When spectacular scenery combines with terrific course design and five-star conditioning, it’s hard not to be impressed. This is what you’ll find at Natadola Bay.
It is true most avid golfers will travel just about anywhere in search of a new golfing challenge.
During the past 15 years, we haven’t had to travel too far from home to enjoy new, highly rated world-class courses. Tasmania’s Barnbougle and Cape Wickham as well as the likes of Cape Kidnappers and Tara Iti across the ditch in New Zealand have all received worldwide acclaim and are ranked in the top-100 courses in the world.
Enticed by the challenge of playing the game across a new field of dreams in a spectacular locale has caused thousands of salivating golfers to pack their bags, endure airport queues and beat a path to the 1st tee of these layouts. You can add Natadola Bay to your ‘must play’ list, if you haven’t already.
Located on Fiji’s Coral Coast, about 50 minutes’ drive south of Nadi International Airport on the main island of Viti Levu, Natadola Bay is a spectacular layout that combines 14 holes covering undulating land affording ocean views with four inland holes that are irresistibly breathtaking.
The course was developed by Natadola Bay Resort Ltd (NBRL), which is the commercial arm of the Fiji National Provident Fund (FNPF). NBRL invested $250 million into the development – the largest of its kind ever undertaken in Fiji – which included the neighbouring five-star Intercontinental Resort. Construction has also started on a residential development on land between the resort and the layout.
Fijian golf icon Vijay Singh routed the original design, but a dispute between his management team at IMG and the developers in the years prior to the course’s opening in 2009 led to Singh walking away from the project. Singh’s design plans were ultimately tweaked by Singapore-based course-construction company, Heritage Golf.
Nearly 10 years on, the course has never looked better.
Course superintendent Steve Lalor has been the man in charge for most of the past decade and you could travel a long way to find a course in better condition. I visited Natadola Bay nearly eight weeks before this year’s Fiji International and the course was in such good shape it could have hosted the event then.
Lalor and his team do a fantastic job in keeping the Seashore paspalum playing surfaces in incredible shape year round. It is no wonder the salt-tolerant grass – used on the tees, first-cut rough, fairways and greens – is becoming the grass of choice for new courses being built in tropical climes, especially ocean side layouts. The grass seems to thrive in this environment and removing weeds doesn’t require chemicals, just a handful of rock salt.
At Natadola, the huge, rolling greens are not trimmed too short but the Seashore paspalum surfaces are brilliant. Flat putts still roll at a good speed but downhillers, especially downwind, are very quick. More importantly, the roll is very true and consistent across the layout. Add to that, the greens surrounds are so well-manicured you can even putt from well off the greens.
The course leads away from the clubhouse towards the ocean with a long downhill par-4. Like every hole, there are several teeing options and there are Fijian touches everywhere. Bala bala figureheads beside each fairway mark 150 metres to the centre of the greens, while the tee markers are shaped like ‘neck-breakers’, which are tools used to crack open coconuts.
The opening holes are tough but playable. Rolling down, up and back down the natural undulations, the opening trio of par-4s lead you to the signature 4th hole, a 197-metre par-3 where you play alongside the azure and inviting waters of the Pacific for the first time.
“The huge, rolling greens are not trimmed too short but the seashore paspalum surfaces are brilliant.”
Singh’s routing then turns away from the water and heads uphill, almost back to the clubhouse. The course is split by a road that separates the 14 holes on the clubhouse and ocean side from four holes across the road that feature elevated tees, wild descents and sharp undulations. The par-5 6th hole is the first of the inland holes that marks the start of an exciting journey that is as close to a golfing rollercoaster ride as you will ever experience.
On each of the four holes, the tee is elevated and the fairway and green fits beautifully into the surrounding landscape below.
All the improvements made to the par-72 in recent times have revolved around the design and making the layout more playable and strategically better.
When Singh was enticed to return to his homeland to play the Fiji International a few years ago, he was asked his advice on what changes he might make to the course. That advice was put into action during the past 18 months and the results have been outstanding.
The first major change was made to the 387-metre par-4 9th hole. From the tee, nothing has changed and a good drive down the left half of the fairway is still required to put you in a good position to approach the green, which has been rebuilt and now incorporates a deep ravine and creek at the front of the putting surface.
Natadola Bay’s second nine is less wild but uses an open area to fine effect, while once again bringing play to the ocean’s edge for two fine par-3s at the 13th and 15th.
I used to think tackling the water-laden 300-metre par-4 12th hole was a one-dimensional exercise. With a rocky creek along the right side at the bottom of a steeply cambered fairway, you really had no choice but to get a mid-iron in play from the tee, to leave a short iron into the green. Only someone with rocks in their head would even try to hit a wood down near the green.
Singh’s changes here have created a wonderful risk-and-reward short par-4 where you can play it a number of different ways. The sloped fairway has been flattened slightly, two fairway bunkers (on the edge of the rough between the fairway and out-of-bounds fence left) and the front of the putting surface widened. The pond is now bigger and wraps around the right edge of the putting surface. It’s now a terrific short par-4 that is no longer a way of simply getting from the 11th green to the 13th tee.
The 12th hole is a great example of how a ‘big’ course can still accommodate a short, fun par-4 into the design, which is one of the exciting aspects of a round at Natadola Bay. The variety of holes, the quality of its playing surfaces and the challenge this course offers ensures one round here is never enough.
I’ve been asked several times how Natadola Bay would rank if it was in Australia. It would certainly push for a spot in the top-20 courses in the country.
LOCATION: Maro Rd, Natadola, Viti Levu, Fiji.
CONTACT: (0011) 679 673 3500; firstname.lastname@example.org.
DESIGNER: Heritage Golf (2009); Vijay Singh (2008 & 2016).
PLAYING SURFACES: Seashore paspalum (fairways, greens and tees).
COURSE SUPERINTENDENT: Steve Lalor.
GREEN FEES: FJ$230 (about A$141). Guests at the InterContinental pay FJ$165 (about A$105). Green fees include range balls and cart use.
MEMBERSHIPS: Depending on how much golf you plan to play or how frequently you expect to return, joining the club can make smarter financial sense. Available from FJ$1,850 (and couples for FJ$2,775), annual membership fees cost the same as eight 18-hole rounds. There is no joining fee. Membership includes unlimited golf with cart, preferred tee-times, up to three guests at a time at guest rates, unlimited driving range balls, 10 percent off food and beverages in the restaurant and bar.
ACCOMMODATION: The stunning five-star InterContinental Fiji Golf Resort & Spa is next door to the golf course (frequent shuttles operate between the two). The 271-room resort adjoins Natadola Beach and features five restaurants and bars, a luxury spa, three swimming pools, a dive pool, kids club, plus wedding and conference facilities. The spacious, air-conditioned rooms are fitted with a surround sound system, flatscreen TVs, DVD player, wireless internet and more.
PACKAGES: InterContinental and Natadola Bay offer a Golfer’s Delight package that includes golf for two, four nights’ accommodation and daily buffet breakfasts. Rates vary according to timing.