Sporting Life: Golf ranking shows Serapong still on the right course

If you go to eBay right now, you can buy a framed poster of baseballer Derek Jeter and his famous words: "My office is at Yankee Stadium. Yes, dreams do come true." Nice line, pal, but you can't beat golfers. No one has bigger, more beautiful offices and this week it's the Serapong Course at Sentosa Golf Club.

It's a green, gorgeous, grand office with sandboxes, palm trees, herons and a plaque dedicated to The Duck (Angel Cabrera is known as El Pato). It has metal cranes next door which remind you of sound mechanics, lagoons that calm you before you sink in them and a 13th hole so intimidating it should have a defibrillator at the tee box.

It's enchanting but Jeter can take my tee time there any time. I can't bear the place.

Andy Johnston is trying not to grimace when I say that. He's the genial director of agronomy and general manager of the club whose idea of fun is talking fertilisers. When he talks about feeling the daily shavings from a green in the morning, and smelling them (it tells him how much fertiliser he needs), he sounds like a man who has met nirvana.

Serapong has just been ranked No. 79 in the world by Golf Digest in its Top 100 Greatest Golf Courses rankings - two years ago it was 58 - and the credibility of the source gives the number some weight.

Stadiums can be exquisite pieces of architecture which envelop a field. But in golf it's the very design of the field which matters, the playability, the geography, the challenge, making for an exquisite playground within which even we are allowed to play. At the Bernabeu they'd tell you to buzz off. At Serapong you just need to open your wallet wide to hit into one of its 122 bunkers.

The ranking isn't to be sniffed at because it's nice for a small nation to make such a big impression, for a city of stone and glass to have its grass and trees talked about, for a scholarly land to be praised for a sporting field. It's also a good time for every golfer to doff their hat to the 75 staff who keep a course in superb condition in a sweaty country all through the year.


CaptionThe Serapong course at Sentosa Golf Club has been ranked No. 79 in the world
by Golf Digest in its Top 100 Greatest Golf Courses. PHOTO: SERAPONG COURSE

The first two clubs on the Golf Digest Top 100 list opened in the 1880s while the Serapong course opened in the 1980s. Says Johnston: "It's humbling to be shoulder to shoulder with some of the great clubs of the world. It's just an honour."

Not for me.

I played Serapong from the black tees 10 years ago and lost five balls in nine holes. Subsequently the club owes me 15 more unfindable balls. The rough can swallow your self-esteem. The greens are 11,000 sq ft on average (the US average, says Johnston, is 5,500 sq ft) and perfect three-putt territory.

There are 10 holes where water comes into play and I never listened to Bob Rotella, the golf psychologist, who once reportedly said: "It won't help to tell yourself, 'Don't hit it in the water'. Your mind will only hear 'water'."

We asked a few local players to use three words to describe Serapong and Lam Chih Bing said "Scenic, fantastic, challenging", Quincy Quek said "pristine, tricky, exclusive" and Johnson Poh said "Gotta play smart". In short, what I don't like about Serapong is what makes it special: It's thoughtful and tough. Just to confirm that no one agrees with me, Scott Barr sent a three-word voice message: "Pure golfing heaven."

Stadiums can be exquisite pieces of architecture which envelop a field. But in golf it's the very design of the field which matters, the playability, the geography, the challenge, making for an exquisite playground within which even we are allowed to play. At the Bernabeu they'd tell you to buzz off. At Serapong you just need to open your wallet wide to hit into one of its 122 bunkers.

Well, hopefully on Thursday it will be when the SMBC Singapore Open commences because right now the course isn't where Johnston wants it to be and you can't blame him. Since New Year's Eve they've had 250mm of rainfall, including five days of non-stop rain, and it's like emptying a pool onto your living room carpet.

"It would have crippled 95 per cent of courses," says Johnston. Later he explains that "rain creates algae, it leaches out fertility, it slows growth down". It also makes the par-71, 6,765m course play longer. Unless you're Cabrera, of course.

The Duck once hit a drive on the 18th which was the horizontal version of a missile launch and which spent a long time sailing over the water. As Johnston recounts, a member said, "It's in the water" to which the Argentinian barked, "No, it's not". It wasn't and he hit a subsequent six-iron from 200m, birdied, and won the title. Thus the plaque.

That was 2007, this is 2018 and everything is aimed at drying the course. The SubAir system under the greens, which sucks the water out, has been working almost 24 hours a day, and three special rollers, which help firm up fairways and which arrived only weeks ago, have been pressed into urgent use.

There is science, sweat, technology at work in this corner of Singapore, which is the only way you get to be No. 79 in the world. Nevertheless Johnston is taking nothing for granted when it comes to the weather. Because when I laughingly ask, have you been praying, buddy, he replies: "Every night."

"And in the morning. And at lunchtime."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 16, 2018, with the headline 'Golf ranking shows Serapong still on the right course'. Print Edition | Subscribe