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BRINGING OUT BRUNEI'S BEST
Nazvi Careem

As a golfing destination, Brunei has been very much an enigma. Occupying barely one per cent of Borneo Island, Brunei, with a largely affluent population of less than 400,000 and a handful of exclusive golfing establishments, has never aggressively positioned itself as a getaway for golfers.

All that is changing, though, with last year's inaugural US$300,000 Brunei Open on the Asian Tour - won by Australian Terry Pilkadaris - launching the oil-rich Southeast Asian country as the region's Sultanate of Swing.

The 2006 edition, with prize money increased to US$500,000, will again take place from August 24-27 at the Jack Nicklaus-designed Empire Golf Course, part of the regal Empire Hotel & Country Club in Bandar Seri Begawan.

While an estimated one million visitors pass through Brunei's immigration checkpoints every year, golf has not figured prominently on the agenda. Largely the tourism industry in Brunei revolves around the tropical country's rich rain forests that attract eco-tourists, its opulent palaces, mosques and other cultural attractions, along with beachfront resorts offering water sports.

Jean Christophe Robles Espinosa, Tourism Expert, Market and Product Development, Brunei Tourism, is convinced that golf can be added to that list of attractions. He said: "We believe that staging the Brunei Open will help tremendously to position Brunei as a new golfing destination in Asia, one that most people have overlooked so far, mostly because of lack of awareness."

Indeed, Brunei Tourism anticipate that the publicity generated by the Brunei Open will increase the number of golf tourists.

"Because of the quality of the courses in Brunei, the luxurious accommodation and clubhouses, and the lack of crowds on the greens, golf has the potential to become one of Brunei's key tourism products, especially for the regional markets," said Robles.

Projecting a wholesome and family friendly image, Brunei also offers plenty of off-course activities to keep non-golfers occupied, ideal for those who wish to take a golfing trip with the family, while enjoying their game in peaceful, quiet and green surroundings, far from pollution, noise, traffic jams and crowds.

"As golfers are known to be high spending tourists, many from the nearby markets can expect to get 'hooked' on Brunei's golf experience and become repeat visitors, perhaps bringing friends and family along," added Robles. "We are hopeful that golf will be one of the products that will help Brunei in its tourism growth, and staging the Brunei Open is certainly a step in the right direction."

With golf courses of genuine pedigree ready to be challenged, the real golfers have made their grand entrance. Asia's elite field of professionals is putting Brunei on the golfing map, both as a venue for big tournaments and as a golfing destination.

Not only do Asian Tour officials see the Brunei event as being important for the growth of the Tour, but also as a platform for golf's development in the Sultanate.

"The establishment of the Brunei Open is a wonderful development for Asian golf and the Asian Tour. It will place Brunei firmly on the international golfing map and there will be keen media interest in the inaugural Open," said Louis Martin, chief executive of the Asian Tour.

"The Asian Tour Weekly, which is on air via ESPN STAR Sports, will provide great mileage for the event which could well create a positive spin for the growing golf tourism industry in the Sultanate."

With three championship courses in Brunei, Robles feels that it is time for the golfing community to take notice of this 'undiscovered gem of a golfing destination' only a short flight away from the region's main capitals.

Empire Excellence

"The Empire Hotel and Country Club is truly a magnificent golf facility, and one that stands out," said Martin, referring to the venue for the Brunei Open, located in Kampung Jerudong.

Built in 1997, the par-71, 6,427-metre course has been etched out of tropical jungle with lush fairways and magnificent views of the South China Sea from holes that have been carved out alongside the beach.

Walk-in visitors can play a round for B$200 (about US$120), including buggy charges. Night golf is also offered with all 18 holes floodlit.

One of the most memorable holes is the intimidating par-four sixth, a par-four measuring just 326 metres, but daring the golfer with a 190-metre tee-shot carry over a deep valley and on to a narrow fairway, with so-called 'cliffs of doom' awaiting anything that strays right.

The most difficult hole is the par-four 18th, where you tee-off from one of the highest points on the course. The index-one hole is 435 metres in distance with a tee-shot that looks down on a fairway separating daunting cliffs to the left and a large bunker on the right.

Royal Treatment

The Royal Brunei Golf & Country Club used to be the exclusive personal playground of Brunei's ruler, His Majesty Haji Hassanal Bolkiak, the 29th Sultan, and his special guests of the mostly Royal and dignitary variety.

It has previously been open only to guests of the ruler, which have included former US President Bill Clinton, Royal dignitaries and some of the world's leading golfers such as Greg Norman, Seve Ballesteros, Bernhard Langer, Nick Faldo and Tony Jacklin.

Indeed, the absence of a commercial entrance mandatory in other clubs is indicative of its exclusivity.

However, His Majesty has recently allowed outsiders to flirt with the par-72, 6,175-metre course, which is maintained to standards set by the US PGA and modelled by Ron Fream on Augusta National, home of the US Masters.

Still, one must make bookings well in advance and, as one of Asia's most exclusive courses, a tee-time is never guaranteed.

Its tight fairways and super-fast greens make it a true challenge but also gives golfers a 'jungle experience', with a nearby zoo regularly providing natural sound effects from its resident elephants and tigers.

Take Flight

Not quite as exclusive, but still a pleasant golfing experience is the RBA Golf Club, Brunei's first public course, less than 20 minutes drive from Bandar Seri Begawan and five minutes from Brunei International Airport.

Running alongside the runways of the airport, the course is owned by the country's national airline, Royal Brunei Airlines.

The Max Wexler-designed, 6,380-metre layout is generally flat with man-made lakes. Water comes into play on 14 of the holes and natural fauna remain from what used to be rain forest, offering unfriendly responses to wayward shots.

And with some strategically placed bunkers and well-sculpted mounds on the fairways, the well maintained layout [green fees: B$45-B$60 (about US$25-US$35)] will prove a stern test for most visiting golfers, especially on a windy afternoon, which can cause plenty of havoc in the relatively exposed course.

Meanwhile, the greens - also as flat as the proverbial 50 cent coin - often tilt wickedly from side-to-side, ensuring your approach shots require the utmost precision. Just ask the players from the 2003 Southeast Asian men's amateur team championship for the Putra Cup, which was contested there.

Best Of The Rest

Golfing in Brunei is not limited to the three main clubs. The Pantai Mentiri Golf Club at Jalan Pengkalan Sibabau is a visitor-friendly course.

The 18-hole, par-72 layout offers spectacular scenery and is of international standard with green fees of B$60 (US$36) on weekdays and B$120 (US$72) on weekends.

There is also the Panaga Golf Club in Seria, a members-only facility, and the Jerudong Park Polo Club, with a 9 hole 'Pitch & Putt' course.

The members-only policy for many clubs, the relatively few courses within the country and the lack of a well-known touring professional are possible hindrances to making Brunei a true focal point of Asia's golf tourism industry.

But if the Sultan, who is one of the richest men in the world, can allow his own private course to be used by outsiders, it is a sign that Brunei is opening its doors.

And with those doors welcoming Asia's best touring professionals, Brunei golf is on display to the world.

Off The Links

Once the essence of life in Brunei, the traditional water village of Kampong Ayer remains a stronghold of life in the Sultanate. Though numbers have decreased since the establishment of towns on the mainland in 1906, Kampong Ayer is still very much the 'heart' of Brunei and home to more than 30,000 people staying in the houses built on stilts along the Brunei river.

While the exterior remains much the same, word has it that the interior of many of these houses are now modernised and come with full amenities, electricity and piped fresh water. The community is also well-served by schools and clinics, as well as thriving cottage industries such as cloth-weaving, silver crafting and fishing.

Useful Information

For visits not exceeding 30 days, tourists from Germany, Malaysia, Singapore and British and New Zealand nationals are not required to obtain a visa. American passport holders can enter for up to three months without visas while visas are also waived for some other nationalities for visits not exceeding 14 days.

All other nationals entering Brunei must have visas obtainable from any Brunei Darussalam diplomatic missions abroad. These visas are normally issued for a two-week stay but can be renewed in Brunei. Visitors must have onward tickets or sufficient funds to support themselves while in the country.

Brunei's equatorial climate sees year round temperatures ranging between 23 to 32 degrees Celsius. There is no distinct rainy season although from November to March generally tends to be the wetter months.

With connections to more than 20 cities, including Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong, Frankfurt and London, Royal Brunei Airlines offers numerous non-stop flights to the Sultanate. In addition, the national airlines of Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand also fly direct to the airport.

For transactions, the Brunei dollar is the national currency, although Singapore dollars can also be used at the same value.

For dialling services, Brunei's country code is 673 while the area code for the capital Bandar Seri Begawan is 02 (drop the zero when dialling from overseas).

Contact Details

Brunei Tourism
T: +673-2 382-832
F: +673-2 382-824
E: info@industry.gov.bn
W: www.tourismbrunei.com

Royal Brunei Airlines
T: +673-2 242-222
E: onlinebooking@rba.com.bn
W: www.bruneiair.com

The Empire Hotel & Country Club
T: +673-2 418-888
F: +673-2 418-999
E: mail@empire.com.bn
W: www.empire.com.bn

Royal Brunei Golf & Country Club
T: +673-2 611-582
F: +673-2 610-499
E: rbgcc@jerudong-park.com
W: www.jerudong-park.com/rbgcc

RBA Golf Club
T: +673-2 343-724
F: +673-2 343-726
W: www.bruneiair.com/royalskies/rbagc.html

Nazvi Careem  
May 2005  


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