A Secret Garden of Golf


Published: May 6, 2007

FIVE years ago, after a hiatus of nearly three decades, I began swinging the driver again in Indonesia.

On one of my first times out, the Australian ambassador, Ric Smith, picked me up at 5 on a Saturday morning in Jakarta. “Buy 20 balls, and if you finish with 5, you’ve had a good round,” he remarked as we drove south, to give me some sense of the course we’d be playing, Jagorawi.

It wasn’t much of an exaggeration. Hacked out of the jungle, the three Jagorawi courses (two 18s, and a nine) are hypnotically peaceful, staggeringly scenic — and maddeningly difficult.

Every time I start a round on Jagorawi’s Old Course (built in the early 1970s), I find myself saying, “Ah, how beautiful can it be,” as I look down at the fairway — yes, down, because it is some 100 feet lower than the tee, then gradually runs uphill more than 500 yards, and is lined on both sides with Norfolk pines and mahogany trees. Then I begin to worry whether my drive will clear the gulley and the flower bed to reach that fairway, and not stray into the trees.

There is no rough at Jagorawi. That may sound wonderful, but if you’re not in the fairway, you’re in the jungle, or river, or ravine, and village boys scramble after the balls, with an uncanny ability to find them — developed over the years and passed on to younger brothers — and then sell them back to you. Jagorawi golfers say you don’t buy balls, you lease them, and more than one friend have sworn quite colorfully never to play this club again.

Think Indonesia and tourism, and the first thing that comes to mind is probably Bali. Think golf holiday, and most people would dream of Scotland or Ireland. But Indonesia harbors one of the best-kept secrets in the world of travel: it is a golfer’s paradise.

Within an hour or so of Jakarta, there are more championship golf courses — designed by the likes of Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Greg Norman and Robert Trent Jones Jr. — than probably in any other comparable geographic place on the planet; and the cost of a round is often less than the cost of a caddy at St. Andrews.

Jakarta also boasts of having one of the oldest golf courses in Asia, Rawamangun, also known as the Jakarta Golf Club. It was founded in 1872, and when Suharto ruled Indonesia, which he did with an iron hand for nearly 30 years, this is where he and his cronies played. It is an old-fashioned English-style course, short (you’ll rarely use a driver) and tree-lined.

After playing five days of golf with me in Indonesia recently, an Australian friend, Tony Sernack, declared, “It’s better than going to Sydney.” That’s quite a testimonial, given that Tony, a management consultant-cum-accomplished photographer, is a former chairman of greens at the New South Wales Club in Sydney, which has been ranked as one of the top 50 golf courses in the world; he twice played there with Bill Clinton. (He could dine out for a long time on the stories he has of those rounds.)

I took Tony first to the New Course at Jagorawi. I bogeyed No. 11, a par 5. On No. 12, I thought, well this should be an easy par — only 153 yards. But you have to hit the green, and hold it — too short, and you’re in the ravine or the steep bunkers in front; too long and you’re in another bunker, or the river behind.

Then came No. 13. Every time, I vow not to think about the ravine just ahead, which requires a drive of over 150 yards to clear. And the fairway quickly narrows, with jungle on the left and right. I usually don’t succeed in hitting the fairway, and thus make another donation to the village boys (they got two from me that day).

On No. 14, you look at another ravine from the tee, and another one after that — and more boys scrambling into place for an errant shot.

They call it a “amen corner” for good reason.

But if you don’t want to pray (or curse), just head down the road, for less than 15 minutes away are two superb clubs, Riverside and Emeralda. Riverside is longer and tougher, with a double dogleg par 5.

Adjacent to Riverside is Emeralda, which has three nine-hole courses — the River and Lake layouts were designed by Mr. Palmer; a third nine, Plantation, by Mr. Nicklaus. The courses are well maintained and manicured, with undulating greens. There is rough, and it’s nasty.

But there is also whimsy. No. 4 on Plantation is an interesting 154-yard par 3, over a paddy field with stick-figure scarecrows in local dress.

The three Emeralda courses were completed in 1995. There was to have been a fourth, but the Asian economic crisis crashed the business dreams.

Just what that meltdown did to the ambitions of golf developers is even more visible at Rainbow Hill (or Bukit Pelangi in Indonesian). It is situated in the mountains near Bogor, a pleasant city with a noted botanical garden and the royal palace where President Bush met in November with the Indonesian president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

You gasp upon entering the clubhouse and viewing the course through two-story high windows. Playing this hilly course, you get a look at recent Indonesian history — environmental, economic and political. Beyond the trees and other colorful flora on the course, the terraced hillsides are scarred and denuded — an all-too-familiar sight in Indonesia, and which partly explains why rains in February triggered horrific floods.

Along the fairways stand gray, silent shells of huge mansions — it looks like Sarajevo during the war. This was intended to be a major resort development, and one stares in jaw-dropping disbelief at what was planned, and is now abandoned. A Sheraton Hotel is partly built; the stadium tennis courts, dreaming of international tournaments, barely started.

That economic collapse also explains why it is easy and inexpensive to play there — quality courses desperate for greens-fee-paying players are charging as little as 245,000 rupiahs, about $26 at 9,270 rupiahs to the dollar. But as the Indonesian economy picks up, which it is, I imagine that it won’t be long before it will be much harder, and certainly more expensive.

I’M not the only foreigner who took up golf while living in Jakarta. Many ambassadors and expatriate executives who had never played before become true believers, routinely getting up at 4:30 or 5 on a Saturday morning (not easy in a city with a vibrant night life).

For one thing, with the pollution and traffic, and little green space, golf offers a rare chance to get some outside activity. And the cost of playing is a fraction of what it would be in the United States, Europe or Australia — only on Bali does it cost more than $100 a round, and on most courses the greens fee during the week comes to less than $50.

(The only months when the weather is a problem is the December-to-February rainy season. Extremely rare, however, is the day that it is impossible to play at all. The hard rains, often accompanied by lightning, which causes courses to sound the siren, are usually in the mid-to-late afternoon.)

Finally, professional lessons are available, from Australian, British, Korean, Indonesian pros, for as little as $25 an hour. There is no guide to instructors, but they can be found at any of the driving ranges, or through local golfers, whom you will easily meet.

Recently, a sophisticated golf school, the Bank Commonwealth Institute of Golf, opened at Jagorawi, where two young Australian pros give 45-minute private lessons for $50 (www.bciog.com). One instructor, Daniel O’Neill, even convinced me that I could use one of those monster-headed drivers. I had limited my tee shots to a 3-wood, having read somewhere that if you’re over a 15-handicap, leave the driver at home. Under Daniel’s tutelage, I began hitting the driver not only farther, of course, but also straighter, which stunned me.

The school is trying to develop junior golfers, to represent Indonesia on the international circuit. Keep your eyes out for Ujang Zarems, who started chasing balls like other village boys, but is now a willowy 5-foot-1, 110-pound 15-year old — with a 3 handicap!

Many of Ujang’s friends from the village are caddies. The caddies may be legendary at St. Andrews, but caddies are surely Indonesia’s golf signature. The charges vary from course to course, but $10 is tops, and most golfers, except the stingy, tip $10.

Some caddies have single-digit handicaps, and it becomes like playing with an instructor: “You lifted your head.” “You didn’t follow through.”

They can read greens to within a blade of grass. “Two balls left.” “Uphill.” “Fast green.”

After playing numerous rounds with these caddies, I was lost when I went to the United States or Australia and played. Do I hit a 5-iron or a 6-iron? How far right should I putt this for the break? When I returned to Indonesia, I still took a caddy (most courses require you to), but I listened to him, or her, less, and tried to make my own decisions.

YES, there are female caddies. On most courses, the caddies, who pull or drive carts, are young women.

Indeed, that is part of the experience, in the eyes of most expatriates who play there. When Tony and I asked local golfers where to play on his last day, after we had already had rounds at Jagorawi, Emeralda and Rainbow Hill, one of the courses recommended was Bogor Raya. It has “the most beautiful caddies in Asia,” more than one told us.

It is also a challenging course, but we opted for Bumi Serpong Damai, where the female caddies wear long-sleeved shirts (protection against the sun) with pink hoods. We played behind a lithe Singaporean woman in her 30s, with a long pony tail, three kids and a rhythmic swing.

I left this course, designed by Jack Nicklaus, with one memory: sand. Along the left side of the sixth hole, a short par 4, the bunker runs more than 100 yards. I avoided that, by going too far right, into some low, thick shrubs.

Then I faced the green, where they had placed the pin in the left corner. If I hit over the green, I’d be in more jungle, or the river. I hit to the right and then faced an unpleasantly long put on an undulating green. In general, the greens are nasty.

Golf in Indonesia has something else to offer: ways to make you forget the last four hours and take away the aches. Nearly every course has a spa — hot tub, cold tub, sauna and massage. With little question, however, the best massages are not at any golf course, but at Bersih Sehat, which offers a “massage for the family.”

A massage in Indonesia that isn’t a euphemism for other activity is a rarity, and Bersih Sehat, which has several locations in central Jakarta, is that exception. For $10, you get an hourlong massage that is unmatchable, and leaves you ready for another round tomorrow.


There are no accomplished golf tour operators in Indonesia, so a golf holiday there is a do-it-yourself operation. But don’t let that deter you. Golf Promo Indonesia, at http://www.indogolf.com, gives basic information on dozens of courses on Java, Bali and other islands.

Don’t be put off when you read that a course is for “members and guests.” During the week, it is possible to play almost any course. Greens fees fluctuate roughly from $30 to more than $100, depending on time of year, day of the week and the exchange rate, which is now about 9,270 rupiahs to the dollar.


I took an informal survey of playing colleagues for courses they would recommend to visitors. The panel, whose handicaps ranged from 2 to 28, included five ambassadors, several foreign business executives and an Indonesian, Winston Wiharto, who owns a courier company, is a member at several clubs and is the intrepid organizer of a motley bunch for Saturday golf (groups.yahoo.com/group/wwfriendship).

Here are their recommendations:


Jagorawi Golf and Country Club (62-21-875-3810-15; http://www.jagorawi.com) is about 45 minutes south of Jakarta on the Jagorawi toll road. This is the rare course that is difficult to get on without a member sponsor. But guests at the Lodge at Jagorawi (62-21-879 02483), where a double is 550,000 rupiahs, about $60, and a suite 880,000, or $95, can play, as well use the 25-meter pool and the tennis courts.

Another option is to stay at the Gran Melia, a 428-room, luxury hotel in central Jakarta (62-21-526-8080, http://www.granmeliajakarta.com), which has an arrangement with Jagorawi, allowing guests to play. John Richards, the general manager at the Park Lane (www.parklanejakarta.com), and managers at other hotels, including the Shangri-La and Mandarin, can get guests at their hotels privileges as well.

Emeralda Golf Club (62-21-875-9019; http://www.emeraldagolfclub.com) is just down the toll road from Jagorawi, as is the Riverside Golf Club (62-21-867-1533; http://www.riverside-golf.com), where there is a meandering swimming pool for children or a spouse who might not play golf.

Bukit Pelangi Golf and Country Club, or Rainbow Hill (62-251-270-222, http://www.bukitpelangigolf.com), is not far from those courses, but is at a higher altitude in Bogor, and so is delightfully cooler.

Bumi Serpong Damai (62-21-537-0290; http://www.damaiindah-golf.com) in North Jakarta is another course that is supposed to be for “members and guests.” But I had no trouble getting a tee time on a Monday morning a couple of months ago.

Bogor Raya (62-251-271-888; http://www.bogorlakeside.com/golf.html) is a verdant course in pleasant climes near Bogor. Its clubhouse has a locker room that offers views of the greenery.

Rancamaya Golf and Country Club (62-251-242 282; http://www.rancamayaestate.com) is a resort-housing-golf development near Bogor Raya. It is hard, but not impossible, to play without a member sponsor, but it has a long list of courses in the United States, Europe, Australia and Asia with which it has reciprocal privileges.

Cengkareng Golf Club (62-21-5591-1111; http://www.cengkarenggolfclub.com) is so close to the international airport that the local name for a high tee shot is a Garuda, after the national airline. One of the most popular courses in Southeast Asia, it gets more than 70,000 rounds a year. But the wear doesn’t show on this well-maintained course. The biggest drawback is that if a military general or high government official shows up, he and his entourage are given priority, and a round can take six hours.

There are two options — and renting a car and driving yourself is definitely not one. Either hire a hotel car and driver, or a Silver Bird taxi (62-21-798-1234 or 62-21-794-1234). Its cars are comfortable, spacious sedans, and the drivers are reliable and honest. From most major Jakarta hotels to Jagorawi, Riverside, Emeralda and Bogor, it will be less than $50 round trip. A hotel car and driver will cost at least twice that.


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