To hear Tom Doak, one of golf’s most enduring architects, describe the state of the game a couple of years ago was to hear as unvarnished an appraisal as any regarding his livelihood. "The future of golf course architecture is the bleakest it’s been in my lifetime," he was quoted as saying in an interview. Doak, the principal of Renaissance Golf Design, and the man behind such feted tracks as Pacific Dunes at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort in Oregon and Cape Kidnappers in New Zealand, was reacting to the closure of three of his beloved courses in Arizona, Maryland, and Michigan. His gloomy forecast for new projects? "It’s doubtful any of us will see booming business again soon."
Although it’s difficult to gauge the game’s global health, the anecdotal (and, in some cases, tangible) picture that’s developing two years on from Doak’s comments is an altogether optimistic one. KPMG’s Budapest-based Golf Advisory Practice has reported higher demand for the sport, "especially in emerging golf markets, where the sport is still in its infancy and growing." While so-called mature golf markets have seen a sustained period of lackluster growth, much to Doak’s surprise and delight, a bevy of new courses around the world, from Abu Dhabi to Vietnam, are now attracting golf lovers.
Despite recent downturns, today it appears that even old guards like the U.S. and the UK are starting to open new or refurbished tracks. And in Central Europe, rounds played—a metric of the game’s popularity—are up 2 percent, while revenue in Austria, Switzerland, and Germany is up a positively buoyant 3 percent. But it’s Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Asia where observers have seen the real growth. (Golf Magazine recently pegged the regions as sizzling hot.) In the decidedly encouraging words of Giles Greenwood of the London-based International Association of Golf Tour Operators, a trade body with more than 1,564 members, who was quoted in Golf World magazine: "There has never been a better time to play abroad." Herewith, a compilation of some of the most notable global golf courses.
With no fewer than 28 courses and another 30 on the drawing board, Vietnam is now firmly on the Southeast Asian golfing map. The blustery Dunes Course on China Beach, a links-style layout by Greg Norman’s golf design company, can only further burnish the country’s already impressive reputation. Located just 20 minutes from the UNESCO World Heritage site of Hoi An, the seaside course features, in the words of Harley Kruse, the Australian architect in charge, "16 completely natural golf holes that weave their way through the wind-blown dunes and trundle down to a stretch of beach that has been voted as one of the best in Asia perennially." In fact, the course’s signature hole—the par-3 16th—backs up against a beautiful stretch of coastline, one of the memorable offerings for golfers of all abilities. www.dananggolfclub.com
Despite their designers having to contend with ferociously difficult permit standards, a handful of new courses have emerged in the pristine Tuscan countryside over the past couple of years. The most notable is this newcomer, located on a sprawling, 4,500-acre wine estate in the UNESCO-inscribed Val d’Orcia. Designed by Tom Weiskopf and opened in June 2011, the par-72 rolling parkland layout is an absolute delight, framed by a swaying carpet of fescue and surrounded by vineyards, sunflower fields, ilex groves, and olive orchards, and crisscrossed by woods and streams. It complements the 23-suite luxury hotel of the same name, where the lauded Brunello wines, as well as a petite spa and a pair of restaurants serving hearty regional fare, take center stage.www.castigliondelbosco.com
"Our goal was to create a course that blended seamlessly into the unique topography of the land," says the course designer J. Michael Poellet of his latest project, the 7,245-yard Cielo Paraiso in Boquete, Panama, which meanders through woodlands, meadowlands, ridgelines, and valleys in the shadow of the cloud-shrouded 11,398-foot Barú volcano. Opened in January 2011 as the anchor point of a forthcoming residential community, the course includes elevation changes where golfers are both challenged and distracted by, among other things, the magnificent views of the Pacific Ocean. www.cieloparaiso.com/golf.htm
Already home to the demanding Dunes Course, which was designed by Bernhard Langer in partnership with European Golf Design, the two-year-old Costa Navarino resort in the southwest Peloponnese has just welcomed its second stunning course, this time designed by Robert Trent Jones, Jr. Routed along the sandy shores of Navarino Bay and up the hillsides that flank it, with vistas of mountains, islands, and lagoons, the par-71 Bay Course is a demanding track fashioned from a blend of Bermuda and bent grasses. It bisects a trio of box canyons and traverses ancient olive groves. A tour de force. www.costanavarino.com
Designed by Sir Nick Faldo to reward thoughtful shot-making rather than brute force, this is the first new layout on the island in seven years. "We’ve laid down a course that is visually striking, fun, and challenging," the six-time majors winner says of his 6,800-yard brainchild. Indeed, meant to maximize the challenges of the parched, garigue-speckled landscape, the course wends through scrubland and limestone outcroppings dotted with mature carob and olive trees. But don’t be fooled by the seemingly diminutive proportions of this cunningly designed par 71: Massive, amoeba-shaped bunkers are aplenty, as are a myriad of semi-blind approach shots, not to mention the pair of never-ending uphill par-4 finishing holes.www.eleaestate.com
On the eastern shore of Georgian Bay, Canadian golf course architect Shawn Watters, one of the country’s most respected, has created a picturesque but sturdy course: this just-opened, 6,503-yard track in the town of Honey Harbour, Ontario. With islands in the distance, water woodlands, granite outcroppings, and native shrubbery, the Oak Bay course offers a naturally challenging setting. Featuring large green complexes and unbounded lakeland, the par 72, including the par-3, 170-yard all-carry 15th hole, presents a fair but rigorous test to the most seasoned of golfers. www.oakbaygolf.com
Complementing his highly successful golf career, 20-time PGA Tour winner Davis Love III has turned to architecture, creating (with two collaborators) a critically acclaimed masterpiece from paspalum grasses, south of the border. Situated along the sugarcane shoreline of the Baja Peninsula’s western coast, Diamante Dunes is a monstrous, 7,300-yard, par-72 test, just six miles from downtown Cabo San Lucas. The course is framed by dunes and the waters of the Pacific, which is omnipresent at every turn. "You are either playing toward the ocean, along the ocean, or away from the ocean. It’s groundbreaking to put a course like this in a resort area like Cabo," says Love. www.diamantecabosanlucas.com
He is credited with creating some of the most enduring and iconic golf courses, places like Kingsbarns in Scotland, Verdura in Sicily, and the Grove in England. Now, American architect Kyle Phillips has trained his gaze on the Middle East, designing Yas Links, a course that is being lauded as one of the world’s best. Featuring a collection of memorable holes, including a pair of waterside par 3s on the back nine, this demanding, 7,394-yard par 72 made Golf World’s Top 100 Golf Courses in the World for 2011. Stretching along three kilometers of Persian Gulf coastline, with nine holes fronting it, this course boasts more than 100 bunkers and endless links-style panoramas. www.yaslinks.com
A longtime contributor to RL Magazine, Farhad Heydari is the international managing editor at Centurion and Departures magazines for Europe, the Middle East, Asia-Pacific, and Latin America.