Published for TALK Magazine in February 2009
I was out of my depth. The caddy director had informed me that I’d be joining a party of three waiting at the first tee as I hurriedly picked out my rental clubs and strapped them into the back of the cart. Not that it mattered at that point, but my only request was that they weren’t good golfers but I knew that I wouldn’t be so lucky. Awkward flashbacks of all the duff shots I’d hit and all the easy putts I missed as an aspiring young golfer back in Canada came flooding in hard as we rolled up to three smiling chaps ready to tee off. And not only were my newly acquainted partners good at golf but they wrote about it for a living. Sensing perhaps that I made my living at the tip of a pen, management paired me with three guys who rarely go a week without playing a few rounds. Here I was seven years removed from last holding a golf club facing down a course way out of my depth with a group of golfers way out of my league.
There are advantages and disadvantages to hitting a good shot off the first tee, but mostly disadvantages. An obvious advantage to hitting a good drive on your first shot is that it helps set the tone for the round. Where a bad shot can hasten the onset of that gnawing doubt that golfers have to battle through to play consistently, a good shot can leave a golfer feel smug and content as they confidently toss their driver back to their caddy and hop on the cart, head held high. It’s the only shot where you might have spectators other than the people in your party and it’s the one every golfer loathes to mess up. But the glories of hitting that perfect 275-yard drive right down the middle don’t prepare you for the fact that you’d better follow it up with a decent second shot or risk looking like a chump, hence my problem. I so wish I had hit an average shot off the first tee. 200-yards with a slight hook would have suited me just fine. It would have said, “he’s not good, but he won’t slow the party up either.” Instead, like a chump, I stepped up to the tee for the first time in seven years with 3 pairs of golf-journalist eyes on me and drove a beauty of a shot, straight and well positioned – a good 50 yards further than the guy next to me. Eyebrows were raised and jokes about me hustling them exchanged as I silently cursed myself for doing something as stupid as hitting an amazing first shot.
Three golfers before me and three shots on the green positioned for a birdie on this fairly straight-forward par 4. I tepidly instructed my caddy to hand me an 8 iron like a surgeon fresh out of medical school asking for the wrong kind of scalpel to be used on the soon-to-be cadaver laying on the table. I stepped up to the ball telling myself, “I can do this … no big deal, just shoot a nice high and clean shot somewhere – anywhere on the green, it doesn’t matter.” A deep breath, a smooth backswing and CLACK … my head is up looking at where I envisioned my act of golfing brilliance to be but it’s not there. It’s skimming two feet above the rough going at about 100 miles-an-hour, its first bounce is on the green then beyond by a good margin. I’d topped it – badly … the kind of shot good golfers don’t hit. My jig was up. They could see me for the kind of golfer I really was. I wasn’t even wearing cleated shoes for Christ’s sake. I finished the hole having eked out a double-bogey, the rest of my party two-putting for par. But I was well set in my place, delusions of grandure placed aside and I could get back to playing the kind of mediocre golf I knew I was capable of.
They say that you improve the fastest at something when you do it with someone far superior to you and I’d have to agree in this instance because I started to play respectably after the first hole. I mean, not good enough to match them shot-for-shot, but not bad enough to seriously hold them up either. Fear helps strengthen concentration for sure, and the fellas were pretty good-natured about things because after all, who were we to complain, having the privilege to walk an immaculate course on a tropical island with a team of beautiful young caddies whispering tips and reads into our ears as we enjoyed a beer and a joke or two at Mission Hills Haikou. Good times.
Our host, Mission Hills, is reputed for its vast resort in Shenzhen decided to develop a similar golf haven on Hainan to satiate China’s thirst for high-quality courses. Set on a vast estate of volcanic rock stretching over 23,000 yards and three distinct courses, it boasts good distance and a challenging short game for golfers throughout China and Southeast Asia. Blackstone, the longest of the three completed courses (Mission Hills Haikou has plans to build another 7 courses) represents the most distinctive element that the area surrounding Haikou has to offer: black rock. Natural hazardous outcroppings and formidable volcanic rock walls make this 7,777-yard course particularly difficult. Mix in a good dose of man-made challenges such as the pock-marked lunar-eske bunkers scattered just about everywhere, and you have a course worthy of professional consideration, which is why Mission Hills hosted this year’s Star Trophy, a Pro-Am tourney drawing in some of the biggest names in golf including Colin Montgomerie and female star Annika Sorenstam. They played the par-72 Blackstone course paired with celebrity golf aficionados like Michael Phelps and Catherine Zeta-Jones.
The resort itself is close enough to Haikou that an evening on the town is possible yet far enough away to avoid the congestion and crowds. Just 20 minutes from the airport, Mission Hills does well to balance both sides of things for people looking to explore the area. That’s not to say that there’s not enough to explore in itself at the resort. The 518-room hotel boasts 8 food and beverage outlets, a spa (with volcanic hot springs), a sports centre, extreme sports zones and a big enough swimming pool to keep the kids busy for weeks. Shopping opportunities abound as an entire arcade has been dedicated to those with the need to peruse through some of the world’s most exclusive luxury brands during their stay. Staff are accommodating and gracious throughout the resort, never caught without a smile, perhaps owing to Hainan’s island hospitality. Yes, Mission Hills is very much a resort for golfers, but it’s also an ideal venue to host loved ones as said golfers battle it out during the day and lap up the resort’s amenities in the late afternoons and evenings with family and friends.