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Sporting Life

Golf's joy encapsulated in three Serapong holes of punishment

No happier masochist is to be found on the planet than the golfer. Pain is their pleasure and humiliation their habit. Tell them a hole is diabolically hard and they wish immediately to play it. As Jack Nicklaus observed: "(They) like to punish themselves for some reason. A lot of them like tough courses." Indeed.

Last Friday I asked three people to meet me at Sentosa Golf Club at 7am to undertake a cruel expedition: To sample Serapong's difficulty, from the championship tees, which is where the pros will play from this week at the Singapore Open. The only guarantee, they were told, was that I, injured, would tease them in this column. One took two seconds to say "yes", a second postponed his trip to Malacca and the third was a colleague bullied into submission.

Their test was to play three tough holes (twice each) to prove that pros and amateurs use the same instruments to play dissimilar sports. After six holes we had sufficient proof: four lost balls, two pars, a quadruple bogey, four triples, talk of whisky at 8am as a reviving tonic and the occasional utterance which is better left unpublished.

The team comprised Heng Su-Ann, 28, a rusty former pro, who talks golf on Fox Sports and has a swing we'd like to own; Timothy Lim, 56, Team Head of Travel and Business Director of SPH Golf, a 12 handicapper with a hit-man's intensity; and Jonathan Wong, 32, an ST writer and 18-handicapper who may have felt better if he knew that even evangelist Billy Graham discovered that "the only time my prayers are never answered is on the links".

Serapong's 6,765m before the Open - it's 5,912m from the white tees - resembles an actress on a red carpet: beautifully made up for the cameras. If stars use rouge, then here a two-inch layer of new sand is spread on bunkers to make it look whiter. No rakes are used here, they are brushed with a broom.


The Serapong Course at Sentosa Golf Club still draws golfers like (from left) ST journalists Jonathan Wong and Rohit Brijnath, SPH Golf director Timothy Lim, and ex-golf pro Heng Su-Ann, eager to try out its tough holes. It will host this week’s Singapore Open. ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

The day started at Hole 3, which is 376m from the white tees but a demoralising 452m dog-leg par-four for the trio. The sun was rising to the east before us as Wong's drive headed south into the foliage. Birds chirped. Perhaps not in praise.

With a hillside on the left and bushes crowding in from the right, the hole is the amateur's worst nightmare: a narrow target. Except Lim, a veritable Robin Hood with a driver, pierced the gap perfectly but when he got to his ball he was annoyingly short of the fairway.

Distance is where amateur and pros diverge for in timing, technique, speed, we exist on a more modest planet. If we hit 230 metres (251 yards), we think we're the sons of Samson; on the US PGA Tour this year there have been seven drives over 400 yards (admittedly in an event with downslopes). In 1997, one player averaged over 300 yards; this season it is 61.

Distance is where amateur and pros diverge, for in timing, technique, speed, we exist on a more modest planet. If we hit 230 metres (251 yards), we think we're the sons of Samson; on the US PGA Tour this year there have been seven drives over 400 yards (admittedly in an event with downslopes). In 1997, one player averaged over 300 yards; this season it is 61.

Alas, no one in this threesome can hit 300 yards and the end result is one quadruple bogey, one triple, one bogey. Still they smile.

The next hole, the 184m par-three 14th - 168m from the whites - runs parallel to the water. Adam Scott would hit a languid 5-iron, but here it's a mix of 5-woods and 3-hybrids. There are no Coast Guard boats to be seen which means no one can help Heng when she goes for a dip.

It is an error that provokes her competitiveness. First, she deliciously holes her fourth shot from 10 metres. Then, when she replays the hole, her ball lands like a butterfly less than two metres from the pin. Birdie chance. She misses and her ball whistles 11/2 metres past like a marble on an oiled floor. She grins at the fast, curling greens and wryly says: "Thanks Andy."

Andy Johnston is Sentosa Golf Club's general manager, who has a background in agronomy, a degree in architecture and a diploma in courtesy. He has one daughter but speaks of courses like a protective parent. "It's like having kids," he says. "They're always sick, or hungry, and always growing."

Like an old hippy, Johnston probably dreams of grass, yet he is also a whiz at haircuts for he is constantly using his 61 greens mowers, 15 rough mowers and eight fairway mowers to snip and slice.

Fastidiousness is a golfing disease. Players think in inches, groundspeople in millimetres. For three months, Johnston notes, the greens are cut by 0.02mm every other day so that the plants aren't stressed till they reach their appointed length of 2.59mm. Even the rough is comparatively short at 51mm, but Johnston has kept it there deliberately. He believes that if it's too high, the pros pragmatically chip the ball out. By keeping the rough low he hopes to provoke their instinct for risk. Don't be safe, fellows, go for it.

The final examination is the par-five 18th, which looks a prolonged test for the amateur at 496m (456m from the whites) but a concise challenge for a pro. After all, on the first day of the 2016 US Open, the 12th hole was 684 yards (625m). Yawn, it was birdied 11 times.

Scott should reach the 18th green with two muscular shots, but for our trio getting that far requires a fiendish equation: three, straight, long shots in succession. Moon landings are easier. First try, no one pars. But on the second try, Lim, who has the best day, is poetic: a driver, a 5-wood and an 8-iron to two metres. He studies his birdie putt as if it were an ancient text. He just misses.

To play here before the Open was a trial, a treat and a tutorial. Last year, the champion finished 12-under over 72 holes; this trinity have together played six holes in 30 over par. "Can I swear in a newspaper," laughs the sporting Heng. Then she adds, "It's amazing what these guys (the pros) can do. To hit long, hold the greens and make the putts. It was a good taste of the real thing."

So go to Sentosa this week. See the towering hitting. The control. The delicacy. Pros are Picassos, we are only house painters. But once in a while, as Wong will tell you, golf's generous god lets us understand what their world feels like.

The day ended with a replay of the par-four third hole and Wong, suffering all day, found himself behind the green, 25 metres from the hole, already having hit six shots. He sighed, he swiped, the ball curled, it spun, it fell into the hole. "I love this game," he grinned. Golf gives back. Just enough to make you come back.

WATCH VIDEO

Amateur golfers play three of Serapong's toughest holes at http://str.sg/4W7z

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 17, 2017, with the headline 'Golf's joy encapsulated in three Serapong holes of punishment'. Print Edition | Subscribe