Greg Norman’s stunning new creation on the southern coast of Vietnam may be called The Bluffs, but it’s a layout that holds all the aces
By Robbie Greenfield
To be precise my initial glimpse of the sprawling golf course from the bay window of a 21st floor room in The Grand resort hotel elicited more of a “woaaah”. The sight that greeted me was enough to spur even the most recreational golfer to dive theatrically for his clubs and sprint to the nearest elevator.
If Chambers Bay is America’s archetypal modern links on steroids, then The Bluffs is undoubtedly Asia’s answer to it. The course has been carved out of a rugged site sandwiched between a sweeping coastline and an impenetrable Vietnamese jungle. From high up in the hotel you can make out nearly all 18 holes as they tumble and weave dramatically from elevated vantage points to pristine fairways that bisect the towering sand dunes on either side.
Bathed in the warm glow of an early morning sun, it was some first impression.
Given the scope of the entire development, The Bluff s was always destined to be a big golf course with a personality to match. Its accompanying hotel, The Grand Ho Tram, looks like it has been airlifted directly from the Las Vegas Strip. Described as Vietnam’s fi rst ‘beachfront integrated luxury resort’, it’s a massive property with over 500 rooms, a nightclub, cigar lounge and naturally, a sizeable casino. The Grand is the trailblazer for a number of neighbouring resorts in the pipeline that will transform this stretch of coast into a mini-Macau over the next few years. To arrive at such a venue after a 90-minute drive from Ho Chi Minh City through small rural towns and fairly nondescript countryside is disorienting to say the least. What is quickly apparent though from the second you leave the airport is that Vietnam doesn’t do mundane.
As soon as The Grand’s luxury shuttle (complete with reclining leather seats and WiFi) emerged from the terminal, we were engulfed by a dense swarm of mopeds. It was like being caught up in some vast motorised migration, with each vehicle intent on aggressively changing lanes without depositing.
There are allegedly four million mopeds in Ho Chi Minh (or put another way, one per every person over the age of 12), and most of them seemed to be fl anking us as we sped past bustling side streets, crowded neon-lit bars and street food stalls serving everything from meat skewers to fried octopus. Southeast Asia buzzes with an energy that’s unique to this part of the world, and in few cities is this as palpable as Ho Chi Minh.
Vietnam’s potent mix of both ancient and modern history, jaw-dropping geography (just Google Ha Long Bay and you’ll get the idea) and famous cuisine has long established it as a favourite among travellers, and now you can add world class golf to that list of attractions. For several years now the country has been quietly emerging as a strong alternative to Thailand (the reigning champion of Asian golf tourism), and while it can’t compete in terms of volume, Vietnam has done a great job carving its own compelling niche.
In just fi ve years, the central Danang region has become a golfi ng hotspot, off ering courses designed by Nick Faldo, Colin Montgomerie and Norman himself. The Australian legend’s Danang Golf Club was widely considered to be the fi nest layout in the country, until he was given an even better opportunity to showcase his design prowess at Ho Tram.
The Bluff s is one of those projects that even the top designers only get a crack at once or twice in their careers. Most modern sites require the architect to sculpt interesting topography out of nothing, or at least fi nd a way of fi tting the layout into restrictive corridors of real estate, but on the Ho Tram strip, Norman was given a rugged canvass of rare potential. The former World No.1 now has 77 golf courses in his growing worldwide portfolio, and ranks The Bluffs alongside Doonbeg on the west coast of Ireland as the best site he’s ever been given to work with. Before I had even hit a shot it was easy to see why.
The Bluff s may be a purist’s golf course, but those who want a luxury experience to match the grandeur of the layout won’t be disappointed. This truly is fi ve star fare that begins with a short shuttle ride from The Grand and continues with a welcoming committee at the clubhouse that includes your designated caddie.
My only complaint about the caddies at The Bluffs was the fact that my next round would have to be endured without one; like being unceremoniously dumped in Economy directly after flying Business. Through no fault of her own, my caddie also kept my score a little too studiously for my liking (I told her I wasn’t ‘marking a card’ right after watching a provisional tee shot disappear into a bush on the 10th, but undeterred, I caught her scribbling down an 8 less than 15 minutes later). Thankfully, this unerring accuracy extended to club selection and green reading.
Like an experienced tailor sizing up a generous waistline, the limitations in my game were silently accounted for. Prudent lay-ups were politely advised, a putter was handed to me when any golfer with a crumb of belief in his short game would have grabbed a wedge, and full-blooded sevenirons were gently talked down into regular sixes. In short, my caddie prevented disaster on at least eight holes, all the while maintaining a steady flow of refreshments. The Bluffs has clearly gone to great lengths to recruit the most knowledgeable caddies in the region, and it all adds up to visiting golfers shooting lower scores and having a better time doing it.
I played the course with head teaching professional Patrick Kelly and course superintendent Alistair MacFadyen – one of those golfers who tells you he plays off six with a wink, then unfurls a drive off the first tee that hangs in the air for eight seconds and lands on mown grass 300 yards away. On a lesser course this routine might have started to get to me, but anyone who tees it up here will be having far too much fun to worry about being shamed by their playing partners. Right from the short par 4 first hole, which shares a fairway with nine (in a nod to the classic links courses), The Bluffs is a non-stop thrill ride.
It is every inch a modern beast, and despite drawing much of its inspiration from the crumpled links of Scotland, any efforts to make a direct comparison would be off the mark. But why go for subtle nuances when the terrain and its accompanying features are so visually dramatic? There is no weak hole that makes up the numbers here, no tee box that doesn’t prompt a sharp intake of breath. The front nine par 3s – two, four and seven – are three of the best short holes you’ll ever play one after the other. Eight is a majestic par 4 that plays downhill from a high tee to a giant double-fairway and then up again to a green hidden among the dunes.
Incredibly, the back nine is even more striking than the front. While the opening holes skirt right up against the forest (epitomised by the par 3 fourth green, which pops up like an island among a carpet of trees), from the 10th hole onwards the course ascends to higher ground, where the vistas are superb. Norman has been generous with the landing areas, which is just as well given how exposed some of the holes are. As you might expect with a links-like course, it can get pretty windy here, and the capricious Vietnamese weather can turn in an instant.
After climbing back up to the clubhouse for the final time and escaping The Bluffs’ brutal par 4 closer with a respectable bogey, my immediate conclusion was that I had played a course destined for superstar status. With The Bluffs set to host its first Asian Tour event – the $1.5 million Ho Tram Open in early December – that reputation is unlikely to be a long time in coming.