Coming Home

It hit me like a ton of bricks.

In the ten years that I’ve been writing and following the game in the Philippines, I have played just about every golf course of import in the country but I had not played a full round on the firm, fast fairways of the Negros Occidental Golf and Country Club, known to us all as Marapara.

Why the fuss? Well, my mother’s family happens to call Silay City, located a scant 14-kilometers North of Bacolod home. I spent many happy summers as a child there and later in my early adult life, spent another four years there. I speak the dialect and know my way around the city. My maternal grandfather, Aguinaldo Severino Gamboa was one of the biggest supporters of golf in the province so much so that he and his cousins built a golf club in Silay City; the Guinhalaran Golf Club, one of the first in the province. It was there that golfing great Paterno Braza learned the game and where my grandfather hosted traveling golf professionals. My late mother told me that Larry Montes was a frequent visitor and coached my grandfather in the game.

So for me not to have played Marapara borders on sin. So with the advent of summer, I sought to correct that and planned to spend the Holy Week in Bacolod to connect with my roots and finally tee it up in Marapara.

I have walked the fairways of the Negros Occidental Golf and Country Club twice before; neither as a golfer. The first time was as the associate editor of a now defunct golf magazine covering the PAL Interclub in 2005, the last was as a rules official on the Philippine Golf Tour in 2011. I had missed the media tournament on 2005 but managed to play some holes on the back nine. I teed off in the middle of the afternoon but didn’t get a full nine before editorial duties took precedence.

Luis “Golem” Silverio, a Negrense and perhaps the most celebrated amateur in all of Philippine golf, designed the golf course in 1962 and though on the short side, Marapara is not lacking when played from the tips by even the most skillful of golfers.

A number of water hazards were placed strategically throughout the property. Beyond sequestering water to water the fairways, these streams and ponds figure significantly in the course’s resistance to scoring and add to the risk factor on many of the holes.

The fairways are lined by mature pine, eucalyptus and Philippine mahogany. Find the wrong fairway with your tee shot and you’ll have your work cut out just getting the ball back in play. The greens are generous but difficult to read. The grain plays a huge role here and will cause many to under-read the speed and break of each putt. Whatever you see, you’d be wise to find a good caddy to help steer you around the golf course.

Summer isn’t the best time to golf in the Philippines. The cool winds from the North have died down and the sun bears down in earnest. In an El Niño year like this one, the sun will bake the fairways dry. But that’s not a bad thing.
The guardians of the game are painfully aware of the costs involved in the care and feeding of a golf course and have been moving, slowly to be sure but steadily towards making the game sustainable. Golfers are seduced by what we see on television. We are brainwashed into thinking that all golf courses should be immaculately manicured and fastidiously watered to provide is with golfing perfection. Most of us have forgotten that the advancements in technology that give us all weather fairways and greens that roll like glass have only been around for the last twenty-odd years. Before that, fairways were usually a mix of grasses and greens were about as smooth as our tee boxes are today.

We are not inferring that the game needs to go back to those standards, but as golfers, we need to realize that it costs an arm and a leg to keep a golf course looking like Augusta National and if the game of golf is to survive and flourish, we all need to learn to live with a golf course that doesn’t live up to the lofty standards of the PGA Tour.

Beyond the aesthetics, having more brown than green on the fairway does NOT detract from your golf game; in fact, it adds to it. The dry fairways mean more roll, something that you’re going to have to work into your calculations on each shot. Beyond this, you’re going to have to be more precise with your ball contact and the placement of your shots and manage yourself around the golf course. The game becomes more of a challenge. Learning to cope makes you a better golfer.

We arrive in Bacolod City on Wednesday of the Holy Week. After a few text messages, I finally wrangle a game with some old friends; Kokoy Locsin, Chris Infante and former Philippine Amateur champion Francis Gaston. I figured, who better to show me around Marapara than these guys? Even if it was going to cost me a few bucks, it was all good.

True to Golem Silverio’s preferences as a golfer, Marapara is a true ball striker’s golf course. The course is tight and lined with trees so keeping the ball in play is a must. You don’t have to be long to score well but you do have to play from the fairway. A fairway wood or even a hybrid off the tee is sufficient in most cases. The greens are receptive; a well struck shot will hold or spin back. The greens roll very well for zoysia but do allow for the grain for which the stuff is famous for. The dry conditions made for plenty of roll and one needs to be mindful of that in the course of the round.

Being a virtual newbie, I chose to place myself completely in my caddy’s hands. I hit the ball where he told me (for the most part) to the yardages that he told me to play. I did choose to read the putts myself (as is my custom) but always consulted with him on the proper line. Speaking the vernacular was a distinct advantage in my case but it is obviously unnecessary.

The course’s current routing is unusual to say the least; the front nine circles the perimeter while the back nine fills the center of the property. The outward nine while the easier of the two is by no means a pushover. Many of the holes are narrow and out-of-bounds guard the entire right side of the nine.

The back nine will give many golfers heartaches. While OB is no longer a concern, this is where most of the water hazards lie in wait. The holes twist and turn one way then the next favoring neither draw or fade; this is Silverio at his merciless best. I know he’d want the greens to be harder to further separate the best ball strikers but the course is just fine this way.

In the end, I posted a really good score for a first timer and enjoyed the company and banter that made the four-hour round (we played as a six-some!) go by far too quickly. The members of Marapara are exceedingly amiable and our post round festivities lasted far longer than any of us had planned.

For all its perceived shortcomings, the Negros Occidental Golf and Country Club is a gem of a golf course. After playing it, I now realize why Negrenses are such good golfers; a golf course like this just makes better players. I can’t believe I waited so long to play it but mark my words – I intend to be back real soon.

Image Credits: Mike Besa

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