Home of the Philippine Masters

In Photo: The ninth hole at Villamor will be the finishing hole at the ICT SI Philippine Masters.

Story & photos by Mike Besa

Captain Jesús A. Villamor was among the Filipino officers who followed Gen. Douglas MacArthur to Australia following the outbreak of World War II. Awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for downing two Japanese enemy planes in 1941, Villamor was appointed director and instructor at the Officers’ Training Unit in Williamstown.

The fifth hole is the toughest hole on the golf course.

Upon his return to the Philippines, Villamor was assigned to lead the Sixth Pursuit Squadron (now Sixth Tactical Fighter Squadron) shortly before the Japanese invasion of the Philippines in December 1941. In the skies above Zablan and Batangas Fields, against Japanese Zeros, his squadron of Boeing P-26 Peashooter fighters engaged the enemy. Despite the disadvantage, Villamor and his squadron was credited with four kills—one Mitsubishi G3M bomber and three Mitsubishi A6M Zeros. Two of them by Villamor himself.

For leading his squadron and for his two confirmed kills, Villamor was twice cited by the US Army for bravery, receiving the Distinguished Service Cross for actions on December 10, 1941, and an Oak Leaf Cluster in lieu of a second award of the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) for actions on December 12, 1941. Villamor is the only Filipino to receive the DSC twice. The Philippine Air Force’s (PAF) principal facility in Metro Manila, which was first known as Nichols Field, then later Nichols Air Base, was renamed Col. Jesús Villamor Air Base in his honor.

The golf course that bears his name is built on some 60 hectares of the Villamor Air Base that sits, ideally located, adjacent to the Ninoy Aquino International Airport and the sprawling Resorts World complex just South of the Makati Central Business District. The fairways are carabao grass and the greens are zoysia matrella; both are endemic to the Philippines and require minimal maintenance to flourish.

With the demise of the old Fort Bonifacio Golf Course to make way for the development of the Bonifacio Global City, Villamor is the most prestigious of the military courses and the only one of those left whose design is of championship caliber. Built in the 1960s on relatively flat terrain, the golf course at Villamor Golf Club continues to pose challenges to golfers of all skill levels with its tree-lined fairways and strategically placed water hazards.

The latest redesign of the course that was intended to improve the surface drainage added a couple of hundred yards to Villamor, which now tops out at 7,000 yards from the tips. The added length combined with firm, fast, tree-lined fairways, keep Villamor competitive as a championship golf course.

The outward nine is relatively forgiving, and allows ample time to get in the game, but things get progressively tougher from there. Holes three through five hold the crux of the challenges presented by the first nine. Three is a long, narrow, 416-yard par four that will test the golfers ball striking skills. The green is tucked behind a large acacia tree. Four is a 208-yard par 3 that plays slightly uphill. The green is heavily guarded by bunkers and slopes significantly from back to front. Five is the one-handicap; a 420-yard dogleg to the right, the golfer must place the tee shot just short of a water hazard before going for the green, but must flirt with the out of bounds on the right to get there.

You will be treated to some tough holes on the inward nine, but none more so than 14. A 459-yard par 4, 14 runs alongside the Newport condominiums just behind the Marriot Hotel in the Resorts World Manila complex. The sight on the tee is frightening; out of bounds on the left and a thick stand of trees on the right defend the tee shot. A water hazard short and to the right of the green and an array of bunkers on the left fortify the green.

No discussion about Villamor Golf Club is complete without mention of the Philippine Masters. Held sporadically between 1976 and 2000, the Philippine Masters was held as a precursor to the Philippine Open Golf Championships to attract professional golfers in the region. Its schedule made it worth their while to travel to the Philippines for two of the most prestigious tournaments on the old Asian Golf Circuit.

The Masters was spearheaded by Col. Nereo Andolong and Col. Alvarez, both of the Philippine Air Force. Andolong was the head of the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office (PCSO) at the time, which funded the tournament. Support for the tournament later came from the San Miguel Corporation after the arrangement with the PCSO expired.

The list of former winners speaks to the international significance of the Philippine Masters; you have golfers from all over the world on it; His Chi San and Hsieh Min Nam from Taiwan in 1978 and 1980, respectively; Myanmar’s Mya Aye in 1979; EJ Pfister in 1990; and Olle Nordberg from Sweden in 1994. Filipinos that have won here read like the hall of fame of Philippine golf; Arda (twice), George Olaybar, Rodrigo Cuello, Robert Pactolerin and Frankie Miñoza (twice each) are all past champions. Felix “Cassius” Casas won the last Philippine Masters back in 2000 before it faded into oblivion.

About three years ago, during the early years of the International Container Terminal Services Inc., Philippine Golf Tour, Mike Carr, who was then-tournament director of the Tour, Jun Arceo of Villamor Golf Club and the National Golf Associatiown of the Philippines and then general manager of Villamor, Col. Oscar Calingasan, got together for discussions to revive the Philippine Masters under the aegis of the Philippine Golf Tour but sadly, nothing came of them.

In 2016 Gen. Edgar Falorina, commanding general of the PAF, approached Arceo with the intent of reviving the Philippine Masters.  Arceo believed it would be a simple matter since the Tour wanted to resurrect the Philippine Masters, Villamor Golf Club’s proximity to the city and the history and prestige of the tournament.

The two parties met again, and by April 24, the two signed a memorandum of agreement to hold the Philippine Masters as part of the Philippine Golf Tour from May 24 to 27. It might not precede the Philippine Open, but the new schedule of the Philippine Masters puts it at the end of a four-week run of tournaments by the Philippine Golf Tour following Tour stops in Luisita, The Orchard and Manila Southwoods Golf and Country Clubs. A full field of local and international players will be on hand to contest the first running of the tournament in 17 years.

The club has been hard at work in the interim, sprucing up the golf course and getting it into tournament condition. Will this venerable fixture of the local golf scene stand up to the power game of the new professional golfers?

I believe it will. There are many nuances to playing Villamor Golf Club that must be understood and dealt with to score. The pros will have to figure that out on the run. Someone will figure it out eventually. the premium on course knowledge could give local professionals the upper hand. If I were a betting man, my money would be on a Filipino to win.

Whatever the outcome, it should be really fun to watch.

Image Credits: Mike Besa