Greg Norman, Colin Montgomerie and Nick Faldo have much in common: three greats of the game who reached number one or two in the world rankings, were fierce competitors and who, individually, have since turned their attention to golf course design and other business pursuits.
The Shark, winner of 91 pro tournaments and two British Opens, has designed more than 80 courses worldwide. Monty, with 41 victories but no majors, was eight times winner of the European Order of Merit and has his name on 15 courses in play or being built. Nick Faldo, knighted in 2009, had 40 professional wins including six majors in a stellar 30-year career that included 98 weeks as the world's top player.
Now there's another link: the three icons are teeing it up alongside each other on Vietnam's Central Coast based on the city of Danang, Asia's rapidly emerging world-class golf destination.
Monty's eponymous Montgomerie Links, which he officially opened in April 2010, is right next door to the Norman-designed The Dunes at Danang Golf Club that unofficially opened for play at the same time. Meanwhile, Laguna Lang Co, between Danang and the former imperial city of Hue, was officially opened in mid-March by the six-time Major winner himself.
The three courses are all members of Golf Coast Vietnam (www.golfcoastvietnam), a new -marketing program that aims to bring Danang to the attention of golfers throughout Asia/Pacific, Europe and North America.
Good morning, Vietnam! And chao buoi sang to the world's newest golf destination. With a population of almost a million and located half-way between Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, Danang - Vietnam's third largest city - has quickly become the country's golf focus.
It took another 45 years before a golf ball was hit there competitively, but all that duneland didn't go unnoticed or, eventually, not get put to good use. Montgomerie Links and The Dunes are on a sweep of sand stretching along the coast for more than 25 kilometres from Danang to the UNESCO World Heritage ancient city of Hoi An.
Five-star resorts, including the Hyatt Regency Danang and the exquisite Ocean Villas complex Danang, are opening apace.
A fourth layout, Ba Na Hills, located in the Danang hinterland and bearing the moniker of former world number one, Luke Donald, is being built by IMG. Its opening date is uncertain, but is rumoured to be during 2014.
Reminiscent of Melbourne's sandbelt and the coasts of Scotland, Greg Norman's former designer, Australian Harley Kruse who managed the Danang Golf Club construction, says it's rare to be find such ideal land for golf courses in Asia. Not that players are complaining, or that the two adjoining courses replicate each other.
Far from it. Whereas Monty went the manicured resort-style route with minimal waste areas and little visible sand, the Shark opted to leave the sand dunes as they were, creating a starker, but truer, links feel.
"There's nothing in Asia quite like it. It's setting a new standard for the type of courses that will be built throughout Asia in the future," Kruse says of The Dunes.
This is no idle claim. Last year, the course was named as the best new layout in Vietnam.
Its developer, VinaCapital Group - Vietnam's leading investment funds manager - has plans for an adjoining course in a wetland area, while the accompanying Danang Beach Resort provides all the comfort and amenities any discerning golfer would want.
Kruse says that the Danang GC layout appeals to traditionalists and links aficionados. "It's in the Alister MacKenzie philosophy. The club might not sell a lot of balls in the pro shop, because even if you stray off the fairways, you'll find your ball," he explains.
True. There's a lot of sand on the 7190-yard layout from the shark tees (6660 yards from the from the black tips and 6210 yards from the whites) and it looks intimidating, but notwithstanding ubiquitous casuarina pines that are native to the area, ground cover is sparse. As Kruse says, you can play out of most situations.
In typical Norman style, bunkering features prominently and there are few blind tee shots. Numerous holes have sand edging along most of the fairway, often blending into shaped bunkers that guard heavily-undulating greens. Fairways are firm and most holes also have grassed run-out areas feeding off the greens. Miss the right landing area and you face a steep breaking putt or an awkward chip or putt from the fringe.
The signature hole is the 16th, a 148-yard par-3 that plays up to the beach. From the tee, the Cham Islands appear in the distance, 10 miles or so straight ahead. You can hear, but until reaching the green can't see, the pounding surf. A pillbox from French colonial days stands sentry between the sharply sloping green and the 17th tee.
There are many other standouts: the 219-yard par-3 second, heavily bunkered at right; the long 630-yard par-5 10th with a right then left dogleg fairway cut between high dunes that plays to mountains in the distance; the delectable risk and reward downhill 319-yard par-4 14th that may prompt the foolhardy or big hitters - or both - to go for the green; and the stunning, visually intimidating 479-yard par-4 18th, a classic testing finishing hole on which par is a fine result.
Under the watchful eye of former Australian tour pro, Jon Tomlinson, and designed by Colin Montgomerie with IMG, Monty Links has a whole different feel. The developer, IndoChina Land, is the real estate division of IndoChina Capital, which owns upmarket local resorts, the Nam Hai and Hyatt Regency.
The 7063-yard layout off the back (Monty) tees is a great test for low markers, while at 6602 yards off the blue tees and 5766 yards off the whites makes it eminently playable for higher handicappers. Man-made water on two-thirds of the holes makes it more of a resort-style layout than a true links course. Monty himself acknowledges this, saying a "links-style philosophy" was behind the design strategy.
For visual impact and presentation Montgomerie Links is as good as anything in south-east Asia, and in 2011 was named for the second year in a row as Vietnam's best course. Its modern clubhouse overlooking the 18th hole and a 20-bay crescent moon-shaped covered practice facility should be models for all new course developments.
Among the standout holes are the tiny 118-yard over-water par-3 5th with a round bunker immediately between the water and the pin; the 487-yard par-5 6th, which although short, has an elevated waterside green that requires a precise approach; the signature 527-yard par-5 12th hole towards the clubhouse; the Index 1 455-yard par 4 13th with a tough uphill approach shot to a tiny green; and the beautiful downhill 220-yard par-3 14th to a water-guarded green.
Monty nominates the tee shot on the 12th as having "as good a view from the tee as anywhere" and the second shot on 13 as his personal favorites.
"It's playing magnificently well, with firm fairways and good bunkering," he said after shooting a course record 68 on his exhibition round first outing three years ago. "It's got championship possibility. It would be great if the European tour could include Vietnam in the schedule."
Sir Nick Faldo's Laguna Lang Co course offers a whole different experience. The development that includes resort facilities is the 26th in Faldo's blossoming golf course design portfolio. It meanders through natural jungle, wetlands and rice paddy down to the beach. Developed by Banyan Tree Hotels and Resorts, which operates Laguna Phuket in Thailand and Laguna Bintan in Indonesia, Laguna Lang Co is a perfect adjunct to Montgomerie Links and Danang Golf Club.
There are numerous standout holes, of which the par-3 11th that plays beside the mountain to a backdrop of huge boulders, is Faldo's favorite.
"The site has what we're always looking for," he said during the opening events in March. "If you can create different environments for golfers throughout the round, that's the in thing now - you want a different feel, requiring different shots. I think this course is going to hold up against better courses in the region and maybe even the world."
Which course is the best? That's impossible to pick. Golf purists from traditional golf countries like Danang Golf Club's sand dunes environment. Asian and American golfers favor the more manicured look and feel of Montgomerie Links. Laguna Lang Co sits somewhere in between, with a mountain backdrop that provides an amphitheater-type feel and a sense of being completely away from it all, as you are in this idyllic part of Vietnam.
One certainty is that Vietnam's Central Coast is cementing a newly-won reputation as Asia's hottest new golf tourism destination. Immediately after the Laguna Lang Co opening, Dragonair commenced new direct flights to Danang from Hong Kong, supplementing Silkair service from Singapore.
For more information about Danang's golf courses and golf packages, visit: www.golfcoastvietnam.com