I enjoy eavesdropping or asking recently arrived golfers straight out what their reaction to golf in Turkey is. “Never thought it would be like this,” they usually blubber as they glance around a palatial clubhouse or their lavish 5-star hotel. You get a similar reaction if you catch them right after a round of golf. “Jeez, these are some of the best courses I've played on!”
The fact is most people just don’t have a clue about golf in Turkey. “I didn’t even know they had any!” is another common reply. Twenty years ago they didn’t! There were a couple of courses around Istanbul but they were exclusive. So, back in the early 1990’s, the Turkish government decided to turn a stretch of scrub forest between the little village of Belek and the coast into a golfing Mecca. With a deep, sandy subsoil and miles of unspoilt beach overlooking a sparkling Mediterranean Sea, the region was a gilt-edged gift from the golfing Gods!
Today there are 14 top-class championship golf courses and no less than 55 five-star hotels all neatly dotted within a 14km stretch. The Turks, it’s safe to say have outdone themselves - and indeed most of Europe’s traditional winter escapes in creating the ideal off-season bolthole for chilled-out Europeans.
A Golfing Shangri La
The cosmopolitan city of Antalya is the gateway into this golfing Shangri La with daily flights from most European hubs. Belek, its hotels and courses are around a half-hour drive. When you arrive at the airport you get scooped up by one of the most efficient, friendly tourist transfer systems I’ve experienced. A ground-handling company meets you (no one hires cars here – it’s not worth the hassle - and it’s expensive). Cordial young chaps dressed in their company livery pick up your bags & clubs and whisk you off in a modern, air-conditioned minibus. All you have to do is sit back, relax and enjoy the rest of your holiday.
That’s one thing worth highlighting here. The service you receive in Turkey is first-class. Turks don’t make an effort in this department! They don’t have to! It comes completely naturally to them! They relish looking after guests; it’s part of their culture! I’ve been here at least a half dozen times since and this aspect of Turkey has never failed to impress.
So what about the golf? As mentioned I’ve been coming to the area pretty much since it started but over the last three years the standard of golf has risen considerably. With a handful of world-class championship tracks added to an already more than acceptable mix, signature courses by the likes of Nick Faldo, Colin Montgomerie, Perry Dai and Dave Thomas let you know, the Turkish golf industry isn’t messing about.
Antalya Golf Club
Antalya Golf Club’s two 18-hole tracks have been around for around 10 years. The PGA Sultan is probably the best course out of all 14 offerings. As if you mark its pedigree, the Sultan has just been selected to co-host the Eisenhower Trophy in 2012, sharing the locker room with St Andrews Old Course, Royal Melbourne, Pinehurst and Royal Adelaide. It’s one of those courses that just has it! There’s nothing quirky or tricked up. It's a pure, honest challenge that will satisfy the most efficient player. Sultan throws a lot of well-educated questions your way and you need to think clearly to get the answers right.
Carya Golf Club
Next on the favourite’s list might be Carya Golf Club opened late in 2008 although I have heard conflicting reports of late. Designed by Australia’s five times Open Champion, Peter Thomson, this precocious, Surrey-style heathland is reminiscent of Wentworth, Sunningdale or Walton Heath. Prominent, heather-topped sand traps cradle dazzling white sand, lovely to look at but a bit daunting to play over. In spite of its youth, Carya’s already displaying great golfing character and I believe it will come on over the next couple of years to vie with the Sultan for top slot.
Montgomerie Golf Club
Opened about the same time as Carya, like its namesake the Montgomerie has endured a fair bit of criticism, a tad antsy at times, can be awkward – you know what I’m saying? Such censure is aimed almost exclusively at the long waste bunkers edging and eating into many of the fairways. Colin and his team took a chance on these as features and they may have back-fired! I fail to see the problem! The complaints, so I’m told are coming from high-handicap golfers who repeatedly fall fowl of these sandy wastelands and take it out on poor old Colin. It seems more of a problem playing from the yellow (forward) tees. A better player playing off the back tees won’t fall into the traps so readily. The message is - land the ball in the right place and play off the most suitable tees. Other than that, Montgomerie is a rewarding round of golf with a heap of intelligent challenges.
If any of the new courses have set tongues wagging, it has to be Lykia Links. Perry Dye (Pete’s boy) made the bold move of creating a links course on the edge of the Mediterranean. Nothing wrong with that! The site was ideal, good sandy base and the open ocean only a few feet away. It’s Perry’s interpretation of the word ‘links’ that might seem a bit controversial. The dune-like terrain has been shimmied, shaped and shored-up with shipped-in sand, supplemented with old railway sleepers sticking out of the bunkers like Cadbury Flakes from an ice cream cone. Again, I really don’t mind it but some folks find it a bit over-the-top! There are also a few holes that are a serious stretch of your striking prowess, I’ll grant that. The 1st is a prime example! The bunkering is also a bit, shall we say over-exuberant!
Beyond all that… it’s a good outing. Perhaps if its designer had stuck to a more conservative vision he would have attracted more praise from golf’s more conservative quarters. But it’s good to be different and try new thinks. Oh yes, there’s one other problem. Lykia Links is only 5 minutes away from Belek’s main golf/hotel strip but… due to a river you need to drive for about 40 minutes - back up to the motorway, across the river then all the way down to the coast again. Why don’t they just build a bridge? Hey, I know where there’s a load of old railway sleepers!
Meanwhile, back in the main Belek conurbation, Cornelia’s Faldo course gathers a lot of good comments – but in this case I’m the one that’s not convinced! It presents three tough loops of 9 that will keep you on your toes all day long. There are a few great holes, mainly doglegs but… the cambered fairways on some holes repel well-struck drives into the sandy side-strips and thick scrub. You just don’t have any choice in the matter! Now that just isn’t fair! Ok, it only happens on two or three holes but that’s just bad design and a little cavalier for Sir Nick to rubber-stamp it. Cornelia’s Faldo course is co-host to the Eisenhower Trophy next year (2012) so it will be interesting to hear what the world’s top amateurs have to say.
Gloria Hotels & Resorts is the big outfit here in town with 3 hotel complexes and 45 holes of golf all neatly interlinked. Gloria Serenity is indeed a classy place to stay, the ‘Gleneagles’ of Turkey. Gloria Old Course, while a great test of direction, is need of a facelift and there are rumours that Ian Woosnam had been scheduled to do the operation imminently. Gloria New was added in 2005, a sporty, challenging concoction, more undulating thank its older sister with a little less woodwork and a fair bit of sand and water. Gloria Verde, the 9-hole layout is surprisingly challenging. I’ve played it two or three times when I couldn’t get on the other two and found it great fun.
The Old Guard
That just leaves the original courses, those that opened away back in the dark mists of Turkey golf time – the 1990’s. Let’s start with the one claims to be ‘the first and still the best’. That is National Golf Club’s logo and who could argue with them! Opened in 1994, National still is a superb layout. From start to finish it is a tight, demanding test calling on you to work your way through each hole. If you like shaping shots or risking it all in the hope of that fabled reward, this is the place to play. There’s an old fashion flavour about the layout and even National’s clubhouse is a traditional chip off the colonial block.
The remaining courses tend to be suited best to higher handicap players but that doesn’t mean they’re in any way inferior. Robinson Nobilis Golf Club is run by the German division of a major travel company and the clientele tend to be German but the course is very much open to all and actually quite good. Off the white tees, it’s much more of a challenge and due to its good year-round condition, most enjoyable.
Tat Beach Golf Resort at the far western end of the area has possibly the best piece of golfing real estate on the Turkish Riviera. With open vistas to the Taurus Mountains and several holes running down to the sea, Tat’s 27 holes have great potential. The three loops of 9 and clubhouse were due for a major revamp this past season which I haven’t seen inspected yet - so hopefully things have gone well and it’s now back in good shape. Kaya Eagles is actually a very good little test, short but with lots of water and tricky greens as is National’s Pasha course.
Wonders of the Ancient World
If you can tear yourself away from the fairways for a few minutes, you’ll find the Antalya area rich in history, scenery and non-golf pursuits. The ancient city of Perge is one of the ‘must see’ visits in the area. This site is absolutely incredible and so well-preserved, it doesn’t take much to transport your imagination back 2000 years and envisage senators and centurions strolling along its ancient avenues. The city was established and developed by Greek settlers from Argos sometime after the Trojan War, probably around 1000 BC. Rumour has it that beer was first brewed here and for this reason alone, you should consider a pilgrimage to Perge!
The main attraction at nearby Aspendos is the remarkable semicircular amphitheatre, considered one of the best-preserved examples of architecture from the Ancient World. Much like Perge, Aspendos was established around 1000 B.C. as a trading port then becoming a thriving city. The Romans arrived in 190 B.C. and gradually developed Aspendos into a leading 1st century metropolis.
The city of Antalya is awash with waterfalls. The rivers of the region tumble from the high Taurus range down to the sea either overland or underground with some force especially during the spring-melt months. At several points along Antalya’s rocky plateau these great, turquoise rivers leap towards the sea with marvellous effect. There are 20 different waterfalls within a short drive of the city of Antalya so it’s worth scheduling a visit to one or two.
A day out in the city of Antalya is as good a cultural excursion as any. Antalya is currently the fasted-growing city in Turkey thanks to its idyllic climate which has boosted tourism and created high levels of employment. Turkey’s young people have migrated here also to enjoy the city’s more modern, vibrant lifestyle. It’s a modern, welcoming city with exciting restaurants, bars and nightlife so you can visit Antalya both during the day and in the evening.
Antalya’s old harbour is a natural place to gravitate. Surrounded by the Old City walls, it is one of the loveliest marinas in Turkey with plenty cafes and restaurants. The harbour is crowded with boats of all sizes many inviting you for a sail. Some offer longer trips with a meal included. Antalya's historical Old Town area known as the Kaleici offers beautiful harbour views and is surrounded by medieval fortified walls, which date back before both the Roman and Byzantine periods and have been restored many times.
You can see Mount Olympus from Antalya looking southwest across the bay, the most prominent elevation on that side of the Taurus Range. It’s a bit further to drive than most of the area’s cultural offerings - 2 hours from Belek to the top of the mountain which can be driven up to. This is one of 19 mountains with the name Olympus between Greece, Turkey and Cyprus with a four more in the USA. There’s even one on Mars so it’s hard to say which is the Olympus of Classic Greek mythology.
When to Go
Come the summer months, July & August temperatures frequently hit near 40 centigrade – too hot & humid for golf. Spring and late autumn are best although winter days can be bright and often sunny. The last week in September, October and first two weeks in November are ideal. December and January can be wet although it’s potluck as I’ve had great weather in December.
Where to Stay
I've stayed in Gloria Serenity several times, quieter, more sophisticated and beautifully appointed. But it's more expensive and suits an older crowd. Rixos Premium is a blast, huge with an amazing water park. Cornelia Diamond is highly rated. I must say though that hotels such as Papillon Ayscha though older now are most welcoming, comfortable and better priced.
What to Pay
Most of the offers to Turkey are ‘all inclusive’ which incorporates flights, accommodation, food and drink not to mention golf - all neatly presented in prices that are hard to beat in similar destinations. Seek out the better hotels such as Serenity, Cornelia Diamond or Rixos. What you save on the drinks bill alone makes it worth spending a little more on classy accommodation.
Alternative Travel has continuous flights from London Stansted throughout the year and from Glasgow from April until October. Contact Alternative Travel on 020 7923 3230, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit their web site on www.turkishgolf.com.
Story & Photography by David J Whyte © Linksland.com - All Rights Reserved