Winds of change at Saujana

Bunga Raya’s signature hole, the par 3 Hole 17, requires the tee shot to carry water and bunkers to the putting surface. A bird sanctuary nestles to the left of the green.

Bunga Raya’s signature hole, the par 3 Hole 17, requires the tee shot to carry water and bunkers to the putting surface. A bird sanctuary nestles to the left of the green.

IT USED to be a place where workers caught cobras to be sold elsewhere for extra income. The slithery creatures may be nowhere to be seen now but the fearsome reputation remains.

Saujana Golf & Country Club’s Palm course has long been labelled “The Cobra” for its biting all-round challenges. Even champions acknowledge this.

“The hardest and most demanding golf course I’ve seen or played,” said Tray Tyner, winner of the 1988 Malaysian Open, the first time the national Open was played at Saujana.

“I think the best thing about the course is that each hole is different in character. In addition to being the hardest it is also kept in great condition,” added the American then.

Though pundits were predicting a final score of one-under or two-under the score settled at 288 or simply put, par for the course.

Years later, Tray’s views were somewhat validated by the ranking awarded by news broadcaster CNN, which rated the course in 2012 as the sixth hardest in the world.

But if there was anyone who could gaze into a crystal ball and predict a glowing future, it had to be Australia’s respected golf coach Norman Von Nida aka “The Von”.

“The potential of Saujana will be realised in the near future,” said Norman in 1987. “You do not know what you got here.”

It’s been a long and eventful drive for Saujana’s Palm and Bunga Raya courses as they have grown to become bastions for leading local and international amateur and professional events through the years.

Saujana has hosted the Malaysian Open nine times, the most by any club apart from the venerable Royal Selangor Golf Club. It hosted the national Open in 1988, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2001, 2004, 2005, 2007 and 2009.

It has to be mentioned that in 2002, the club was given the privilege of hosting World Amateur Golf Team Championship which pitted the leading male and female amateurs in the Eisenhower and Espirito Santo Trophy events.

Given that both courses were long in the tooth having been around for more than 20 years, the club decided it was time to refurbish them.

“So a proposal was created to renovate the Bunga Raya and Palm courses,” said general manager S.A. Nathan.

“The idea was to enhance these in order to regain its former glory and to ensure that the renovation works are up to modern standards to cater for major events and to facilitate efficient maintenance.”

It was decided that the entire Bunga Raya course had to be redesigned and the task was given to golf architect Ted Parslow while the original designer, Ronald Fream, was engaged as a consultant for the Palm course.

Tasked with overseeing the upgrading work were selected members of the board appointed to the technical committee. Among them were Datuk Abu Bakar Mohd Nor and Saujana Resort director Choy Thiam Hwa.

“The Bunga Raya was already 30 years old, many greens could only take four pin positions and there were drainage and access issues,” said Bakar.

He said the goal was to reconfigure the Bunga Raya layout as the Palm’s sixth and seventh holes were removed. Therefore, the brief was to build two new holes for Palm, a brand new 18 for Bunga Raya and a chip and putt course which could be converted into a driving range when needed.

“What we wanted to do on Bunga Raya was to make sure we could fit a minimum of six pin positions on all holes and design the greens so that drainage could improve and maintenance work carried out easily,” he said.

The decision was also made to change the grass to miniverde, an ultra-dwarf hybrid species.

“The technical committee visited a few courses in Thailand and it was the right choice at the time,” said Choy.

Where Palm was concerned, the work required was more precise and detailed given that it was the championship course where the best of players would come.

The Palm had minimal changes to the layout with the major difference being the replacement of the original Holes 6 and 7 with the new Holes 8 and 9.

“The greens creep on certain holes was as much as two metres so greens were enlarged either back to its original size or bigger. In some locations, they were moved either sideways or back,” said Bakar.

A sizable number of tee positions were pushed back, bunkers were rebuilt and, in some cases, new ones were built in different locations to accentuate the challenge while the Bermuda Tifdwarf grass on the greens were replaced by the hybrid Tifeagle.

All the greens were built to fit the minimum six pin positions although certain holes can fit more positions.

Green speed is being gradually increased with the grounds team tasked with getting it to read 9 to 10 for normal play and above 10 for tournaments on the stimpmeter by September.

The pushing back of tees delivers subtle differences in shot-making. The par 4 Hole 4 plays 370 yards and used to be treated with impunity by players but now brings the drain and pond into play, requiring a high shot approach.

The par 4 373 yard 17th often sees tournament players going for the green from the tee. That may not be as easy now since the water hazard has been moved closer to the green.

But strong holes like the par 5 569 yard 18th have retained their original flavour with exception to a pot bunker before the green.

The putting surface with its four plateaus has always served as a battleground for the best of players, including the epic playoff contest between Vijay Singh and Padraig Harrington in the 2001 Malaysian Open.

The completion of the courses has been greeted warmly by the 2,800-strong membership, especially the 1,000 or so active golfers.

“Our weekends are fully booked by members. We are getting many flights in the mornings,” revealed Nathan.

Saujana has notions of becoming a top-flight private members course which allows members’ guests to play.

Visiting players may only play at the course if they stay at The Saujana Hotel Kuala Lumpur, a 5-star integrated resort that features 250 well-appointed rooms .

It’s been seven years since the award-winning club has hosted a significant event.

But the winds of change are coming.

European tour officials on a recent visit to the Palm course came away impressed, shortlisting Saujana as a perfect venue for future tournaments.

“I can sense our glory days are around the corner,” said Nathan.

“On that note, we felt it was time to beef up our grounds-keeping team by bringing back consultants Mior Husnan and Peter John Smith.”

Von Nida’s words ring true – the true potential of Saujana is finally being revealed.

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