Play where kings swing

17th Hole, St Andrews, Scotland
17th Hole, St Andrews, Scotland

Try to kick a footy with your friends on the Sydney Cricket Ground and you’ll probably be arrested and fined.Winning a tiebreak on centre court at Rod Laver Arena with your Sunday social group – well, it just won’t happen. Such sporting arenas are off limits to all but elite athletes.

But golf is different. Golf allows almost anyone prepared to pay or wait (or both) the chance to play the more famous championship courses of the world. Any Tom, Dick or Harry can literally tread in the spike marks of Tiger, Adam or Rory. Here’s a list of typical candidates covering five continents, so start the planning and saving now.

St Andrews, Old Course

When Tiger says, “To win at St Andrews is the ultimate,” then for any club golfer keen to play on the same hallowed turf, a round on the Old Course must be about as good as it gets. It is. And more. Teeing up on the par-4 1st, with the Royal & Ancient clubhouse right behind you, your heart starts up, the palms sweat, and the sanctity of where you actually are begins to sink in.

Hole after infamous historic hole lies in wait, as does the dreaded long fescue grass, 7 double greens (white pins on the outward leg, red pins coming home) and the 112 bunkers, many of which, apart from being deeper than an open cut coal mine, are hidden from view.

After navigating your way through 17 holes of golfing glory, nothing quite prepares you for the 18th, truly one of sport’s great sights. There’s Swilcan Burn with its famous stone bridge in front, acres of seaside links away to your left, the town itself on the right and the stately clubhouse seemingly standing guard behind the green like some royal and ancient sentinel.

Many a golfer has compared a round here to a religious experience. Even an atheist would be moved to agree.

The Belfry, Brabazon course, Warwickshire

Few British courses are synonymous with particular events as The Belfry is with the Ryder Cup. Charged with hosting the event for the fourth time in 2002, The Brabazon layout seems to have been undergoing regular redevelopment since the former potato farm was first laid with turf in the mid-70s. It’s now a much tougher course than the 1985 version that saw Sam Torrance’s crunch putt seal Europe’s first win over the USA in almost 30 years.

These days, big bunkers, lots of lakes and snaking water channels test the mettle of anyone game to take on one of Britain’s best known courses. Showpiece holes include the 260-metre 10th, reachable in one for big hitters but with a mighty water carry for the brave. In 1978, this hole played nearer 285 metres, supposedly unreachable in one because of a tricky tree placement. In 1978, Seve Ballasteros drove his tee shot to within three metres – a plaque commemorates the event. Don’t expect the same recognition if you do the same.

Valderrama, Spain

Some days the Poniente blows warm from the west: the next day the coolish Levante may waft in from the east. Herein lies just one (or is it two?) of the many challenges presented by what’s become known as Europe’s Augusta, Spain’s Valderrama. Spectacular Mediterranean views of Gibraltar and North Africa (on a clear day) are another distraction.

Robert Trent Jones Sr has had two design commissions here, first in 1974, then again a decade later. The result is nothing short of spectacular. Lots of timber, including native cork trees, line numerous fairways while little lakes and big bunkers take care of other wayward shots.

Many European PGA pros regard the final four holes as one of the most testing finishes on tour. Don’t let this deter you. A round from the front tees is slightly less daunting but just as satisfying. And with a free bucket of practice balls included in the green fees, Valderrama should feature on your own “European” tour.

Sun City, Gary Player course, South Africa

Golf in the desert can be full of contrasts. Luscious green fairways usually nestle alongside stark, arid countryside while accommodations can come in the most ostentatious form. Sun City, perched amid the Northern Province veldt of South Africa, represents all this and more. Two impressive courses are offered – Lost City, with its crocodile infested water hazards and the Gary Player links layout, host of golf’s richest purse, the Nedbank Challenge.

While comparatively flat, the Gary Player bushveldt course (designed by the man himself) has enough dastardly placed bunkers, cunning water carries and multi-tiered greens to test golfers of any handicap. Typical is the monster par-5 dogleg 9th with its green seemingly afloat in the middle of lake, reachable in two from the front markers. Where else could you hunt for birdies one day and big game the next?

Blue Canyon Country Club, Thailand

Woods’ win here in the 1998 Johnnie Walker Classic stamped Blue Canyon well and truly on the world stage. With its mountainous backdrop and ‘canyon’ setting, the natural undulating topography lends itself perfectly to a golf course. Japanese architect/developer Yoshikazu Kato thought so, as do most of those fortunate enough to experience its tropical charm.

Seas of bougainvillea, orchids and other native vegetation guarantee a colourful and fragrant outing. Combined with enough water to fill Port Philip Bay (thankfully not all of it in play), clever use of the existing rubber plantation and fairways in pristine condition make a Blue Canyon excursion one of the most picturesque rounds you’re ever likely to play. Fred Couples rates the 202-metre 17th one of the best par-3s anywhere in the world.

Royal Melbourne, Victoria

Given the choice most Australian golfers would arguably nominate Royal Melbourne’s composite masterpiece top on their “most like to play” list. This isn’t possible except in championship events, so the nearest thing is to play Alister MacKenzie’s time-honoured West course, which comprises 16 holes of the world-ranked composite layout.

Where do you start with the superlatives? The truest, fastest greens this side of Mars, devilish doglegs, punishing native rough, rough-hewn bunkers – every hole seems to present an entirely new and engaging challenge.

To select standout holes is unfair for many, if not all, deserve individual praise. The severely sloping and heavily fortified par-3 5th green is packed with drama as is the 416-metre par-4 9th that has it all – dogleg, fairway and greenside sand, nasty rough left and a narrow, sloping green completes the tantalising equation. And we haven’t even mentioned one of Australian golf’s most breathtaking finishing holes. Whatever it takes, just play it!

Pebble Beach, California

Jack Nicklaus, in a rare moment of mortal reflection, once said if he only had one more round to play in this life, he’d head to Monterey and savour the seaside links legend that is Pebble Beach. Any golfer who’s visited America’s current No. 1 rated course would only concur. Photos cannot do it justice.It’s a public course all right but perfection costs (see table).

Eying the approach to the par-4 8th green you’ll think the green fees cheap at whatever the price. Be brave and take the cliff-top short cut over the Pacific. Then you’ll be able to say to your fellow members back home that you had a go at one of golf’s most challenging approach shots. The course is brimming with similar highs, especially on those holes hugging the Californian coast. Sinking the final putt on the last, you just want to turn around and do it all again whatever you shoot. It’s that good.

TPC Sawgrass, Florida

New Zealander Craig Perks put this year’s Players Championship at the Stadium Course, Sawgrass, well and truly on the golfing map. His final three holes of eagle, birdie par (including two chip-ins) carried the plucky kiwi to his first PGA win and a million dollar payday.

The Stadium layout is so named because it was the first purpose-built public course catering to galleries as well as golfers. Moulded amphitheatres surround many greens and other vantage spots ensuring an intimacy between spectator and player unmatched at other ‘major’ venues. And with more lakes and channels than the Everglades, angular fairways and relatively small, undulating greens, the Stadium Course presents challenges on many levels.

Not least of which is the par-3 island 17th, perched in the middle of a large lake and reached on foot by a narrow cart path from behind– first of its kind now heavily imitated. In all, about 135,000 balls are retrieved from the Stadium’s watery depths each year. It’s enough to turn anyone to drink, which is fortunate because the 19th has a tremendous selection of imported beers.

Bethpage Black, New York

The people’s Open they proclaimed and probably rightly so. New Yorkers got to showcase their public golfing masterpiece when Bethpage Black hosted the 2002 and 2009 US Open. Surely the TV coverage put you off ever wanting to play here?

There’s the length for one thing – the longest in Open history – skilfully laid out amid rolling hills that were once the hunting ground of local Indians. Add to that the sea of spindly fescue rough, bunkers so large that 4WDs should be provided for access and big, slick, sloping greens make this Long Island monster a long day out for all.

There are actually four public courses in the Bethpage complex, but it’s the Black beast they queue for in large numbers overnight to play. Signposts at the start warning of the degree of difficulty read more like a legal disclaimer than a deterrent. Perhaps several US Open contestants are wishing they took more notice.

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