(Photographs by Nick Wall)
Greg Norman’s third Vietnam creation is unquestionably his best
By Kent Gray
Vietnam was recognised as the best golf destination on the planet at last month’s World Golf Awards, the culmination of annual industry and consumer voting designed to reward excellence in course design and luxury golf getaways. The Greg Norman-designed KN Golf Links – Cam Ranh in the country’s southern central coast province of Khánh Hòa is a shiny new example of why the gong is so thoroughly deserved.
Situated at the southern tip of a 12km stretch of one of the white sandy beaches that Vietnam is so famous for, the aptly named ‘Long Beach’, KN Golf Links drew almost instant admiration when it was named Asia’s best new course within weeks of opening last October. As we went to press, it was also recognised as Vietnam’s course of the year at the 20th Asia Golf Awards held in India.
Vietnam’s first true links is the centrepiece of an alluring 1000 hectare master development slowly taking shape. It will eventually house luxury waterfront hotels with beach clubs, a selection of restaurants serving some of South East Asia’s tastiest cuisine and even a casino to risk any winnings you take from your pals on course during the day.
While it’s a picturesque 30-minute to the historic port resort of Cam Ranh and an hour to the main city of Nha Trang, KN Golf Links is a mere 7km skip from the terminal at Cam Ranh Airport. The extra effort of the short connecting flight from one of Vietnam’s main hubs – just 45 mins from Ho Chi Minh City and 90 minutes from Hanoi – is well worth the effort. But don’t take our word for it; you’ll know you’ve made the right choice when the layout’s dramatic elevation changes and rumpled, sand dune sculpted fairways first come into view on the short drive from the airport.
If you aren’t wowed already by the views on the sea-side drive-in, prepared to be seriously impressed by the opulent clubhouse at KN Golf Links – Cam Ranh. At 7500 sq metres, it gives even the lavish clubhouses of the UAE a genuine run for their money. Through the main doors after bag drop, you’re immediately struck by the soaring, stained glassed-domed ceiling and lashings of intricate, old-school woodworking, all impressively crafted in-house.
Chances are you’ll be meet by Simon Mees, the thoroughly affable Scot who was general manager at Al Hamra Golf Club in Ras Al Khaimah between 2008-2016. Mees was headhunted to open KN Golf Links – Cam Ranh and deserves genuine kudos for the work he achieved in the year beforehand in ensuring the 27-holes now in play are presented in such pristine condition and all the little service touches take place without a hitch. There isn’t so much as a used paper cup out of place on the new general manager’s watch.
There’s a well-stocked pro shop past the lobby for a souvenir polo or to replenish your golf ball stocks but good luck focusing on your purchase with the views beyond the massive plate glass windows. Out on the balcony, drink in the reverse views to those on the drive-in, a curvy practice putting green giving way to the impossibly green fairways that jut out of the sand dunes and make their way down to the inviting South China Sea.
Downstairs is Links Café, the perfect spot for pre- and post-round refreshments and a variety of Asian and western plates; the author can thoroughly recommend the spicy chicken pho which set up our first circuit of the championship course with just the right amount of zing; the noddle soup was a perfect match for the early to mid 30-degree temperatures we encountered in late October.
GREAT WHITE BITES
We’re unashamed fans of Norman’s design philosophy which offers generous landing areas off the tee to keep the pace of play flowing and golfers of all abilities engaged before gently upping the ante with approach to green shot-making.
The constant and dramatic changes in elevation, with holes slowing twisting and tumbling this way and that are a joy to the golfing senses. The bunkering at KN Golf Links also enhances the Great White Shark’s canny knack of placing strategic hazards that manage to meld seamlessly into the rumpled landscape while somehow augmenting the overall aesthetics.
The Zeon Zoysia fairways are unquestionably the best the author has ever had the good fortune of taking an iron to and that is saying something coming from the pristine surfaces we’re lucky enough to take for granted in the UAE. It’s as if a wee golfing fairy has arrived at your drive in the fairway just before you and gently nestled your ball atop a tiny bristled tee, ready for the next shot to be clipped off the top. Divots really are gracious affairs at KN Golf Links, a tiny scuff for even crisply struck shots as opposed to the messy explosions you’ll experience elsewhere in Asia.
Depending on the wind, you’ll experience approach shots with just about every club in the bag. Pick the right teeing options and the majority will be score-able shot irons but take care with even the shortest of approaches as misses will scoot off around the impressively contoured greens complexes. The result will be a delicate short game examination and especially so if you go off-piste into some of the particularly gnarly sandy waste areas, bunker fringes included.
The beauty of links golf is the sheer variety of the shot-making which can change from round-to-round and even within 18 holes given the conditions on any given day. This is amplified around the greens at KN Golf Links where the surfaces will test your imagination; traditional bump and runs, neatly clipped chips and pitches and long putts will stoke your creativity. You can even reach for your lob wedge if necessary given the perfect lies found on just about every blade of grass.
The Tifeagle greens are grainy and were not overly quick when we played but reportedly rolled super smooth when KN Golf Links hosted the recent Vietnam Amateur. With ample undulations and some significant breaks, they’re a joy to putt. You’ll certainly do well to walk off without a three-putt or two.
ON THE TEE
The 1st is a 596 yard (from the ‘Shark’ championship tees) par 5 that gives hint to the fun – and not unmanageable – challenge to follow. Ignited atop an elevated tee ground (the tees are large and impossibly flat), your round begins with an inviting downhill tee shot where a fairway bunker to the right is the main danger to be avoided. Thereafter you ascend slowly uphill to roughly the maximum height of the property and a green that is well protected to the right. Err left up this hole and you’ll be off to a steady start.
The round starts par-5, par-3, par-4, par-3 (the latter to a partial Island green) to help you remove any travel rust from most of the clubs in your bag. You play away from the sea from the 2nd, a long par 3 which Mees impressively birdied from two feet, and then heads downwards into a valley which is home to the next five holes.
We loved the par-4 5th which hugs one of the properties four man-made lakes. The tee shot will hasten the pulse of any golfer susceptible to a shot that goes left while the narrow approach to the green with its sweeping undulations is one of the stiffest shots you’ll face all day. Take par here and run.
The uphill 8th is a dandy with picturesque bunkering framing the 388-yard par-4. You’ll also appreciate the 9th which returns you back up onto the spine of the course with those magnificent sea views. There are actually two sets of black and secondary gold tees on this hole, separated by a big sand dune. They give the tee shot on this downhill par-4 a completely different feel and, heading back towards the ginormous clubhouse, would be a worthy closing hole.
Thankfully, KN Golf Links is only just starting to ramp up as you weave up and down dale. The 10th is a short, downhill dogleg left with perhaps the most aesthetically welcoming tee shot on the course. That’s until the 15th which is KN Golf Links signature hole, another downhill par-4 played to a narrow spit of fairway with a waste bunker running down almost the entire left-hand length of the 385-yard hole. Good luck not being distracted by those views out to the picture-postcard islands offshore.
The finish is a par-3, par-5, par-4 combo that again gives you hope off the tee before becoming increasingly tricky the closer you get to the green. The 17th plays long with the third shot (or fourth, or fifth…sigh) demanding careful negotiation from down the right-hand side of the hole. The closing par-4 is framed by mammoth sand dunes down the right and guest villas to the left and requires a tee shot that tumbles to the right before an accurate short iron approach to a contoured green which shows off its best features in the fading light (especially over a sundowner from your villa balcony).
While Nick Faldo’s Laguna Lang Co, Colin’s ‘Montgomerie Links’, Danang Golf Club and the also recently opened and already highly-rated Hoiana Shores further north in Danang have been a magnet to tourists for some time, KN Golf Links – Cam Ranh deserves serious consideration for a golf getaway from the Middle East.
The author can vouch for all the above save for the Robert Trent Jones Jnr II-designed Hoiana Shores but Norman’s latest creation was a special treat, enhanced by Wyndham Grand’s unique onsite hospitality (see below).
There is still a way to go before the surrounding master development is completed and while there are other courses nearby – Diamond Bay Golf & Villas (on Nha Trang Beach) and Vinpearl Golf Club (reached by a short boat ride) – they’re not considered among Vietnam’s top draw.
But there is little reason to leave KN Golf Links with everything you could want in a golf escape onsite and plenty of family activities, including natural mud baths, good scuba diving and the historic Bonatgar Temple, within easy taxi range for rest day options.
You’ll find it hard to leave the 18-hole ‘Links’ course but for a relaxing nine to unwind after your flight or to squeeze in more golf before your departure, the club’s ‘Oasis’ 9-holer is a proper test fringed by beautifully landscaped gardens. It was just named the best new 9-hole course in Asia at the 20th Asia Golf Awards.
With temperatures tip-toeing between the late 20s and early 30s from Feb.-to Sept., this is a great mid-year option for a pair of couples and or a group of four (think your own villa complex) looking for some mid-summer respite. Wrapped up with the private villa-style accommodation and some tasty eateries soon to come online at the main Wyndham Grand lobby, it’s a stay and plays that won’t disappoint.
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Wyndham Grand KN Paradise Cam Ranh
Wyndham Grand KN Paradise Cam Ranh
For connoisseurs of fine golf getaways, the courses on offer at any given destination are the key lure, often resulting in a ho-hum first half of the stay and play equation. There’s no such concerns with an escape to KN Golf Links – Cam Ranh.
Indeed, Wyndham Grand might just have cracked the code to the perfect on-site golf getaway with their sophisticated villa-style suites at KN Golf Links.
Adorned with contemporary Vietnamese décor and all the comforts you could desire, the spacious suites are clustered together in a series of double-storey villas running down the length of the Links’ layout’s 18th fairway. Half of the bottom level includes a communal lounge and kitchen/dining facilities, perfect for travelling groups of golfers to get together for a post-round debrief. Outside there’s an inviting pool shared between each villa’s temporary residents and if you’re lucky, your balcony will offer views over the 18th green and down to Long Beach and all that equally alluring turquoise ocean.
The unique hotel’s soon to open central hub will include check-in, another pool, spa and gym and four gourmet restaurants to tempt the most discerning of taste buds. There’s also a business centre if work calls and conference facilities complete with a banquet room for large gatherings.
As an accommodation package, it’s a perfect accompaniment to the 27 Greg Norman-designed holes on offer, including the Links championship layout which was anointed Vietnam’s best new course at the recent Asian Golf Awards.
The only thing left to do is to ensure your stay and play is long enough to enjoy all that is on offer, on and off the pristine fairways.