Whoever coined the classic adage, “Money can’t buy everything” must have been turned down by one of the following prestigious golf clubs whose by-invitation-only policy or rigid membership criteria have shattered the dreams of many a golfer.
Ever since Tiger Woods burst onto the scene in the 1990s, it seems golf has gained a sudden mass appeal and shed some of its elitist image. Indeed, Woods’ winning ways and his multiracial/multicultural profile has transcended generations, genders, cultures and socio-economic strata leading to golf’s heyday.
The sport’s unprecedented growth in the 90s has spawned hundreds of new golf courses, golf academies and countless golf equipment and fashion brands. However, despite this tectonic shift in the way golf is perceived as no longer the preserve of the privileged few, the fact remains that golf can never be the sport of the hoi polloi. One may very well afford the latest customised golf equipment or wear bespoke threads or learn the game’s fundamentals from a highly acclaimed golf guru but not everyone can be a member of the THE fabled exclusive club. At the height of the golf boom, few of these private clubs stuck to their guns, bucked the trend and ditched the golf boom wagon.
Call them selective, snobbish or simply exclusive, these clubs boast top-level playing conditions – all year round– have fewer members, command hefty membership prices, steeped in history and host prestigious tournaments. Most of them conduct a very strict screening process and have an airtight list of criteria sometimes only known to the Club owner or committee. At these clubs, money or pedigree is not enough to warrant an aspiring member an invitation to apply let alone be accorded a red-carpet welcome.
AUGUSTA NATIONAL GOLF CLUB (USA)
America’s most exclusive golf club is also the most exclusive in the world, just because it’s the toughest to get into. Since being founded by golfing legend Bobby Jones and investment banker, Clifford Roberts in 1933, the Masters venue did not have black members till 1990 and women till 2012.
The home of the Masters – one of golf’s four Majors – since 1934, Augusta features not only challenging greens for pros and amateurs alike but also natural beauty most evident when the azaleas are in full bloom. Most golfers who have played there all agree on one thing: Augusta is the ultimate golfing nirvana.
Membership here is believed to cost between US$10,000 and US$30,000 – only. However, one does not apply to belong to Augusta National; one has to be invited. So far, only a little over 300 privileged few had been issued a green jacket (with the club’s logo on the left breast) symbolising full-fledged membership.
Its illustrious members read like a who’s who of Wall Street titans and technology tycoons including Warren Buffett, Bill Gates and Sanford Weill. Two years ago, Augusta broke its 78-year house rule and allowed its first two female members: former US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice and South Carolina financier, Darla Moore.
MANILA GOLF CLUB (PHILIPPINES)
As one of Asia’s oldest clubs, the prestigious Manila Golf Club (MGC) claims over a century of existence since the pioneering British expatriates built their own golf course in the Philippines. It is situated at the posh Forbes Park – enclave of the rich and famous – which is right at the heart of the premier financial district, Makati City.
Intensely private and excellently maintained, playing here makes one feel safe and cocooned from Manila’s din and chaos. Although the scenery is mainly framed with skyscrapers and high-rise condominiums, the course, having undergone numerous redesigns and upgrades (to appease its most demanding members), is no pushover.
Arguably one of the most expensive in the region, if not the world, membership is going for a cool US$1 million. However, money, pedigree or celebrity won’t guarantee a warm welcome here. Rumours abound that champion boxer Manny Pacquiao, despite having purchased a US$10 million house just across the club, was turned down to be part of this venerable institution.
The club counts among its 570 members the country’s movers and shakers; politicians and business tycoons alike. It’s been said that some of the most important national and economic policies were brainstormed or decided during a round of golf at this club.
HIRONO GOLF CLUB (JAPAN)
The home of the most expensive beef in the world is also home to Japan’s most exclusive golf club. Founded in 1934 and designed by Englishman Charles Alison in 1934, Hirono Golf Club is located near the port city of Kobe. Consistently ranked the best in Japan and among the top-50 in the world, it’s the favourite venue of most of Japan’s major championships. Hirono is revered in the country and is used as a yardstick against which all the golf courses in Japan are measured.
To get a tee time here is next to impossible (unless you get invited by one of the board members) let alone become a member. Yes, it’s by invitation only.
In as much as Hirono is considered golf’s best-kept secret, the identities of its illustrious members are also shrouded in mystery. This is not surprising as the Japanese are not wont to flaunt their wealth, influence or club affiliation.
Hirono’s reputation as a notoriously private golf club can only be matched by its notoriously challenging golf course designed with severe gradients, vast bunkers, and elevated, lightning-fast greens. However, all these are mitigated by the majestic view of Mount Mekko as well as natural deep ravines and undulated woodland. The words of Alison, many decades ago still ring true: “Almost every hole has some bold natural feature, and for variety of scene and of strokes, Hirono is difficult to beat. I can name no superior among British inland courses.”
SENTOSA GOLF CLUB (SINGAPORE)
Built 40 years ago, Sentosa Golf Club is ranked as the best golf course in Singapore and one of the top courses in the world. It features an environment that is ideal for sealing major deals or to get away from the hustle and hurry of the corporate and urban jungle.
Sentosa also hosted the richest National Open in Asia – the Barclays Singapore Open – until 2012. It also stages the annual LPGA event, HSBC Women’s Champions, where the best female golfers in the world battle it out on its award-winning Serapong layout. Together with the Tanjong course, Serapong offers a breathtaking panoramic view of the Singapore harbour and the seemingly endless South China Sea.
Money alone won’t get you a quick membership here; interested applicants have to be recommended by anyone of its existing 1,500 members and the General Committee. If you do get their nod of approval, you are ready to rub elbows with prominent personalities from influential circles in Singapore and beyond. You might even find yourself right next to some of its most famous, frequent visitors including Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Adam Scott.
It is the golf club every local golfer covets to be a part of. And it’s hard not to see why Sentosa ranks up there as Singapore’s most exclusive.
THE CLUB AT NINE BRIDGES AND HAESLEY NINE BRIDGES (SOUTH KOREA)
Designed by US-based Golfplan, The Club at Nine Bridges’ 18-hole masterpiece remains one of the few Asian courses to have gained World Top 100 ranking. Golfplan partner David Dale, the man responsible for Nine Bridges, says: “The reason Nine Bridges keeps moving up (in terms of ranking) is that for the last 10 years, we have been continually refining the strategic and aesthetic experience. Golf course improvements have been methodical. In fact, we already have further refinements mapped out through 2017.”
Consistently rated the number 1 golf course in South Korea for many years since its opening in 2001, Nine Bridges is also the playground of the rich and famous. Founded by Jay Lee, 45, the grandson of Samsung founder, Lee Byung-chul, a Nine Bridges membership (worth at least S$500,000) is the ultimate status symbol in this golf-crazy nation.
Perhaps, the only Club in Korea that could rival or probably outdo The Club At Nine Bridges in terms of high exacting standards is none other than its sister club, Haesley Nine Bridges. Opened in 2009, it has one highly acclaimed 18-hole golf course, and its members number to only about 200. The price of belonging to this small golfing circle? A cool US$1 million dollars. There’s one caveat though: you have to be invited here to be a member. Needless to say, its youthful owner, the “Crown Prince of Samsung” has the final say on who makes the cut – or not.
Some of the pioneering members are owners and scions of South Korea’s “chaebol” (large conglomerates, mostly family owned) and industry titans who made their fortune manufacturing cars, mobile devices and electronic components being used in every corner of the globe.
MISSION HILLS (CHINA)
Mission Hills is probably the most well known golf club in China by virtue of its sheer size that earned it a place in the Guinness World Records as the largest golfing facility on earth. Twenty-two years since it opened its doors, Mission Hills is now bigger than ever with a mind-boggling 24 18-hole golf courses in three locations (Shenzhen, Dongguan and Haikou). These playgrounds for China’s elite were designed by the game’s legends including Jack Nicklaus, David Leadbetter, Annika Sorenstam and Justin Rose.
There were a number of defining events in China’s young golf history that took place at Mission Hills and had a huge impact on the country’s golf industry. It has also hosted many international tournaments including the World Cup of Golf, which it has staged for an unprecedented 12 consecutive years.
It’s not just the golf that comes in epic proportions here. The entire property sprawls over 40 square kilometres, which also houses Asia’s largest tennis facility. They have five-star resorts, award-winning spas and volcanic mineral springs, an international convention centre and golf academies. In 2012, The Guinness World Records recognised Mission Hills Haikou as the “World’s Largest Spa and Mineral Springs.”
Apart from golf legends and superstars, Mission Hills, also welcomes a steady stream of celebrities. In 2010 and 2011, it hosted two editions of World Celebrity Pro-Am participated in by Hollywood A-listers Catherine Zeta Jones, Hugh Gant, Christine Slater, Ryan Reynolds, Andy Garcia and many others. Come October, Oscar winners Morgan Freeman and Nicole Kidman and fellow Hollywood stars Chris Evans and Jessica Alba are among the famous names lined up for the third edition of the Mission Hills World Celebrity Pro-Am.
THE ROYAL COUNTY DOWN GOLF CLUB (IRELAND)
The Royal County Down is located in the coastal resort of Newcastle, in the foothills of the Mourne Mountains, which served as an inspiration for CS Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. It was founded in 1889 by a group of influential businessmen and professionals from Belfast, and is known to host the most prestigious amateur championships including the Walker Cup, the Curtis Cup and the Ladies’ British Open Amateur Championship.
This Irish icon is located in one of the world’s most naturally beautiful links settings in the Murlough Nature Reserve. The best and most rewarding views for golfers would be from the 4th tee and the 9th tee looking towards the Mountains of Mourne.
The Royal County Down won’t spill the beans on its most distinguished members, however, local boy and former world number one, Rory McIlroy is often seen playing there when he’s not competing on tour.