The ensuing pandemic has given golf a shot in the arm like no other in the game's recent history. Courses are packed, and getting a tee time is as hard to come by as a hole in one, or so it seems.
Within this lively environment, Golf Digest recently completed its biennial golf-course rankings for Singapore.
Sentosa Golf Club's (SGC) Serapong course, home of the SMBC Singapore Open, maintains its No. 1 spot, but for the first time in several years, it has a viable contender in the wings.
Singapore Island Country Club's (SICC) new 27-hole New Course has entered the fray with its opening in the middle of this year, and the Millennium-Peirce 18-hole combination charged up the rankings to sit brazenly in second place.
Golf Digest includes only one 18-hole combination for ranking purposes, and Millennium-Peirce is arguably SICC's select championship course at the New.
Competition from the New Course notwithstanding, there is no refuting Serapong is Singapore's top golf course, an accolade it has held since 2013, for many reasons.
Its difficulty, high shot-value quotient and impeccable conditioning have impressed golfers since it became the default home to the country's national open tournament.
Smack in the middle of the pandemic's early days last year, SGC general manager and director of agronomy Andrew Johnston started a refurbishing programme at Serapong.
"It's been 16 years since we had a renovation," he said. "We replaced the turf on the fairway with the same grass, Zoysia matrella, which will improve surface drainage.
"We also introduced some contouring in places that have become a little flat. Bunker sand was also replaced, and the edging of these hazards were redesigned to give it a more rugged look."
Golfers familiar with Serapong will also notice that the par-four, sixth hole has grown some teeth.
GOLF DIGEST'S SINGAPORE COURSE RANKINGS
1 Sentosa Golf Club - Serapong (Average rating 7.39)
2 Singapore Island Country Club - New-Millennium-Peirce (7.17)
3 Sentosa - New Tanjong (6.81)
4 Tanah Merah Country Club - Tampines (6.51)
5 Laguna National Golf Resort Club - Classic (6.37)
6 SICC - Bukit (6.37)
7 Seletar Country Club (6.32)
8 SICC - Island (6.06)
9 Warren Golf & Country Club (5.95)
10 Laguna - Masters (5.91)
11 Sembawang Country Club (5.89)
12 National Service Resort & Country Club - Changi (5.65)
13 Tanah Merah - Garden (5.62)
14 NSRCC - Kranji Sanctuary (5.14)
15 Marina Bay (5.07)
16 SICC - Sime (4.66)
17 Orchid Country Club - Vanda/Aranda (4.62)
Note: Golf Digest includes only one 18-hole combination for ranking purposes.
Enhanced bunkering and the removal of a bailout area to the left has tightened the landing options here. Not only does the hole look better, but it has become even harder now to secure that par.
While Johnston and his team continue to set standards by which all golf clubs here are measured, all eyes were set on the opening of SICC's New Course.
Architect Graham Marsh's reimagination of the course sitting on pristine land next to Upper Seletar Reservoir and a national park was several years in the making.
Fortunately, for the club's members, it was well worth the wait.
He managed to open up vistas hidden by congested foliage, and cut swaths through swampy forest where bridges now connect holes to each other without tampering with the natural terrain.
Golf Digest panellists who played on the course were irrevocably impressed with the work done.
Some were convinced that playing on it "didn't seem like playing in Singapore". We can only assume that was a good thing.
There was little movement lower in the rankings. Seletar Country Club's renovated course made an entrance at a commendable seventh. Designers GolfPlan provided a decent upgrade, but several panellists were disappointed not more was done to recreate the holes.
Tanah Merah Country Club's Garden Course, opened in February last year, also enters the ranking this year. The Robert Trent Jones Jr-designed par-71 course - severely compromised by land taken away for airport works - suffered from holes positioned too close to each other, low shot-option scores, and intentional ribbon tees causing an uneven teeing ground.
Given the limited land area, and proximity to the airport, Trent Jones Jr's creativity produced an interesting layout that while distance-challenged, has been considered a fun track to play. That said, the latest iteration remains a far cry from the "old" Garden, which was the country's best course as ranked by Golf Digest in 2011.
Golfers will also notice that Keppel Club has been omitted from this year's rankings. Singapore's "oldest golf club in its original location" will cease to exist come the end of the year. The club will take over the Sime Course at SICC next year, but will have to share tee times with the public.
The exact details of the handover, as well as impending renovations to the Sime course, are yet to be finalised, but for all intents and purposes, the course will not be around come the new year.
Given that demand for golf is seeing greater heights during a period of reduced international travel, several of Singapore's courses have taken the opportunity to refurbish.
Orchid Country Club just completed rebuilding its green complexes at the Vanda nine, and is currently working on the Dendro holes. Once that is complete, they will start on the Aranda nine.
Talk has been rife that National Service Resort and Country Club will close its Kranji course for renovation soon. It has been a long time since the Gary Player Design layout has had a makeover, and this intervention will be watched closely.
The proliferation of work being done on courses can only be seen as a good thing. Continual pursuit of excellence at SGC, and the introduction of the New Course at SICC has upped the ante. A rising tide lifts all boats, and golfers can only look forward to greater things ahead.
For now, Sentosa's Serapong still rules the roost.
• Tan Ju Kuang is the international editor for Golf Digest.