As you may recall, I was in China a few weeks ago covering The Match at Mission Hills Haikou Resort — which is located on Hainan Island, often dubbed the “Hawaii of the East” — between world no. 1 Tiger Woods and “former world no. 1″ Rory McIlroy.
I was also fortunate enough to experience all that the impressive five-star resort, which boasts 10 unique golf courses, 220 volcanic mineral spring pools, Asia’s largest spa and an array of restaurants, had to offer, including several rounds of golf — though I wished I had been able to play more than that.
“We’re building the world’s largest duty-free facility, which is over 1.6 million square feet, and my first phase of restaurant opening in May next year is 50 restaurants,” said Tenniel Chu, the vice-chairman of Mission Hills, in an one-on-one sit-down interview. “If you like food, shopping, dining, golf, world’s biggest mineral springs, then it’s sold. You don’t have to leave anywhere.”
It’s true. I could rave about the luxurious spa and the soothing mineral springs, but my specialty is golf, so I’ll stick to writing about the courses I played, starting with The Vintage, also known as “#3.”
Like many things (and even service people) in China, each golf course is identified by a number, along with the name, but when you check in at the busy registration desk, you generally refer to the course as “number-x” (otherwise, there’s often confusion and not just because of the language barrier).
“Every course has its own distinct, characteristic and style,” said Mr. Chu, referring to the resort’s 10 courses designed by Brian Schmidt of the American architecture firm Schmidt & Curley.
Golf in China is still an upper-class sport, and while some claim that’s changing, it currently remains a status symbol, where playing a round of golf is all about a full-service experience — and you’ll certainly be provided with that at Mission Hills. I swear the caddies would follow you to the bathroom if you asked! Okay, I kid, but they do virtually *everything* for you, and all you need to do is swing, if you please.
On the greens, unless you ask otherwise, the caddies will mark your ball for you, clean it, replace it, read the break and line it up using the marking on the side. For the most part, the caddies are well-trained and you can trust their read, but similar to America, you can draw an inexperienced one and it can turn into a frustrating round, especially if you’re in a tight match against your playing partners and they have more-skilled loopers (not that it happened to me or anything…).
The caddies wear hard hats and everyone rides in a golf cart (with the caddies standing on the back), but it’s cart-path only. The course is so well-designed that there are always stop points near the landing areas, so the caddie will accompany you to your ball with several clubs in hand — at times, practically your entire bag if you’re in trouble. Near the green, she (or sometimes, he) will bring your putter, 56-degree and 60-degree wedge. If you ask for anything else, like an 8-iron, because you’re going to hit a bump-and-run, you’ll get a surprised, almost confused look, but the caddie will obey docilely, of course. Then, on the next hole, she’ll bring along your 8-iron with the wedges and putter.
On the first tee I tried to introduce myself and shake hands with our two caddies and it was obvious they weren’t used to this type of gesture (they wore name tags that had their surname and a number). In other words, they’re used to being treated as service people who are solely there to provide you with the best possible advice and experience. Nothing wrong with that, but it’s just a bit different than it is here, where you’ll sometimes have long conservations and get to know the caddies a bit, and at some clubs you’ll even have a drink on the 19th hole.
When I first arrived at Mission Hills, I perused the descriptions of the various courses, and since I couldn’t play The Blackstone (#1), which was the host course for The Match, The Vintage Course stood out to me. It’s inspired by the classic courses built around the turn of the century in the United States, such as National Golf Links of America, Fishers Island, Maidstone, Chicago Golf Club, and Garden City.
While the greens were a tad slow, the conditions were absolutely impeccable — there wasn’t a blade of grass out of place. The holes included geometric shapes and sometimes quirky yet charming features that are distinctly from a bygone period — from the Merion-inspired wicker basket in place of pin flags to the bunker in the middle of the par-5 9th green a la the 6th at Riviera Country Club, or the Biarritz green on the 2nd.
Speaking of which, the course had a C.B. MacDonald/Seth Raynor type of feel, which is probably why it was my favorite of the three I played at Mission Hills. Similar to MacDonald and Raynor designs, The Vintage’s natural terrain is contrasted with distinct, unexpected, steep mounding, various (difficult) bunker shapes, ridges, large greens and blind shots.
The Biarritz at The Vintage is much thinner and longer than most of those built by MacDonald and Raynor and a bit less severe. I was able to walk away with a two-putt and anyone who follows my writings knows that’s not exactly my strong suit. I loved the array of intriguing and well-bunkered par-3s, such as the 10th (see above and in gallery below).
I wasn’t a massive fan of the 9th with the bunker in the middle of the green, though, especially since the day I played, the pin was directly behind the hazard. I almost reached the green in two and I was about 10-15 yards off to the right. It turned into a disaster and I made a 7, and yes, I somehow ended up in that goofy bunker on the green.
Overall, I really enjoyed The Vintage with the charming old-school features and inspired replica holes from the great architects of a past era — which happen to be my favorite when it comes to golf design. At first, I couldn’t decide if details like the wicker basket pins were cheesy or cool, but then I quickly decided it was the latter.
The course is meant to be a homage and the holes aren’t an *exact* copy of the classic American originals, rather used for inspiration. Which isn’t an easy feat, but it’s done quite well at The Vintage. Besides, we all know China is the master of doing just that.
Below check out pictures from The Vintage Course — click on the image for the description.