Canlubang Golf & Country Club is one of my favorite golf clubs in this country. This is one club where you won’t see a grand clubhouse, marble floors and a five star restaurant. This is a club that you go to celebrate the great game of golf and the field on which it’s played. In all the Philippines, there are few locations as natural for golf as Canlubang.
The twin courses were designed by Robert Trent Jones, Jr. in the infancy of his career. He was in the country helping his father with Hacienda Luisita when Don Jose Yulo showed him this stunning piece of land in the vast Canlubang Sugar Estate. It’s said that he just needed to decide where to put the tees and the greens and the rest just fell into place. I’ve played most of RTJ, Jr’s courses in the country and it’s apparent that he’s gotten most of his inspiration from Canlubang, one of his seminal designs.
The first thing that strikes you is the sheer scale of the place. The clubhouse might be unassuming but the size of the putting green is a clear indication of your round to come. It’s HUGE! Both golf courses follow suit; the fairways, landing areas and greens are, by far, the largest I’ve seen in this country. So are the trees that border the course and the ravines that the course traverses. Everything about Cangolf is BIG! This is golf on a grand scale seldom seen anywhere in the Philippines.
The two courses could not be more different. Robin Moyer, a fantastic photographer (who happens to be pretty handy with his sticks) likens them to man and woman.
The North is the macho course, generally considered to be the more challenging of the two. The greens and bunkering are more subtle and Junior used the natural features of the land to allow the course to flow across the gently rolling terrain. It’s longer from tee to green and the closing holes are more penal than on the South. One criticism of the North Course is that the par-3s are all the same length, but if you play there, you know that each is very different from the other.
The South Course winds up into the foothills and presents some stunning views of Laguna de Bay and the Sierra Madres. The ravines seem wider and more menacing than those on the North Course. The holes unfold in dramatic fashion, asking you to drive over tall trees and ravines; there’s not much that’s subtle about the South. If the North is macho, the South is definitely feminine. Like a beautiful, flamboyant woman; one look will make you go, WOW!
If there’s one shot that you need in your bag on either of the Canlubang courses, it’s a good tee shot. The holes become very long if you miss the very generous fairways.
The South Course takes advantage of its higher elevation to delight the golfer with spectacular vistas. This is a course where you need to stop frequently, look around you and appreciate the beauty of your surroundings. This is golf as it was meant to be in the Philippines with deep ravines which define the edges and provide hazards on seven holes on the golf course. The ravines are filled with old growth rain forest and are just stunning. The wide Bermuda fairways are lined with tall native grasses and coconut trees and will severely penalize the wayward shot.
On the South you have the first two holes to warm up before you face a forced carry over a ravine with your tee shot on the short par 4 third. This is a course with flair and drama. The South doesn’t do subtle.
The fifth hole on the South Course is one of the most stunning golf holes that you’ll every play. The tee shot takes you over one of Cangolf’s yawning ravines and over or around a hundred foot tall tree smack in the middle of the fairway. The sixth is the most difficult hole on the front nine; the hole demands a long accurate tee shot that flirts with the ravine fronting the green or a long second which must also contend with the foreboding hazard.
The back nine is where the course really starts to show off. Ten is a strong par 4 that will challenge even the longest hitters. This could be one of the most difficult holes in Philippine golf. The tee shot requires you to challenge the lake that sits between the 10th and 18th holes; the more of it you can cut off, the shorter the second shot to the difficult green. Eleven is a dramatic par 5 that sweeps down from the elevated tee then up again into the foothills that lead to the highest parts of the golf course. Twelve and thirteen are the holes at the back nine’s zenith before fourteen takes you back down and reveals spectacular views of Laguna de Bay in the distance.
If ever there was a hole that defines a golf course, it is the signature seventeenth at the South Course. A massive acacia tree fronts the green of the short par 3, perched precariously on the edge of a ravine. This hole is sure to dominate your memories of Canlubang.
Then the eighteenth, a reachable par 5 that offers the golfer a final shot at glory; cutting the corner of the dogleg requires carrying the coconut trees and flirting with out of bounds. The second is no picnic either; requiring a long forced carry over water for a chance at an eagle.
The North Course is yin to the South Course’s yang; the strong, silent one to its more flamboyant next door neighbour. Not that the North is unattractive. Far from it. It’s just that few golf courses in the country can match the South for sheer drama but trust me; the North is just a tick behind.
The North Course is the longer of the two and for my money, the more difficult. At right around 7,000 yards from the tips (depending on the placement of the tees), it features deceptively wide fairways and substantial greens whose subtle breaks confound golfers to this day. The course flows gently across the rolling terrain and uses the land’s natural hazards and features to defend par. It will test your length of the tee and your shotmaking skills so come prepared to do battle.
The opening hole is a slight dogleg to the left with bunkers guarding both sides of the landing area and a very well protected two tier green. It serves as a clear indication of what lies ahead and warns to golfer to remain vigilant for the rest of the round. The par 5 second is reachable in two with a hard, high draw and a long second shot that threads the gap on the left side of the green past a phalanx of bunkers. The third is a shortish par 4 whose fairway is guarded by hazards on both sides. The green is set at an angle to the approach shot which must be well struck to avoid the bunkers set in the front and back.
The fourth hole is a stunning par 3 that calls for a long iron shot across a yawning ravine. Five is a short dogleg par 4 whose main defence is a slick two tiered green guarded by bunkers in front and a water hazard to the left. Then another spectacular par 3 with water separating tee from green. Though danger lurks on every hole, special care must be taken with the par 3s; the potential of recording a big number is present on each of them. Seven requires a good tee shot to set up in a good spot for the approach to a green fronted by a pond. Eight is another short par 4 that is driveable by the longer hitter. Miss and this seemingly benign hole will rise up and bite you. Nine is a true 3-shot par 5; a creek dissects the fairway where the longer hitters will land a driver from the tee. The large, severely sloped green is 100-yards wide and is shared with the par-4 eighteenth and is guarded in front by a large pond.
Take time to stop for a snack at the turn. You’ll need the energy to tackle the remaining holes. The hot dogs are delicious and the main attraction here. Find the fairway on ten and you have a legitimate chance for a birdie. The green is mostly flat but the break here is subtle and not readily apparent to the naked eye. Most will do well to listen to their caddies. Eleven is a straightforward par 3 and offers another chance to score. Twelve is a medium length par 4 with a devil of a green to contend with. Thirteen is the monster; a 464-yard par 4 that plays into the teeth of the stiff Laguna breeze. The par-5 fourteenth is only slightly longer and represents your best chance for an eagle.
Fifteen is the last of the par 3s with perhaps the most perplexing green of the lot. Sixteen is your last chance score but you must find the right quadrant of the green to do so. Fail and bogie is almost a certainty. The last two holes are severe tests; seventeen is a monster of a par 5 with a watery ditch bisecting the fairway that complicates placement of the second shot. The green is one of the smaller ones on the course and an elusive target for the long hitters trying to find it in two. Eighteen seems straight forward, but get on the wrong side of the pin and it’s sure to ruin your round’s finish.
The dominant features on both courses at Canlubang are the deep, lushly vegetated ravines formed by the BalibayRiver. The once austere clubhouse has been expanded and its facilities upgraded. The lockers are now air-conditioned and an annex to the main dining area now houses a Japanese restaurant. The food in the clubhouse is worth the trip and a main feature of post round fellowship. Take your time here to savour the view from the expansive veranda. Few courses offer such beauty in every direction.
There are few locations that offer a finer day of golf than Canlubang. The magnificent location and terrain, the unobtrusive design and two golf courses that will test every golfer’s mettle are the gems of Philippine golf.