Story & photos by Mike Besa
Summer in the Philippines is the time to go on vacation. As a young adult, going to the beach in the Matabunkay/Nasugbu stretch in Batangas was a favorite destination for us. It was relatively close to the city and the black-sanded beaches presented a chance to kick back and enjoy the company of friends and family.
Today, several decades hence, I still make the long drive to this part of the Batangas coast on a regular basis but it is no longer the beach that beckons. Instead, it is the sleepy town of Calatagan and the magnificent golf course that was built there.
Calatagan Golf Club was built by Don Enrique Zobel and Robert Trent Jones Jr. about the same time as the Alabang Country Club. Calatagan is blessed with hilly topography and an abundance of trees; indeed, the course seems to have been carved out of a forest. The magnificent clubhouse sits on top of a hill, adjacent to the vast Zobel ranch, Hacienda Biga-a, with the course cascading down and around the hill and back up again. This topography allowed Jones to design some truly dramatic tee shots; many (myself included) feel this is his best work in the country to date. Don Enrique enhanced Jones’s handiwork by planting a variety of flowering trees and shrubs throughout the property; African tulips, kalachuchi, bougainvillea and golden shower dot the property.
The drive up to the clubhouse is generally unpaved and lined with gnarled kalachuchi trees and adds to the provincial feel of the property. Not quite the drive up Magnolia Lane at Augusta National, but it is not without its charm. The clubhouse is expansive with a large Veranda that makes the most of the stunning landscape. I’ve been coming here for golf for almost two decades and there’s just something about this place that transforms me and makes all stress just melt away. It feels like home.
Since the golf course was built in the 1980s, Calatagan isn’t your all-weather course with imported turf grass. The fairways are carabao grass, while the greens are covered with zoysia matrella, both of which are species endemic to the Philippines. Not entirely a bad thing, especially since it’s usually in excellent condition. Wack Wack Golf and Country Club’s famed East Course is planted with these grasses and we all know how well that course plays. At Calatagan the fairways are generally firm and the greens fast. I daresay that most will be surprised at just how fast the greens roll, particularly in the summer.
The topography and other limitations that the property imposed on Jones Jr. conspire to make this the most unique of his golf courses in the Philippines. Save for the tree in the middle of the fourth fairway, you won’t find any of his usual themes here. Although Calatagan does favor a fade, you be asked to draw the golf ball to find the choicest positions from which to attack certain greens.
Variety is something Calatagan Golf Course has in spades. This is a hilly golf course—one that provides endless variety of shot both off the tee and into the green. None of the holes look or play the same way. The greens are small thus putting a premium on ball-striking. The bunkers are generally firm but play consistently, making recovery from them straightforward.
Measuring just 6,799-yards from the tips and a friendlier 6,374-yards from the members’ tees, Calatagan is a shotmaker’s course; a balanced mix that will entertain, challenge and, yes, punish you it you stray from its tree lined fairways. The root buttresses of the some of the larger varieties result in very penal lies; consider your options carefully when you find yourself among them.
The most interesting holes at Calatagan are the par 4s. They are a mix of very short and moderately long holes but because of the trees, elevation changes and firm, fast fairways, they play much harder than the length of the hole lets on. Good shots are rewarded, bad ones severely punished. Just the way it should be.
Favorites? It’s so tough to choose between them. Three, four, seven and nine on the front and the last seven holes on the back are the holes that seem to best characterize this golf course. They work so well together in sequence; making different demands of you from the tee. These are beautiful driving holes and will demand every bit of your skill to play properly.
The holes flow so well one after the other as you traverse the course. You’ll see it all here; elevated tee shots, elevated greens and everything in between. A high draw off the tee is a definite advantage on some of the shorter holes as you’ll get a chance to cut corners. Most will need to play away from the doglegs to get a good line into the green. You might find yourself stymied if you find the wrong side of the fairway.
Calatagan’s one flaw is that it’s located a good 120-kilometers south of the Metro. Most won’t drive all that way just for golf but this means that those that do will be blessed with having the fairway mostly to yourself. Sure, you’ll see a few other golfers at the clubhouse but once on the course, you’ll have it all to yourself.
It is the intangibles that define Calatagan. The ambience is something that you can’t buy or build. It’s something that developed over time. It takes you back to the grand era of the course’s birth and shows you what golf was in that golden age. Calatagan Golf Club connects with you on a gut-level in a way that you never fully understand. It draws you in with its beauty and seduces you with the golf. It is something that must be experienced to be fully appreciated.