Golf: The Fairest Of The Fairways

Richard M. Kotarba, director of B.F. Goodrich Aerospace in Singapore, faced more than the usual challenges at the 18-hole Bintan Lagoon Golf & Beach Resort, which opened in June, 1997, on the Indonesian island of Bintan. First, he had a struggle keeping his eye on the ball while teeing off in front of a breathtaking beach on a course designed by Jack Nicklaus. Then, on a course cut through a rain forest by pro golfer Ian Baker-Finch, he had to wait for monkeys to cross the fairway. "Good thing the monkeys didn't touch the ball," says Kotarba, referring to the cardinal rule that only a club may touch the ball. "The caddies here are tough with penalties."

Golfing in Southeast Asia has always been a feast of exotic surroundings and luxurious facilities. But now, golfers visiting the region have more reason to head for the fairways. Once prohibitively expensive, with rounds running more than $200, Southeast Asian golf is cheaper than ever, thanks to local currencies' collapse against the dollar. At Bintan Lagoon, 45 minutes by high-speed catamaran from Singapore, weekday greens fees are $120 per person, including cart and caddie. While that's not pocket change, rates are 15% lower than in Singapore and are comparable with those at first-class U.S resorts. More remote courses charge less than $50 per round.

Currency depreciation is not all that's driving down fees. Many clubs lowered rates in January after Japanese and Korean executives stopped showing up. Some courses also did away with private membership. "When times are hard like this, you can't be too exclusive," says Syed Ibrahim, chief executive of Arab Malaysia Development, which owns Sebana Golf & Marine Resort in Malaysia's Johor State.

The Sebana resort (607 825-2028) is one of several facilities that have opened in the past few years near Singapore. Sebana, located in a country whose currency has depreciated 40% since last July, offers one of the best values. With prices quoted in Malaysian ringgit, it charges nonmembers the equivalent of $46 during the week to play 18 holes, including cart, clubs, and two hours of instruction. On weekends, add $10.52.

To get there, take a 45-minute ferry ride costing $28 round-trip from Singapore's Tanah Merah pier. The boat travels up the winding Sungai Sebana river to a hidden cove, where the Sebana resort was carved out of primal rain forest three years ago. You'll find wild boar tracks in the neatly raked sand traps and jackfruit and orchids lying on the concrete cart path. The open-air clubhouse has a thatched roof held up by coconut tree trunks. An outdoor Jacuzzi lets you soak amid jungle breezes. To stay overnight, ask about the $25 deal at the new hotel overlooking the marina on the jungle-clad riverside.

CLINICS. If you need help with your game, the 54-hole course at Palm Resort & Country Club (607 599-6222) near Senai airport in Johor State, Malaysia, is a good place to learn. Managed by CCA Asia, the Hong Kong unit of Clubs Corp. of America, Palm Resort runs three-day golf academies for $309, including 18 hours of lessons in five-person groups. (A hotel room on the grounds starts at just $28 a night). A private train takes golfers on weekends and holidays from the Singapore Train Station on Kepp-el Road for the 45-minute ride. Other times, take taxis across the Second Link bridge from Singapore to Johor.

Prices are higher on Bintan and nearby Batam island because they stopped doing business in the rupiah in January, when the currency fell by 90% against the U.S. dollar. Now, all rates are quoted in Singapore dollars. If you try to pay in rupiah or U.S. dollars or use a U.S. credit card, you'll be hit with unfavorable exchange rates. So pay for everything in cash, using the Singapore dollar (now worth 63 cents U.S., down 15% since last July). "Playing on Bintan is still less expensive than playing in Singapore, and it's a better value," says Kotarba. He loved Bintan Lagoon so much he took the ferry over twice in one week in April to play the courses. The monkeys didn't mind.

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