CAMBODIA

A wonderful new world of golf has opened up in Cambodia

By Ju Kuang Tan  

Cambodia is known for several iconic symbols – Angkor Wat and the incredible temples in Siem Reap being the most obvious. And while golf remains a distant hope for the tourism industry, there is every reason to expect the best if the quality of the top four courses there is any indication.

 On my visit this year, I was welcomed with not only a new golf course, but also with the premise of great improvement to the existing ones. In a region where so many golf clubs go into various states of disrepair through lack of patronage, expertise in maintenance, or pure neglect, it is very heartening to see that the top courses in Cambodia continue to find ways to get better.

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 It helps that the courses here are bankrolled by large companies with deep pockets. But we know that that isn’t always the solution to making sure a golf course maintains its standards. The crucial difference is that the owners of Cambodian courses know that upholding quality is key to survival, and is willing to entrust professionals to make sure those objectives are met.

 Golf courses in Cambodia are predominantly found in Phnom Penh, the capital, and Siem Reap, the cultural centre of the country and home of Angkor Wat. You have a choice of four golf courses to choose from if you’re here on a golf trip, and I wouldn’t miss any one of them if you are to make it a memorable one.

Playing In The Capital

Phnom Penh is a great place to start your journey, not only because its airport receives many international flights, but the capital is also conveniently located to two high-end golf resorts.

This is, of course, not to mention that the fast-growing city offers all the attractions – and distractions – one could ask. Good restaurants and bars are numerous – centralised in the streets along Sisowath Quay – and you’ll be able to grab a meal and your favourite libation here for a fraction of the price compared to other Southeast Asian countries.

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Garden City Golf Club 

From the capital, you’re but a 25-minute drive to Garden City Golf Club, arguably Cambodia’s top golf course. I played it three years ago shortly after it opened, and returning this time around, I am reminded of how enjoyable it is to play.

 The course was designed by Thai golf architect Weerayudth Phetbuasak, and its quality shows that you don’t need a “name” designer to put together holes that are visually appealing, and that balance challenge with fairness.

 Conditions have vastly improved since my first pass at this 7260-yard course. Paspalum fairways are dense and well irrigated, and in the few occasions that my drive found the short grass, the ball never failed to sit up nicely, daring my over-the-top swing to take a swipe.

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Garden City Golf Club  

While there are few daunting occasions that leave you preparing a second ball even before you tee off with your first, the course does provide better players with a few hurdles. The handicap-one sixth hole, in particular, is a tricky par-4 that forces you to decide which fairway to hit in order to earn your par.

 “On 14 April 2019, the golf course had been open for six years. In this time considerable effort has been made on the maintenance and improvement of the golf course,” says Glenn Cassells, General Manager at Garden City.

“Efforts in landscaping have been one of the major areas in improving the aesthetics of the golf course and through the upgrading of drainage for fairways, bunkers and greens the course conditions have maintained a consistently high level throughout the dry season and the rain season.”

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Garden City Golf Club  

Although the course is opened to the public, Garden City has a membership programme, and members are held to the highest regard. “Systems and service levels are very important but the number one priority of Garden City Golf Club is to have the best possible playing conditions for players all year round.

This is done by less intrusive cultural practises but done on a more regular basis. Garden City Golf Club is fortunate to have consulting management from IMG which includes valuable assistance in agronomy practises,” Cassells adds. 

One of the attractive features and there are many, of Garden City is the variety of the holes. There are just as many dogleg rights as there are lefts and a good combination of short and long par-3s that are pleasing to the eye.

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Garden City Golf Club  

“The challenging nature of the greens receives the most comments from clients and varying pin positions make each hole different each time,” the GM also admits. “Clients also enjoy the number of risk-reward holes and the option of five tees to choose from.

The layout of the golf course hasn’t changed in six years but improvements in playing conditions have raised the profile of the club.”

 There is much more to do in Garden City than take your golf game for an enjoyable spin. Covering over 1,200 hectares, the development includes an on-site, five-star hotel, safari park, and a large water park that will be opened at the end of 2019.

In addition, the country’s national stadium is being built, along with several other projects in the area. A residential development along selected holes on the golf course is also planned for future development.

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Garden City Golf Club 

Cassells is, however, aware of what it takes for the golf industry to grow here. “The biggest challenge is the lack of qualified and experienced staff in any developing market,” he reveals.

“This can also be positive by taking the view of not just training staff but also leading staff which should be the highest priority of any foreign expert working in a developing market.

Working with staff to have goals to provide the best possible service through training and guidance has always been a major priority.

 “Progress in the golf industry should not be measured by the number of players as the first priority.

Better education from golf clubs and golf associations about the benefits of golf for almost everyone is needed to be the focus so that more people including families are able to experience the challenges and enjoyment of golf and this will ultimately increase the number of people playing.”

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Garden City Hotel

 “Quality of product has always been the goal of the ownership and management at Garden City Golf Club,” the affable GM emphasises. “The goal has always been on quality of service for our visitors and members rather than the number of players and this strategy will continue in the future.

Everyone associated with Garden City Golf Club was pleased to receive recognition as The Best Golf Course in Cambodia at the 2018 World Golf Awards.” 

 Golf in Phnom Penh will get an added boost when Vattanac Golf Club opens towards the second half of 2019. I got a nice preview round at the Nick Faldo layout when course development advisor Sam Clayton showed me around.

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Vattanac Golf Club

 The first things that caught my attention were the incredibly well-crafted sculptures of iconic Khmer symbols located throughout the course. Their rendition of Angkor Wat, in all its intricate splendour, is a sight to behold and worth playing the course just to have a look.

The introduction of these artworks brings to question why other course developments don’t think of it as frequently as they ought to. In this circumstance, it certainly adds a local flair to the development, giving it a Cambodian feature that makes it special and unique.

 Clayton reveals that the rationale behind introducing the sculptures was to “emphasise the Khmer Culture and historical sites and ultimately create a talking point amongst golfers”. Without a doubt that through the replicas of Angkor Wat, Preah Vihear and Face Buddha on the current East Course, they’ve exceeded their goals.

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Vattanac Golf Club 

“The historical temples are a feature of the course, built to a precise scale of the actual temples,” attested Clayton proudly. “And without a question, they will be a photo opportunity for every golfer who is privileged to play the here.”

 The Australian advisor is also quick to highlight other interesting features at Vattanac. “The tea houses located on holes 4, 8,12 and 15 are truly 5-star in stature, and their addition compliment the high standards that have already been set throughout the course.” 

 Aesthetics from the periphery notwithstanding, Faldo’s design is interesting, to say the least. Purists may find the large mounds on the fairway – and in no small part, in the middle of many of the greens – a little contrived, but the result is a course that is absolutely fun to play despite the fact that you need to negotiate these hazards along the way.

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Vattanac Golf Club 

There is not much in terms of elevation changes along the way as the course is built on what was swampland. But Faldo made up for this with the use of sand, lots of it. Bunkers come into play on most shots, and sand waste hazards may stretch the entire length of the hole. Staying away from them may be a prudent approach to securing a decent score.

 I found that even though I may hit an occasional green in regulation, that does not guarantee a par, not by any means. The undulations – occasionally derived from rather severe mounds – require some skill to negotiate if I hoped to lag my putts to “gimme” range. Throw in Faldo’s characteristic fall-away design around the greens and you have complexes that test every facet of your short game.

 Even though the East Course was totally ready for play on my visit, Clayton says that they still have some work to do before opening its doors.

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Vattanac Golf Club 

“The fairway cut and, in particular, those at the landing zones will be reviewed and based on the prevailing winds, which is a predominant factor in playability,” the advisor says. “The height of rough will be capped at 32mm and given the undulations on the TiffEagle putting surfaces, we’ll cap green speed no greater than 10. In addition, the planting of small pockets of native grasses on bunker faces will be reviewed and may be potentially removed.”

 Even as the East Course is getting ready to welcome its first golfers later this year, plans are already under way for the second West Course next door.

 “The West is also designed by Sir Nick Faldo,” reveals Clayton. “But there are several distinctions between the two. You may find extensive waste bunkers throughout the East Course, and they are brownish in colour to distinguish them from fairway or green bunkers. Fairways on the West Course will have a lot more undulation than the East. The East uses TiffEagle on the greens, while Paspalum is used on that on the West.”

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Vattanac Golf Club 

Sir Nick was given the brief that the East Course will target the public and tournaments, while the West should be more suited for private members. Regardless of which you play or get the chance to play, early indications from my first visit is that it will be a special experience.

Golf Through History

It makes absolute sense to combine a visit to Siem Reap if you’re in Cambodia for golf. I took a domestic flight on Cambodia Angkor Air from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap and the 40-minute flight was seamlessly convenient and fuss-free.

 Even before high quality golf came to the capital, courses in Cambodia’s cultural centre of Siem Reap made the place an enticing destination to combine the game with visiting one of the most treasured historical buildings in the world – Angkor Wat.

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Angkor Golf Resort 

 For many years following the opening of Angkor Golf Resort course in Siem Reap, Faldo’s design there ranked number one in the country. It’s been over ten years since the course opened in 2008, and it continues to offer golfers 18 varied holes set on some of the most tranquil countryside land just outside Siem Reap town.

 While the Englishman who has six major wins used mounding to differentiate Vattanac’s East Course, he armed his course at Angkor Golf Resort with copious use of water to challenge the golfer. If you look at the course from a bird’s eye view, the holes look like they’re complete surrounded with water. The sensation is even more noticeable when you’re on land.

 Let’s put it this way. Water comes into play on 17 of the 18 holes, and on the one where it does not - the 381-yard, par-4 second - a pond sits right next to the four tee boxes as if reminding you that it won’t be long before you need to take it into account.

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Angkor Golf Resort  

The benefit of water on the course is that it not only provides it with ample irrigation, but also lends an appealing view from wherever you find your ball.

Many of the water hazards run along one side of the fairway, and I often found myself taking the conservative root and playing away from trouble to avoid needing to stock up on “ammo” at the turn.

 Given Faldo’s exacting style of play, it didn’t surprise me when he threw everything and the kitchen sink into the handicap-one, par-5 13th. Not only did I find the 559 yards impossible to reach in three, but the lake along the left, and two large tranches of sand – one on the left in the first half, then other on the right at the second half – made for a par that, for me, remained an unrealisable dream.

 Mercifully, the most trying of experiences - from a scoring point of view - on the course were quickly forgotten once I got out of the April heat, had a shower, and sitting at the cosy but classy café at the clubhouse.

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Angkor Golf Resort 

Sipping on an ice-cold watermelon juice in air-conditioned comfort, looking out towards the picturesque course, I couldn’t help but wonder if there were a few shots I could have shaved off my score if only I took a different route. Maybe I’ll find out another time.

 And it will need to be another time because my days in Siem Reap on this occasion were limited and I wanted to pay Phokeethra Country Club a second visit, having played here several years ago. To my pleasant surprise, the course not only withstood the test of time, but looked and presented itself better than ever.

 “We closed the course for four months in 2018,” says Fabrice Ho, Golf Manager at Phokeethra. “We put in a new automatic irrigation system, new concrete golf paths, and re-turfed the greens with Bermuda in order to get it faster for future events. We also redesigned eight of the greens, and reshaped them to be able to offer six pin positions each.”

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Phokeethra Golf Club 

And it seems that the work isn’t halting anytime soon.

 “In the next few months, we will change the sand in the bunkers, and changing to Zoysia grass in a few areas,” adds Ho. “We also have plans to renovate the clubhouse in a colonial style including new lockers, a larger pro shop and a bar with a view from the terrace.”

 These proactive plans can only serve to make an already good course better. I didn’t expect much when I arranged this visit to play Phokeethra but was so glad I did. The course was designed by Weerayudth Phetbuasak, and with the vastly improved conditions offers great entertainment value.

 “The layout is unique and well balanced,” quips Ho. “It’s a challenging track where you can play three rounds and never feel bored.”

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Phokeethra Golf Club 

Boredom was the last thing on my mind as I made my way around the 7,363-yard course. Like Angkor Golf Resort, water is a main feature, and the many lakes on the property often come into play. Right from the 456-yard par-4 first, water along the right side cranks up the intimidation factor a few notches especially if you haven’t warmed up.

 Phokeethra is good enough to have hosted an Asian Tour event four years in a row, hallmarked by the quality of maintenance and the ample length from the back tees. But even if you’re not a professional trying to make a living, you’ll be suitably pleased with what Phokeethra has to offer.

 The club shares the same owners as the Sofitel Phokeethra Angkor Resort in Siem Reap, golfers can enjoy stay and play privileges on their visit. One thing that Phokeethra has over its competition is an artefact from the 11th century that was unearthed during the time of course construction.

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Phokeethra Golf Club 

Remnants of the Roluos bridge were discovered between the ninth and 10th holes, revealing a structure built by the Khmer Empire a thousand years ago. The club’s slogan of “Tee off in the 11th Century and finish your round in the 21st Century” has a nice, and timely ring to it.

 As rewarding as a golf trip to Siem Reap, and Cambodia, may be, Phokeethra’s Golf Manager feels like they cannot let up in efforts to attract golfers.

“Golf visitors haven’t really been increasing, honestly,” admits Ho. “Koreans, our main market, have been looking at other destinations like Danang and Manila. But at the same time, those from other markets like China, Taiwan, Australia and India are increasing.

We’re trying to find a niche between Thailand and Vietnam, and hope to recent Asian Golf Tourism Convention held in Siem Reap (see box story) will give us opportunities in the near future.”

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Phokeethra Golf Club 

Phokeethra’s cautious optimism and steadfast efforts to improve the quality of its asset is just the kind of approach that is needed to bring golfers to this country. I, for one, won’t need further convincing after seeing how far Cambodia golf has come on this recent visit.

Contact Information

Garden City Golf Resort, Phum Prek Tarath, Sangkat Prek Tasek, Khan Chroy Changvar, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, + 855-88-33-88-555, www.gardencityclub.com

Angkor Golf Resort, Kasekam Village Sra Nga Commune, Siem Reap, 93166, Cambodia, +855-63-767-688, www.angkor-golf.com

Phokeethra Country Club, Dontro village Lavea commune, Puok District.  www.phokeethragolf.com

Siem Reap Province. Cambodia, +855-63-964-600, www.phokeethraangkor.com

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