Oh, Calatagan! Just like the first time

In Photo: The 17th green is situated well above the fairway

Text and photos by Mike Besa

I first set foot on Calatagan Golf Club almost decades ago. I was fairly new to the game but was instantly captivated by everything about the golf course. Its beauty, its playability and what it demanded of you as a golfer; everything felt just right. It was an experience now indelibly inscribed in my memory banks. Now, almost 18 years since that first round of golf here, it still fills me with anticipation and excitement whenever we plan a weekend in Calatagan.

11 is a picture-perfect par 3
11 is a picture-perfect par 3

Although the number of golf courses in the country is far from that in Thailand or Malaysia, we are not wanting for choice here in the Philippines. Our golf courses compare quite favorably with the best in the region. It is, therefore, a huge compliment to Calatagan that a 40-plus-year-old golf course stands up so well to those built long after with imported grasses and modern construction techniques.

True Calatagan’s conditioning will never rival that of Santa Elena or Manila Southwoods. That’s a given. But in spite using local grasses, Calatagan remains eminently playable and it continues to appeal to golfers of all skill levels which, in itself, is quite an achievement.

The ability of a golf-course to do that is the holy grail of golf course design. If it’s too hard few with handicaps in double digits will dare to play it. Make it too easy and you lose the more accomplished and more experienced golfers. Not unlike Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Calatagan gets it just right.

The view from the veranda at sunset
The view from the veranda at sunset

Set well within the sprawling Zobel estate of Hacienda Biga-a, Calatagan Golf Club is a good five-minute drive from the main road on a part of the property closer to Balayan Bay. The road in is lined with kalachuchi (plumeria) trees that erupt into bloom in late April through May, calling to mind the true meaning of the phrase, “flores de Mayo”. It has also become my favorite time to golf Calatagan.

The course is in its best shape in May owing to the running of the Kalachuchi Cup, the club’s premier tournament. The week before and after the tournament, the course is superb. The greens are shaved down and rolled making them roll fast and true. The fairways are trimmed and the rough well in control. The kalachuchi, bougainvilleas and African tulips are in full bloom and add color to that already very lush foliage.

The clubhouse is built on the top of the hill and either nine winds down and around before making their way back up to the clubhouse. It is this topography that played into the hands of Robert Trent Jones Jr. At 6,800 yards from the tips, Calatagan GC isn’t overly long but it is sufficient to challenge the professional golfer.

The topography dictates that you have both shot shapes. In true Jones form, most holes favor a draw but on several here at Calatagan, you are best served by a draw. Fail with either and Calatagan will punish you with penal lies in deep rough, or worse, amongst the roots of the ever present trees. The well-defined, tree lined fairways absolutely require you to hit the fairway for any chance to score. It’ll be the longest 6800-yard course that you’ve ever played.

The greens here are always well tended and roll well, even if they have a bit of sand on them. Most are quite small except for those on the 3-pars with are quite generous. Grain is a factor here and you’ll need to allow for it when staring down your putt. Some of them have significant amounts of slope built into them. The ninth green is a fine example; hit the wrong quadrant and you’ve set yourself up for a three-putt or worse.

Favorite holes? All of them! It’s so hard to pick a favorite here. They’re all so good. I particularly like three, four, seven and nine on the front and the last seven holes on the back. I know, it’s so hard to pick a favorite. They work so well together in sequence too; making different demands of you from the tee. These are beautiful driving holes and will demand every bit of your skill to play properly.

I am particularly enamored with the back nine. The holes flow so well one after the other as you traverse the rolling topography. 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.

I’ve long been a fan of a good short par 4; it takes guile and subtlety to build a really good one. Calatagan is blessed with several. The trees, elevation changes and firm, fast fairways, cause these holes to play much harder than the length of the hole lets on. It’s very possible to hit the fairway only to have your ball roll right through it into the tree-lined border. Many of the shorter holes dogleg one way or the other and tempt you into taking a direct line to the green. Good shots are rewarded, bad ones severely punished. Just the way it should be.

But it is the intangibles that really define Calatagan. The ambiance of the place is something that you can’t buy or build. It’s a course that feels so intimate. A friend said that it feels like a golf course in someone’s backyard. That might be, but I truly believe that it’s part of Calatagan’s charm. It’s a golf course that takes you back in time to a quieter, more genteel age. It 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.

This is the magic of Calatagan Golf Club and it’s cast its spell on me. Every visit here feels just like the first time.

Image Credits: Mike Besa

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A man of diverse interests; sports, the arts, travel and leisure fuel his passion for life. There aren't enough hours in the day for people like him.

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