I’ve been privileged to have played most of the great golf courses in The Philippines in the course of my work and I’m often asked which course is my favorite. The is a very tough question that leaves me groping for an answer and no answer is put forward without qualifiers, but there’s one constant; Calatagan Golf Club in the sleepy Batangas town that lent the club its name, is always near the top of that list.
The next question is usually, “Why?”
And my stock answer is, “If you’re asking, then you probably haven’t played it yet”. Sure enough they have not. Calatagan connects with me on a level that I’m not sure I understand myself. Just driving up the Kalachuchi lined entrance to the club seems to have a profound effect on my mental state. When I’m in Calatagan, I’m at peace with myself and one with my golf.
Calatagan Golf Club was built at the same time as Alabang Golf and Country Club by Don Enrique Zobel and Robert Trent Jones, Jr. The course is blessed with hilly topography and an abundance of trees; indeed, the course seems to have been carved out of a forest. The magnificent clubhouse sits on top of a hill, adjacent to the vast Zobel ranch, Hacienda Biga-a with the course cascading down and around the hill and back up again. This topography allowed Jones to design some truly dramatic tee shots; many (myself included) feel this is his best work in the country. Don Enrique enhanced Jones’ handiwork by planting a variety of flowering trees and shrubs throughout the property; African Tulips, Kalachuchi, Bougainvillea, and Golden Shower dot the property. More than 80 Flame Trees once shared the landscape but most were destroyed by a weevil infestation a few years back. On your first visit, you’d be hard pressed to notice. The club can be seen in all its floral glory in May; it’s the favorite time for those that know the course best.
The drive up to the clubhouse is generally unpaved and lined with gnarled Kalachuchi trees; this adds to the quaint, pastoral feel of the property. Not quite the drive up Magnolia Lane to the Augusta Golf and Country Club, but captivate you, it will. The clubhouse is expansive with a large Veranda that makes the most of the stunning landscape. The Lockers are spacious and fully featured with a Jacuzzi and Sauna to soothe weary bodies after the round. The food is Filipino/Continental and is excellent and good value to boot. The Osso Bucco, Roast Chicken Pesto with home made pasta and the Longganisa breakfast are outstanding and best sellers. General Manager Tommy Manotoc and wife Yvette added a handful of vegetarian dishes and a full range of menu items fresh from the clubs’ vegetable and herb gardens.
But what impresses most is the golf. Measuring just 6,799-yards from the “Tommy Tees”, and an even friendlier 6,374-yards from the members’ tees, Calatagan is a shotmaker’s course; a balanced mix that will entertain, challenge and yes, punish you it you stray from its tree lined fairways. The root buttresses of the some of the larger varieties result in very penal lies; consider your options carefully when you find yourself among them. Because of the urgency of keeping your ball in the fairway, long hitters are best served by leaving the driver in the bag on a number of holes.
I’ve developed an appreciation for the 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. The greens are small and will receive a well-struck ball. They’ve got slope in them and are slightly grainy so an experienced caddy is invaluable.
In the end it is the trees that make Calatagan Golf Club stunningly beautiful. They will force you to play a variety of shots to post a good score, making it perhaps the best place for one wishing to take one’s game to the next level. Trees of all shapes, sizes and varieties make this one of the prettiest courses we’ve had the pleasure to play. Better still, is that perhaps because of its distance from the metropolis it’s played by just a privileged few, giving you a healthy dose of inner peace and solitude while on the course.
Beyond the golf, Calatagan Golf Club has broken new ground by becoming the first golf course in the country to totally eschew fertilizers and pesticides in the care and maintenance of the golf course and turn totally organic. Yvette Manotoc researched the viability of bio-dynamic composting material and started Calatagan on a pilot program. The club initially experimented with the material on the tee boxes and the results were so good that management made the decision for the club to go totally organic in August of last year. Initially results were positive, but then the course went into a withdrawal phase (much like weaning a drug addict off his addiction) where the course seemed to react negatively to the cessation of the chemical use. But the course recovered quickly and by December of 2008, reached a new peak in its conditioning; the fairways were lush and verdant and the greens fast but still receptive. The course uses about half the water that it once did and of course the club no longer has to purchase the imported chemicals and fertilizers on which most courses are so dependent. The course had turned the corner and continues to flourish even in the heat of the summer of 2009. The Manotocs remain guardedly optimistic, cognizant of the changes and challenges that Mother Nature is prone to dishing out.
There is much that binds me to Calatagan. I was lured here by the beach as an teen and the golf as an adult, but I’ve come to appreciate the intangibles; the spirit and kindness of the people here, the serenity of the provincial setting and the stunning beauty of this part of our country are what bring me back to Calatagan to refresh and recharge my soul.