Turkey Sand Wedge- Golf in Belek, Turkey
History, both ancient and modern, has given Turkey a rough ride. For almost two millennia, this land of contrasts has formed a bridge between Europe and Asia. It has been a meeting point for Western and Byzantine cultures, a base for the old Eastern Church and then the Ottoman Empire, and more recently a buffer uncomfortably juxtaposed twixt Iraq and Kosovo.
Turkey's image was hardly helped by the controversial 1970s film, Midnight Express, and now there are internal troubles involving its Kurdish minority. But none of this alters the fact that its people are warm and welcoming, its society modern and dynamic, its culture rich and thriving, and its cuisine
magnificent in both quality and quantity.
When it comes to assessing and commenting on the growth and quality of Turkey as a nascent golfing destination, I am on much firmer ground. And I can report without fear of contradiction that the so-called 'Sick Man of Europe' is in the rudest of health. In the last three years, four superb new courses have been opened within five miles of each other at Belek, a new resort on the south-east (Mediterranean) coast, which boasts 30 luxury, beach-front hotels.
The whole area is known as the Turkish Riviera but, belying this grandiose and slightly passe name, it offers excellent value whether you are seeking accommodation at a five-star hotel, dining out at a sophisticated restaurant, or bartering for designer clothes at quality-seconds prices. As for golf, that costs just a small fraction of what you would part with whenever you tee it up in the Algarve or southern Spain.
To get to Belek, you can fly to Antalya, the main city of the region, which can be reached within three and a half hours from either Stansted or Heathrow, or get there in less than an hour from Istanbul.
Belek is a vibrant holiday town carved out of a pine forest framed majestically by the snow-capped Taurus Mountains. Apart from benefiting from the obvious advantages of the latest in golf construction technology, the four courses at Belek are uncannily reminiscent of the finest Algarve venues. The greens are slick and true, and the trees - mainly pine, cork or eucalyptus - are similar in shape and maturity to those found at, say, Vilamoura or Penina.
Perhaps the best known and toughest of the Belek courses is the National Golf Club, which measures 6,683 metres from the back tees and was designed by Ryder Cup Ulsterman David Feherty, now a commentator for CBS television in America. Within a few months of its opening, the National was selected by the European Seniors Tour to host tournaments in 1996 and 1997.
The National, which also has a 1,547-metre, nine- hole academy course, a 40-bay driving range and a splendid, spacious clubhouse. It is a fair challenge for golfers of all abilities. Built on gently sloping terrain, this immaculately presented layout is set among mature trees and four natural water features which Feherty was careful to incorporate in his design.
Of the other three layouts, the best established is the Gloria Golf Resort, which was opened in September 1997 and designed by Frenchman Michel Gayon. As at the National, the Gloria, which measures 6,293 metres from the back tees, also has a small academy course, perhaps for guests who do not have the time for a full round, plus a driving range, which is currently undergoing reconstruction, and a sizeable clubhouse. The Turkish Seniors Open switched to the Gloria last year and the course made a favourable impression on the Welsh former Ryder Cup player Brian Huggett, who enthused: "I would recommend any golfer or golfing group make the visit."
The course winds its way through an ancient forest en route to separating the sea from seven inland lakes. Gloria's centrepiece is a massive five-star hotel which can accommodate up to 850 guests and pro vides access to the beach via a bridge over the Acisu River. Also on site is a bright new entertainment emporium, uncannily similar to those on offer at Center Pares and the like, and aimed predominantly at children - with swimming pools, playgrounds, a snackbar, and even a room where the youngsters can take a nap (though what about their exhausted parents, you might ask).
Just over the road from the Gloria, on the east side of Belek, is the Dave Thomas-designed Nobilis Golf & Villas Resort Hotel, which is the newest and perhaps the most visually attractive of the four Belek golf venues, as well as being a searching test for all players despite its deceptively modest length of 5,877 metres.
The Nobilis is another course with that Algarve' look in a naturally beautiful setting, although the views of the Taurus Mountains from certain holes are alone worth the cost of the green fee. The technical standards to which it has been designed and built are also impressively high, with Bent grass on the greens and tees and a hardy Bermuda on the fairways and in the rough.
Yet again, the clubhouse is a first-rate facility, with a sumptuous upper-floor restaurant, a well-stocked and friendly professional's shop presided over by Yorkshireman John Nolan, and a shaded terrace bar which offers a non-stop flow of cooling libations and golfing banter.
The non-golfing highlight of the complex is the cluster of tastefully-appointed one- and two-bedroom villas, each with its own Jacuzzi, nestling around a communal swimming pool and bar and overlooking the water hazards that border the 8th and 9th holes. In addition, the luxury, five-star Nobilis hotel is currently under construction and should be open later this year.
Finally, the Fred Hawtree-designed Tat Beach International Golf Club, which is about a mile away from the National on the west side of Belek. Tat has three nine-hole loops, all measuring in excess of 3,000 metres, and several holes which run enchantingly close to the sea.
The Fred-Hawtree-designed Tat Beach International course features several holes hard by the sea.
The course, which is augmented by a nine-hole academy course and a driving range as well as by a busy professional's shop, has lush fairways, numerous water hazards and generous greens. Once again a great deal of care has been given to providing visitors with salubrious clubhouse facilities, which in this instance include a swimming pool and a breathtaking ocean view.
Among the five-star services on offer at the Tat Beach Golf Hotel (in addition, obviously, to a tremendous golf course) are satellite TV, indoor and outdoor pools, private beach, health and fitness centre and Turkish bath (well, there had to be one somewhere in this article). To cope with the recent explosion in golfing demand (the resort is already becoming popular with continental Europeans, especially the Germans), two more layouts in the Belek area are in the pipeline and due to be opened within the next 18 months.
Three loops of nine holes at Tat Beach are played out against a backdrop of the Taurus Mountains
If the inexpensiveness of the shops and stalls in Belek's friendly but competitive street market is anything to go by, the message has clearly got through to the native population that west Europeans, especially the British, are keen to take advantage of the strength of their currencies against the Turkish lira in order to snap up a whole load of bargains and souvenirs.
By popular consent, the ideal time of year to visit Belek is during the seven months between September and March, when temperatures average around 19 degrees Celsius and there is usually a refreshing breeze. During the height of summer, the weather, quite frankly, is too hot for golf (a fact which is reflected by lower green fees at that time) and the courses need a colossal amount of watering.
Among the local non-golfing attractions of the region is the ancient Greco-Roman city of Perge, which has a magnificent amphitheatre capable of accommodating 15,000 spectators and nowadays is mainly used for concerts.
The other destination for golfing travellers in Turkey, albeit a much hillier one - with 60-metre climbs in places - can be found near Istanbul, where Tony Jacklin designed the Klassis Golf & Country Club some six years ago.
It almost goes without saying that Istanbul is one of the worlds great and historic cities, and the five- star ambience of the Klassis is every bit as sybaritic as one would expect of such a location. Klassis found itself in golf's shop window when Tommy Horton won the Beko Classic there, the first tournament on the 1999 European Seniors Tour, after overhauling Bernard Gallacher in the last round.
And as you can see, Tommy won't be the last British golfer to visit Turkey and return with a smile on his face
Golftoday Golf Course directory - Turkey