Thursday, November 15, 2012

Singapore Open Golf - Nov 10-11, 2012

When I first moved to Singapore, I noted in a post that the city is considered the 6th top sports destination in the world, beating every U.S. city except New York. After a half-year here, I can see how that might be true if you are not particularly geared toward American sports, For such a small country, there are a lot of interesting international sporting events filling the calendar. Golf is no exception, with the Singapore Open the annual highlight.

It was first played in 1961 as part of an Asian circuit that included a handful of tournaments in Malaysia, Hong Kong, the Philippines and Japan. When the more official Asian Tour began in 1995, this tournament became one of its key stops until 2002, when it took a three-year hiatus due to a lack of sponsorship. Barclays came to the rescue in 2005 and in 2009 the European Tour co-sanctioned the event as part of its year-end tour to warmer climes. With these additions, the Singapore Open is now Asia’s richest tournament and attracts top golfers from around the world.

Tickets were $20 for Thursday or Friday and $50 for Saturday or Sunday, a great value given that some top talent was in attendance. However, I found somebody selling two tickets for $40 and asked a  colleague if he would like to join me, and he told me that he had already received a pair of freebies from a sponsor and wouldn’t be using them. A fortunate turn of events as I was able to attend both Saturday and Sunday and enjoyed a thrilling finish to a top-notch event.

The Serapong

The tournament is hosted by the Sentosa Golf Club, which has two championship golf courses, the Serapong and Tanjong. The first two rounds are played on both courses, but the final two rounds take place only on The Serapong, which has great views of the harbour.

The Serapong was opened in 1982 and measures 7,300 yards from the championship tee, with a par-71 in place for the Singapore Open. In 2007, the course underwent an upgrade that included improvements in both course design and greens technology. That renovation helped The Serapong win Asian Golf Monthly’s “Number 1 Championship Golf Course in Asia". No doubt that award helped the course win favor with the European Tour, who bring along some of their best every year.

One feature that really impressed me here was the main hand-operated scoreboard, particularly between the 2nd and 3rd rounds when the volunteers had to quickly reset the players' groups based on their score after two rounds.

The course is on the island of Sentosa, which is fairly close to downtown. You can take the MRT to Harbourfront and then a monorail over the small channel that separate the two islands, or walk along the boardwalk. There is even a cable car, but at $28 return, it is not worth it. Once on the island, you can take the free Yellow Line bus to the golf course. All of this sounds relatively simple, but it takes time, so I would recommend taking a taxi from downtown, which would likely cost less than $20. If you have a car, you can drive and park on the island for just $3.20 but traffic on the way out will be slightly bothersome.

If you have time, you can also tour Sentosa itself. The island has dozens of themed areas, with Universal Studios the main attraction. There is also a casino for visitors (locals must pay $100 to enter) and several beaches (and beach bars) that lie on the south coast. There are also plenty of special areas for kids and families. Some local funnymen say that Sentosa stands for So Expensive, Nothing TO See Anyway, but these days there is enough to keep you busy for a day or two.

The Tournament

This year, Rory McIlroy headed a list of European Tour stars that included Colin Montgomerie (below) and Adam Scott. Phil Mickelson earned a sponsor’s invite as well, so there were certainly some big names to attract fans. 

Friday’s play had been postponed by rain, which meant that many golfers had to finish up their second round on Saturday morning. I arrived at 4 pm just as the third round was getting started. I first stopped at the practice green where Miugel Angel Jimenez was warming up with a cigar (below).

McIlroy was two groups later, so I headed over to the first tee to watch him begin his round, and then I scurried over to the 10th where Mickelson (below), who had just made the cut, was getting ready.

After that, I headed to the sponsors suites (above) near the 18th green. Verizon was the Premier Sponsor and offered free food and drink all day long as well as providing a great viewpoint from above the green (pic below). The food here was from the nearby Shangri-La and spectacular, so I did not have to eat anything from the regular concession stand.

Play was called on account of darkness around 6:30, with some players having completed only three holes of their third round. This meant that Sunday would be a full day of golf and I therefore returned early Sunday morning to see as much of it as I could.

When I arrived, the third round was in full swing, and Matteo Manassero was leading after shooting a stunning 7-under in the morning. I spent some time walking to most of the holes on the back nine and enjoying the perfect weather, although my afternoon was almost ruined by an errant tee shot from a still unknown golfer. The ball landed about two feet behind me, and then rolled back down the sidewalk, forcing me to jump out of its way. It was quite fun to watch the other fans scatter as the ball gathered pace on the downhill slope before it came to rest in a small patch of grass next to the path. I did not realize how close it had come until my friend told me that I was mere inches from a hospital visit, if not worse.

This was not the only time that the golfers were unable to keep their shots in play. Above is Pablo Larrazibal of Spain shooting from well off the 1st fairway.

Now that I had learned about the dangers of golf spectating, I continued to walk back to the 18th green grandstand (above) more alertly than before. I sat at the edge of the green and watched a few players finish up their rounds. When McIlroy reached the green in two, he had a 35-footer left for eagle, which he drained in spectacular fashion, earning him 3rd place at -10 and the money title on the European tour to go with his PGA title as well. That is him below acknowledging the fans after his eagle putt.

The two golfers in front of him were Masters runner-up Louis Oosthuizen (below, chipping out of the rough) and Manassero, who both finished at -13. The tie meant a playoff between the two would be necessary, with the 18th hole to be replayed over and over until a clear winner was announced. By this time I was back in the Verizon box and with most people having left for the day, had a clear view of the action from tee to green.

Both golfers made birdie on their first attempt, and so they were driven back to the tee to try again. Manassero bogeyed and Oosthuizen had a fairly easy birdie putt for the win but it lipped out and a third playoff hole was on tap. This time Manassero’s approach shot was near perfect and he holed the eagle putt to win the title, his 3rd on the tour despite being only 19 years old. It was an exciting finish to a very interesting event.

This was the first pro golf tournament I attended and I realize that it doesn't compare to the majors in the United States, with only about 12,000 fans here on the final day. Still, the atmosphere was great and with the rain holding off for the weekend, the weather couldn’t have been better, save for a bit of humidity. Mickelson said that Singapore fans are the best behaved in the world and for the most part he would be right. When there was no immediate action, fans chatted amiably with strangers, or took pictures of the golfers. But when a tee shot was about to be struck, or a key putt was being lined up, people shut up and watched, as good golf fans should. A really enjoyable weekend.

Unfortunately, Barclays has not renewed their sponsorship contract, leaving the tournament without a major benefactor. Reports indicate that the event will be held for at least the next five years, but the long-term viability is in doubt. If you like to watch golf in a tropical climate and see a vibrant city at the same time, make your way to Singapore for their Open Championship in a November in the not-too-distant future. It just might be the Singapore Open by then!



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