Take a swing on the world's best new golf course. Photo courtesy of Ba Na Hills Golf Club.
It’s a postcard-perfect afternoon in central Vietnam as Jack Hedges tees up a ProV1 on the par-3 8th hole at Ba Na Hills Golf Club.
After sizing up his target on the other side of a river, 180 yards away, the general manager of the region’s newest golf course flushes a 6-iron that tracks in a way that causes me think he could be buying me beers for the rest of the day.
“Look at this!” I say as the ball begins to drop out of the sky, right in line with the flagstick.
Sure enough, it hits the pin. But somehow it fails to disappear, and instead settles a few inches from the hole.
“That almost went in!” Hedges says with a huge, boyish grin -- one that makes the 28-year-old Brit look even younger than he actually is.
I give him props with a high-five, and when he taps in for birdie a few minutes later, we just kind of smile at each other and shrug.
For as good as Hedges’ shot was, it does not register as a hole-in-one. But the same thing cannot be said about the course itself. That starts to become obvious well before the 8th hole.
A collaboration between former world No. 1 golfer Luke Donald and IMG, Ba Na Hills Golf Club is the first course ever designed by the man who held the top ranking from May 2011 until April 2012. And what a design it is.
Located at the foot of a towering mountain range less than half an hour’s drive from the rapidly growing Vietnamese city of Danang, Ba Na Hills GC is a parkland-style layout routed over and around rolling hills that offer constant vistas of a lush landscape made all the more peaceful by a series of streams and lakes.
In other words, it’s much different than the three links-inspired courses that came before it in the area -- Greg Norman’s Dunes Course at BRG Da Nang Golf Resort, Colin Montgomerie’s Montgomerie Links and Nick Faldo’s Laguna Lang Co Golf Club -- but no less impressive.
“We got lucky,” Donald admitted shortly after the course opened in March 2016. “It was clearly a very good site. We took full advantage of the substantial movement that was there and created a course that has great variety and beauty.”
I was struck by the beauty one hole into my round. For it was on the second tee that I found myself mesmerized by a flowing strip of redtop grass that flanks the right side of a par-3 whose green is backdropped by a brilliantly verdant canyon.
A few holes later, it’s water that gets my attention. Specifically, a tranquil lake that guards the left side of the par-4 7th green, well downhill from fairway position A. In fact, it so distracts me that, despite a perfectly flat lie and favorable angle to the pin, I turn the clubface over and--
“I think the main challenge out here is keeping your concentration,” Hedges says, after finding the drink as well. “At some point -- if not several points -- you’re going to look around and just be awed by the surroundings. It can take you out of your game.”
I was dazzled again when I reached the par-5 11th, which marks the beginning of a three-hole stretch that partially rings what feels like the most distant part of the property.
Not only is each hole solitary, it offers a view to die for. The best could well be from the severely elevated back tee on the par-3 12th, where jungly terrain seems to extend forever from behind the green.
“Horrible, right?” a sarcastic Hedges asks as we stand shoulder-to-shoulder, taking it all in.
Walking up the 13th fairway, two things stand out -- a white Buddha statue on a distant ridgeline that once served as a French hill station; and a haze in the air that has become much more prominent since we made the turn.
The steamy effect only adds to the romance of the scenery, though. As does the only sound I can detect -- insects buzzing in the trees.
By the 15th hole, dusk starts to fall, and I express some concern that we’re not going to finish our round before dark.
“Don’t worry,” Hedges says. “That’s what all those lights are for.”
Indeed, stanchions are everywhere at the IMG-managed gem, lining fairways and towering above tee boxes and greens. There are 108 in total, all of which are equipped with 1,500-watt metal halide lamps.
Their power is on full display by the time we get to the 16th hole, another dramatic par-3. The signature feature here is an island green, which is lit up like a stage as I ponder what club to hit from another elevated tee box.
I choose correctly, because even from 200 yards away, it’s clear that my ball hits the green and trickles toward the back pin location, just short of the fringe.
I’m pleased to have a birdie chance, but I’m in no hurry to try and capitalize. The way the ball soared through the night sky has me considering a re-tee, just for fun, and Hedges recognizes it.
“The ball flight looks amazing at night, doesn’t it?” he says.
It does. But I’m also inclined to linger out of sheer comfort. The temperature drops considerably once the sun goes down here, and that raises the enjoyment factor for a Westerner not used to tropical conditions.
Alas, Hedges and I are shaking hands on the 18th green before I know it. But a refreshing Biere Larue in the clubhouse -- an architectural marvel in its own right, with structural elements inspired by the ancient Vietnamese coin -- goes a long way toward tempering my desire to keep playing. I’ll just have to come back, I say to Hedges as we make our way out the door.
“I think you have to come back,” he says. “It’s one of those courses you have to play a few times to understand. There are so many undulations and nuances to it. But that’s what makes it so interesting. And it’s a reason the course has been so well received. The bar has been set very high here.”
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Ba Na Hills Golf Club: http://www.banahillsgolf.com/