lines the right, while across the fairway is a bunker, almost cruelly placed on the left edge of the fairway, which is why the local caddies suggest that despite the length the driver remains in your bag.
The 4th provides hope of a birdie should you find the fairway from the elevated tee box. Again driver is not the club for this hole with the lake making its presence felt down the entirety of the right-hand side. A large green is protected by just two bunkers, one short and one over the back, as you move towards the coastline through a stretch of holes where the jungle closes in from every corner.
Holes 5, 6 and 7 are similar in that they all demand accuracy from tee to green and many will attack this stretch with only the jungle to defend the course from a birdie run.
The 8th is another where taking in the spectacular scenery is as a part of the game as you strategically layup to the top of the hill before the hole doglegs dramatically left and down a drop of some 20m to the green, which is protected by the ocean on three sides. The green runs diagonally from right to left and despite the lack of wind, club selection will make the difference between a confident stride down to the green or a slow stroll contemplating what might have been.
The course’s signature hole is the par-three 9th that counts on the forest, the ocean and a rock outcrop, which juts from it, to add to its majesty. Described by the course itself as the ‘one of the most beautiful par threes in Asia’, you will struggle to find a golfer who disagrees. Stand on the tee, breathe in the fresh sea breeze and take on the 140m challenge to a long, narrow three-tiered green, but don’t leave your cart unattended as the ‘Beware of the monkeys’ signs are not just for show.
The back nine, which plays at least two shots easier than the front, begins with a tee perched on a mound overlooking a private beach, which protects the short dogleg par four. Bunkers protect players from taking on the corner before more sand is in play on the right of the elevated green as you once again make your way back through the forest.
The next six holes have everything required to challenge the weekend golfer, while the lower handicapper should comfortably deal with threats posed by the long par-five 13th as well as the stroke-two 14th which plays easier than it looks from the tee, provided you find the fairway with the driver. A small green is protected by a marsh area to the left but par is within reach if you use the slope which runs from right to left with your approach.
The 17th draws your attention back to the sublime landscape of the island as the tricky par three requires a skillfully hit short-iron to a green which has danger on all four sides. It’s another picturesque hole but failure to find the green could see a circle undue all the good work done before the difficult 18th.
The final hole, the stroke six, is a brute which will on most occasions play like a par five for even the most skilled players. A long tee shot will still require a well-struck long-iron to get on in two, but with a lake running from midway down the fairway up to the green on the left, bailing out with a 6-iron to the right and attempting to get up and down for par is the most often used method of attack.
Greg Norman’s Laguna Bintan is another course on the island that has been relaunched after undergoing extensive renovations in order to emphasise the beach, rock formations and jungle. Norman’s course is a 15-minute drive from Clubmed Bintan and is set over 60 hectares of tropical vegetation with stunning views of the South China Sea.
The large undulating greens have been restored to their original dimensions and offer a challenge to golfers of every level. Laguna Bintan is the only course on the island to feature the ocean on both nines, with holes 2 to 4 played around the 3km private beach. Ocean breeze is swiftly replaced by a large lagoon, which makes holes 6 to 8 extremely challenging especially off the back tees.
The 9th poses a major threat with water protecting the left and devishly-placed bunkers in the middle of the fairway, which continues to raise up towards the clubhouse.
The rain-soaked jungle and lush forest are the heroes of the back nine until the 16th tee box which stares down at the ocean. A 400m par four which makes its way gently down the slope towards a rustic beach surrounding the green as the ocean lies in wait for any misjudged approach. The 17 matches Ria Bintan’s 9th hole for pure splendour as the rock outcrop separates the green from the sea on the left while waves gently lap onto the beach below. Stop, admire the beauty and take a photo as you walk off the 17th as you head for home after experiencing some of the most scenic holes Asia has to offer.