A hole new world
I'VE been swimming in the azure sea, I've eaten freshly caught fish and I've read my book. I've even tried water skiing. But as I've been lying on a sunbed surrounded by white-powder sand in Mauritius, I've noticed a constant stream of people heading towards a golf course. It's a spectacular course, but what's the draw of a game when you could be enjoying everything else paradise has to offer?
While I've never played before, there are more than 40 million golfers worldwide - 26 million are in the US, according to the Professional Golfers' Association (PGA), with an estimated 1.7 million golfers playing more than once a month in the UK. And about 30 per cent of all golfers take annual golf holidays, according to the International Association of Golf Tour Operators (IAGTO), so there must be something in sun, sand and taking a swing. Not least because I'm staying at the five-star Constance Belle Mare Plage hotel, set on the idyllic eastern coast of this island, where for the first time the MBC Senior Golf Championship, the climax of the European Senior Tour season, is being held on the fabulously manicured Legend Gold Course.
As a novice, and for the sake of that spectacular course, I take a 45-minute golf lesson on the grass driving range before I head out on the green, which boasts lakes, a lagoon and even wild deer. After a few missed shots where the turf goes flying rather than the ball, I seem to get the hang of it. I am happy with my relaxed swing and I'm beaming when the ball soars through the sky and lands near my target. But I pray that I don't wake up with the obsession to improve my game like so many golfers. If you've experienced that even near-perfect shot, you can understand why people get addicted to golf.
While I'm practising my swing, there's a buzz in the air. Thanks to the Championship taking place, the place is packed with golf stars, who I'm told include Scotland's Sam Torrance, OBE and America's Tom Lehman, the winner of the 1996 Open Championship. Not only are they here to compete for a share of the A400,000 ((pounds sterling)330,000) prize money, but they are playing with hotel guests, in a Pro-Am tournament. For the golf tourist it is perhaps as thrilling as if I'd just heard my tennis partner was John McEnroe. And after the tournament, hotel guests winning the Pro-Am tournament collect their prizes to the sound of the Rocky theme, "Eye of the Tiger", at the hotel's poolside party, along with the golf pros.
With perks such as this, it's no wonder golf holidays are booming. The eternal quest for a hole in one takes many tourists on one holiday only - a golfing holiday. IAGTO estimates that in 2009 more than 63 million golfing holidays were taken, with a total value of (pounds sterling)16.4bn. The typical UK golf visitor is in the top socio-economic category, aged between 35 and 55 and male, with an average golf handicap of 18. His average stay is seven nights, spending (pounds sterling)550 (excluding flights).
High-end golf destinations include the new Yas Links Abu Dhabi golf course, which is carved out of the desert in the United Arab Emirates, and The Mission Hills resort in China, the world's largest golf club, which boasts 12 courses designed by 12 golfing legends. Tiger Woods recently claimed that Pebble Beach in California "might be the prettiest place on earth". But for everyday folk, golf holidays don't have to cost the earth.
Turkey and China may currently be the fastest emerging golf destinations, but top of the European destinations is still Spain, followed by Portugal. Approximately 500,000 UK golf visitors travel to Spain annually - according to IAGTO - mainly to the Costa del Sol region, often dubbed the Costa del Golf. Golfbreaks.com, one of the leading golf-tour operators in the UK, offers discount breaks in Spain from (pounds sterling)155 for four nights B&B in a four-star hotel and three rounds. More premium holidays include a winter-sun trip to Dubai, where five nights B&B at a five star, including three rounds costs from (pounds sterling)1,349.
Other golf tourists buy timeshare at their favourite golf resort to save on annual holiday accommodations. Or for the dedicated golf traveller, a trip on the luxury ship The World might be the answer. With its 165 luxury berths, it is an ideal around-the-world golf trip. Since the ship's launch in 2002, it has stopped off at some of the best golf courses.
Back on my island, I head on to the lush, green fairways made out of an indigenous forest and rebuilt with special Tifdwarf grasses for a perfect surface. Having been warned that golf can never be mastered - which is its universal appeal - I soon begin to feel disillusioned. I find myself getting frustrated and depressed as I whack the ball into the trees, rather than the first hole. "Golf is like sex," Torrance, the golf champ, tells me later when we cross paths on the beach. "You don't have to be good at it to enjoy it."
After several wooded walks between holes on the back nine, it's only at the end of the round that any part of the lagoon comes into play. My golf instructor explains that the short 17th is the "signature hole" at the legend course. Built on a rocky islet in the lagoon, volcanic rock was blasted down to accommodate the green. It's only 166 yards, but it's a nice view to take in, before I head into the clubhouse for a cold mango juice, after the par-five closing hole.
I've enjoyed walking around the beautiful course, although others prefer golf carts. Top of the range is the Ferrari golf buggy, which costs (pounds sterling)18,000. It zips around at 32kph. Not that I need to go that quickly - at least, not yet. While I have to admit that I enjoyed playing golf on the hotel's Legend Golf Course, I haven't yet caught the bug. I wish I had the determination to practice, but I can't say I will plan my next holiday with golf in mind. Still, one thing is certain: if you do play golf, it helps to do it in paradise.