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Dust off those clubs. Big Red is reddy and waiting.

Phuketwan Innovation of the Year 2007 Award

Sunday, November 25, 2007
Innovation of the Year 2007
GOLFERS may not know it yet, but Phuket has just been given a big lift when it comes to the finer points of the game.

Red Mountain, a new course sculpted from the tin mine country at the heart of Phuket, is set to make the island even more appealing for swingers.

Only when you drive a caddy cart around the course do you begin to understand what the advent of this new course means. It's sensational.

Already people are commenting that it's better than the island's long-standing championship course, Blue Canyon, the scene of last year's Johnnie Walker Classic, Asia's biggest golf event.

Why are they saying this?

Well, because Red Mountain is an unforgettable experience, with red rock, green jungle and blue water hazards and ocean all colouring a great round of golf.

While sand and sea and a Phang Nga backdrop are cleverly married at the east-coast Mission Hills course to produce signature holes that say "Phuket," Red Mountain says "Great anywhere."

Phuket's latest golfing masterwork is uphill from the long-established Loch Palm course. Because of the terrain, carts are essential.

For that reason, the course may never host a major championship because competition golf requires players to walk.

But superlatives flow thick and fast when you see what local golf architect John Morrow and his team have done with this hillside. It's unlikely that Jack Nicklaus or Greg Norman could have done better.

Outcrops that remind onlookers of Phang Nga Bay's karsts rise out of nowhere, stark and red. The deep green jungle envelops many holes, wrapping itself close to fairways and greens.

It's hard to imagine that this is a young course, with the clubhouse still being built. It looks as though it has been around for years, with the fairways lush and the greens smooth.

Nine holes opened first and now the full 18 is available, enlarging to eight the island catalogue of 18-hole courses, if you count the Navy course at Tablamu, not far north in Phang Nga.

A testing nine-hole course gives Phuket Country Club 27 holes and there's talk of another nine holes going in soon in the south of the island, despite the rocketing price of Phuket land.

The brilliant new course at least shows the owners of real estate above 80 metres that golf may well provide a way of making money from their land without detracting from Phuket's beautiful green top.

The arrival of "Big Red" will not reduce the main problem Phuket has in attracting golfers to the island. By comparison with Bangkok and Pattaya, golf on Phuket is expensive.

Eighteen holes at Red Mountain will set you back 4000 baht, and that's before you hire a caddy and a cart.

Loch Palm professional Oliver Bates, who is overseeing some aspects of Red Mountain's future development, says that local golfers should try the course now because the green fees are likely to go even higher once the clubhouse is open.

There will be a call for members at some point, and it's probable there will be a rush of interest from Hong Kong, Singapore and other nearby destinations where word has already spread about Big Red.

While acknowledging the claims of Blue Canyon, Mr Bates says Red Mountain "plays well for all levels of golfers" and adds: "I think it's the tops."

At 6900 yards off the back tees and par 72, the surprises really only begin once you start playing the course. The brochure talks accurately about "dizzying elevation changes" and "an exhilerating test of golf."

As well as Morrow, who must have spent a lot of time hacking through the undergrowth like a 19th century explorer, Mr Bates also gives credit for the quality of the holes to "shaper" Al Tikkanen.

The shaper is the excavator driver who carries out the directions of the course designer, carefully massaging fairways and greens while avoiding long-living trees and enhancing key landmarks.

In the case of Red Mountain, it's hard to imagine how the work was done on such intense slopes and hollows. The concrete cart track has been well disguised, close to the playing area but mostly out of sight.

Staff are being trained ready for five-star standards at the new clubhouse and the boutique hotel that is likely to follow.

The old Loch Palm course still has plenty of charm and loads of water hazards, and it was here that Morrow added several new holes in revitalising the course layout as an introduction to the task of attacking Red Mountain.

Both courses are likely to be given an umbrella name eventually. "Tin Mine Country Club" is one early suggestion, although there will be plenty to choose from. Indications of tin being present surface in flashes among the red rock.

These are known as "White Dragon," which is a powerful image, and another colour for a strong natural palette.

The new Tin Mine Museum is not far from the course. From the top of the mountain, the Big Buddha, which will eventually be cloaked in white marble, is visible all the way down at Chalong. It's almost enough to make you want to take up golf.

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