21 October, 2012

Open for Business

Jon Underwood was invited to attend the 2012 Samoan Open to see how the country is hoping to attract more golfers.

Imagine playing St Andrews alongside Tiger Woods as he shoots for his fourth British Open title. Or trying to tame “Amen Corner” with Rory McIlroy during the final round at Augusta.

Of course, these scenarios are never going to happen so you’re probably wondering what’s the point of my hypothesising. I’ll admit it’s a bit of a stretch to compare Scotland or Georgia with Samoa but there is a tournament where the amateurs can play right next to the pros as they do what they do for a living.

The 2012 SIFA Samoan Open saw 41 professionals battle for a first prize of AU$15,000 and they did it with amateurs right beside them every step of the way.

“You don’t get to play in the Australian Open with the pros,” commented David Barker, Executive Officer of the PGA Australia. “This is an event where you get to play alongside them on a level playing field. They are trying as hard as they can and if you beat them you can brag about it for the rest of your life.”

This was the incentive for three-marker Ross Rees, who played in the event as part of a fact-finding mission for a group of travelling golfers in Canberra. It was the first time Rees had been to Samoa in 35 years and he liked what he saw.

“I was looking for somewhere different to play golf,” he told me. “It’s in a remarkable condition for an island course and I can’t believe how good the fairways are. I haven’t had a bad lie yet. It’s a course where you have to hit it left to right and right to left, and the elevation change on some holes is amazing.”

The three-round, AU$80,000 tournament was played at the Royal Samoa Country Club and has been sanctioned for the past decade by the Australian PGA as part of their ongoing campaign to help Samoa promote the game.

“Last year we brought over two professionals and they spent a week coaching their elite squad,” said Barker. “This year, we arranged for an Australian superintendent to come over and give them tips on how they should present the course.”

That work certainly paid off with most of the players genuinely impressed with the overall state of the course. The only Achilles heel in Samoa golf is the state of the greens on its three 18-holes courses (Royal Samoa, Penina and Faleata) but the locals are aware of the problem and are taking steps to fix it.

While the greens may need a little work, there is nothing wrong with the layout or challenge presented by Royal Samoa, the oldest course in the country. Several holes offer cracking views of Fagali`i Bay and there’s enough variety to keep you guessing as to what comes next, especially if the tuaoloa (south-east wind) is blowing.

The prettiest stretch of the course begins at the sixth – a par-three where the green is some 50 metres below the tee and from the back tees you can’t actually see the dance floor below. The seventh is a cute par four where a medium iron off the tee will leave you a wedge played between trees and over a stream, and the eighth is a par-four with a massive elevation change up to a tight, narrow green.

But with eminently reachable par-fives and even some driveable par fours, this is a course where you can bring your B game and still walk away with a smile, which, let’s face it, is the main purpose of being on holiday in the first place.

Of the other courses in Samoa, Penina is definitely the toughest and was originally going to host the Open but was undone by the state of its greens. It’s a shame the pros didn’t get to tackle this layout because it’s a totally different kind of challenge to Royal Samoa, with tighter fairways and plenty of trouble. Indeed, the fourth hole wouldn’t look out of place on a list of the worlds greatest with the entire right hand side flanked by ocean and a green that sticks out into it.

Faleata is the most Australian-looking course and also has the distinction of having a decent driving range. It’s colourful, undulating and with the best bunker complexes I saw during my time there but again the greens are in desperate need of some TLC. As golf continues to develop in Samoa, it has to be hoped that they will continue to get the help they need to address these problems.

ACCOMMODATION As far as location goes, Aggie Grey’s Hotel & Bungalows is perfectly placed, right in the heart of Apia. A short stroll takes you to the city centre and its various shops, restaurants and bars or you can head down to the harbour and watch the sunset over a cold beer and a snack.

Not that you need to step out the front door to find fine dining or a place to relax. The hotel is framed around a large pool surrounded by tropical gardens and is the perfect place to while away a few hours. And if haute cuisine is a must on your holiday agenda drop into Le Tamarina, where you can sample such dishes as cilantro-lemongrass crusted fish in a Thai coconut basil sauce or Asian spiced pepper chicken. The hotel can also organise deep-sea diving tours or pampering at the Le Spa Lalelei.

Every evening there’s a theme night that can vary from Asian to Mongolian to barbecue but without a doubt Wednesday is the pick of the bunch. The FiaFia is a traditional Samoan floorshow and a great spectacle that the guests seem to enjoy almost as much as the performers. And take the time to check out the bures with a touch of Hollywood. The rich and famous have all stayed here and you’ll spot bures named after Marlon Brando and William Holden, to name but a few.

WHAT ELSE TO DO No trip to Samoa would be complete without a visit to the house that Robert Louis Stevenson built. The famed novelist, who penned Kidnapped, Treasure Island and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, to name but a few, worked feverishly for the Samoan people and was mourned by the locals when he died.

It took him two years to build Vailima and sadly the health issues that forced him to Samoa in the first place finally claimed his life after he’d lived there for little more than two. But unlike some famous homes that are little more than shells this one is crammed full of Stevenson’s goods and chattels, including first editions of his three most famous books.

Beach lovers will make a beeline for the golden sand and surf around Siumu that was devastated by the 2009 tsunami, which the locals called the “Dark Devil”. But with their usual resilience and customary perspicacity, they have built luxury resorts where the waves came crashing ashore and now there’s nowhere better to chill out than at Lupe’s Bar while sipping a cold Kopo’s Wallbanger (vodka, orangue juice and Galliano vanilla.

TERRY’S GOOD CALL A last-minute decision to enter the Samoan Open paid handsome dividends for Australian Terry Pilkadaris, who walked off with the AU$15,000 first prize.

“Up until about eight days ago I wasn’t playing this tournament but was lucky enough to get a late entry. I had missed the cut at the OneAsia event in Korea and thought I needed to play and make some money. It was a very good decision.”

The 39-year-old stormed out of the blocks with a nine-under par 63 and subsequent rounds of 66 and 70 were enough for him to win by five from fellow Victorian and reigning champion Peter Wilson. Despite his blistering start, Pilkadaris said he never felt the title was his until the final day.

“You just don’t know what can happen on the course. There are no leader boards so you don’t know what everyone else is doing and whether to play conservatively or aggressively. That’s the hardest thing. If you’ve got leader boards, you know where you stand and what you have to do.”

Pilkadaris, who last played in Samoa 12 years ago, finished at seventeen under par and is a fan of the laidback nature of the island.

“You certainly can’t get an ulcer, it’s very relaxing. The course is in a lot better shape than it was when we first played. The weather is great and everyone is very relaxed and easy going. I made the right decision to come.”

Will he return to defend his title?

“It all depends on my schedule but if I am available I will definitely come back.”


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