SHANGHAI, CHINA | For a moment, I had forgotten where I was. The firm fairways I was walking on this walking-only course felt very old world, what with all the mounding and movement. So did the blowout bunkers that rose left and right, and the sandy waste areas that stretched across parts of this site, which was utterly devoid of trees. The wind was up, which meant I needed to go up a couple of clubs if I wanted to reach the big and boldly contoured green roughly 150 yards away. It felt just like another round in the ancestral home of golf. But then I heard voices coming downwind from a nearby green.
“What language are they speaking?” I asked my looper, an eager young man from a nearby town whose uniform included an orange jumpsuit (which made me wonder if orange was the new white in caddie coveralls) and a white helmet with a glossy sheen.
“Mandarin,” he replied in halting English.
That made sense as I was actually ambling across Chongming, a sandy island formed by the currents of the Yangtze River just northeast of Shanghai, with its 25 million people making it the largest city in the country. What fought the mind was the topography and layout, the old-fashioned feel in a place where the first modern golf course was built in the late 1980s.
I was playing what generally is regarded as the only traditional links-style course in mainland Asia.
Its name, quite appropriately, is Yangtze Dunes, and the layout is one of two 18-holers at the Lanhai International Country Club. Founded in 2009, it is a private club intended to serve well-heeled golfers from Shanghai, which is home to the world’s busiest container port as well as a global financial and technology center. The original courses were designed by Jack Nicklaus’ firm, and even though one of those was called The Links, it did not feel like one. A change in ownership three years ago led to the hiring of the Melbourne, Australia, firm of Ogilvy, Clayton, Cocking & Mead to revamp that track so it looked and played like something much truer to its moniker.
Work was completed in spring 2018, and the course reopened weeks later.
The Ogilvy in the firm is tour professional Geoff Ogilvy. A native Aussie and the winner of the 2006 U.S. Open as well as seven other PGA Tour events, he knows and appreciates links golf and the virtues of rugged, sand-based tracks that compel golfers to play a ground game and use every club. And he and his team set about to endow Yangtze Dunes with that look and feel.
In addition to removing some 5 miles of concrete cart paths, they rebuilt all of the tees and created 18 new green sites in an effort to make better use of the land. The architects also tweaked the routing in ways that shortened the distances between greens and tees and fashioned more dramatic bunkering. The result is a course with four sets of tees that can be stretched out to play as long 7,500 yards – and that also can accommodate golfers who are more comfortable playing from markers that total a tad longer than 6,200 yards, and even from as short as 5,400 yards. Water never comes into view, but an immense bridge from the mainland to this alluvial isle is often visible during a round.
“While certainly long enough to test the best tour players, the real interest in Yangtze Dunes lies in the strategy of the holes and the great variety of shots required to score well,” Ogilvy says. “While length is certainly rewarded here, success will only come to those with the imagination to find the best way around, avoiding the worst of the hazards and leaving the best angles.”
I was intrigued by stories about Yangtze Dunes in architecture circles as I prepared to travel to Shanghai. Most of the talk centered on the uniqueness of a links course in this region. As an aficionado of old-world golf, I wanted to see what Ogilvy and his colleagues had crafted.
A junior tournament was being played the day I arrived. The front nine was jammed, so I started on the back and was enthralled by what I found on the first few holes. The 10th was a par-4 of medium length, and I loved how my tee shot bounded well down the Bermuda-grass fairways. Difficult as it may have been, I also enjoyed the slightly sidehill lie with which I was left and the fact that I could run my approach up onto the green. And what a testy green it was, ample in size and full of subtle undulations.
Then came the par-3 11th, and a short-iron play to a punchbowl green that was largely hidden from the tee by a gnarly dune. And after that a par-5 with a slight dogleg and a trio of cross bunkers that really made me think about how long or short I wanted to hit my second shot. As I walked to that putting surface, I could not help thinking that I could be in Bandon, St. Andrews or some other haven for links golf. The only thing that kept snapping me back to reality was my caddie, a personable fellow who clearly knew the course well but spoke minimal English.
As a result of the language barrier, he was not able to offer me guidance as to the best places to hit my drives and the most effective angles of approaches to the greens.
As the round went on, I came to appreciate just how important that information was. Ogilvy and his associates employed many of the same design techniques found on, say, the Old Course, giving golfers different routes from tee to green. Opt for the safe way on your drive, and you are likely left with a tougher approach over mounds and bunkers. But take on a bit of trouble off the tee, and your shot to the putting surface can be decidedly less daunting.
Not surprisingly, my inability to communicate cost me more than a few strokes, and I could not help but think of how a proper course guide could alleviate that problem for those visitors unfamiliar with any of the Chinese tongues.
It also would have been good to get advice as to the proper tees to play. Being a tee-it-forward sort of golfer, I went right to the markers that measure a little more than 6,200 yards. Generally, that works well, but with the fairways running so firm and fast, I often found my drives settling in the narrowest parts of the fairways – or in the scrubby areas just off of them. Going back a set would have solved that problem nicely while still allowing me to leave my fairway woods in the bag most of the time – and hit lots of irons into greens.
I was staggered when I tallied up my score at the end of day and saw how much over par I was. But I took solace in it being my first time on this golf course – and in my having to fly blind most of the day. None of those things detracted from the experience of playing Yangtze Dunes – and playing a links-style course in China.
Here’s hoping more of them come on line in years to come.
Photos and video: Nick Wall/AirSwing Media
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