Iloilo Golf and Country Club

0
873

AFTER THE UNITED STATES TOOK OVER THE PHILIPPINES in 1901, the new regime inaugurated a raft of development programs. Among these was infrastructure building to support to hasten economic growth. The U.S. Congress approved in 1905 the construction of railroads all over the archipelago. In Panay the task fell on Scottish and British engineers. But beyond building what they had been commissioned for, they built something else—a golf course. Not just any kind of golf course, but one that echoed the dramatic dunes of Scottish links.

How did they do it? They wanted the course in Iloilo City, where they were based, perhaps somewhere around the scenic harbor. Trouble was that area was flat and prone to flooding. After searching high and low for the ideal site, they finally found it along the railroad route in the rural town of Santa Barbara, a few kilometres north of Iloilo City. Spread before them was a tranquil, verdant, undulating terrain; they couldn’t ask for more.

Immediately they bought a few hectares from landowners, who probably wondered what these foreigners were up to. As immediately they went work on their dream playground. It wasn’t easy. Some of the trees had to go to make way for the greens and fairways. But the natives refused to cut them down, believing they were enchanted. It took a bit of convincing before the Scots and Brits got their workers’ cooperation. Eventually, with nothing much more then crude hardware, they carved out what they didn’t know then would be a legacy in the annals of Philippine golf.

The original course was a short nine-hole layout of about 2,000 yards with two par 3s and seven par 4s. Legend has it that the first hole-in-one was made by one of the founding fathers, a certain Mr. Houston. This claim, however, was later nullified by his fore-caddie’s admission that in his eagerness to please his employer he perpetrated the lie with his bare foot. With a furtive kick, Houston’s ball, which had come to rest on a crest, rolled toward the green and into the cup for an unprecedented hole-in-one.

To get to the course, golfers took the train from Iloilo to Santa Barbara. What a sight they must have cut in the sleepy town, dressed in knee breeches, tall hats and long tailed coats—the golf finery of the day. On some days, they rented bull carts to take them from the railway to the course; otherwise it was a two-kilometer trek with their golf clubs over rough country trails. In the afternoon, they took the last train back to the city, often running over the muddy trails to catch their ride.

The new golf course attracted other foreigners, mostly Americans who, were just as fascinated with the game then gaining following in the United States.

The 13 original Scot and British builders of the course organized and incorporated the Santa Barbara Golf and Country Club around 1913. They affiliated with the Royal and Ancient (R & A) of St. Andrews, Fife, Scotland, the governing body then and now of all of golf. It was because of this relationship that the Club followed the rules of the R & A, even as the rest of the country’s golf clubs were governed by the rules of the United States Golf Association (USGA). This continued until the late 1950s, when the Philippine Amateur Golf Association (PAGA), forerunner of the Republic of the Philippines Golf Association (RPGA), was organized and required all golf clubs in the country to affiliate with the Association and follow a uniform Rule of Golf patterned after the USGA.

The Club had a distinctly international flavor. British and Americans, who had businesses in lumber, commodities trading and stevedoring on Panay, made up the bulk of the membership, a premium. No Filipino was allowed into the exclusive circle.

To accommodate a growing membership, the original bamboo clubhouse was replaced by a bigger, more permanent structure built to the left of what is now the 18th green. It had a raised terrace overlooking the finishing hole, a bar, naturally, and changing rooms for the gentlemen from where ladies and minors were restricted. A small stairway led to a covered upper deck that yielded a bird’s-eye view of the golf course. Gas lamps lit the place and water was hand-carried by villagers and stored in tanks.

During the presidency of one Colonel Frank Hodsall in 1920, membership numbered around 50, with as many caddies. The Club produced excellent golfers so adept with their hickory shafted clubs that they earned glory and respect for the Club whenever they represented it in tournaments held in and around Manila. An outstanding Iloilo golfer of the time and one who won the hearts of fellow competitors and spectators was one G. Marsaille. Of French heritage, Monsieur Marsaille had only one arm.

Belonging to a golf club became a social status among well-heeled Filipinos living in Manila and the major provinces. Being barred from the Santa Barbara Golf and Country Club, the Ilonggos built their own golf course, a short nine-hole layout on property owned by the Avanceñas  in Polo, Arevalo, thus it was named the Polo Golf Club. Not much more is known about it as it didn’t survive World War II.

THE SANTA BARBARA GOLF AND COUNTRY CLUB remained a bastion of foreign expatriates until the presidency of one Mr. Greenbaum in the late 1920s. This was a time when wealthy, landed Filipinos gained entry into the Club. Among them were Mariano Cacho, Oscar Ledesma, Tomas Confesor, W. Gemperle and the brothers Eugenio and Fernando Lopez. As more Filipinos got involved in government and business with the creation of the Philippine Commonwealth in 1935, Iloilo’s mestizo elite further acquired economic power.

More Filipinos joined the Santa Barbara Golf and CountyClub. As a result, despite par 5 being extended earlier and the continued exclusion of women and minors, the steadily growing membership overcrowded the Club’s course, especially on Wednesdays and weekends, the golfing days. A 3,350-yard, par 36, nine-hole course was built. This is believed to be the handiwork of E. Black, who could also be designer and builder the Wack Wack Golf and Country Club’s East and West courses in Mandaluyong, Metro Manila. Wack Wack’s records, however, names the builder to be a James or Jim Black.

By now, Santa Barbara Golf and CountyClub had become a veritable cradle of golf, popular not just in the Visayas but also in Manila. From the ranks of its caddies, who were well schooled in the rudiments and conduct of the game, sprang caddie masters and grounds keepers whose services were sought by other golf clubs, especially those in Manila. Names such as Siodina, Nadales, Rates, Pinet, Sinfuego and other Illonggo professionals are all products of Santa Barbara.

Holding the distinction as one of the premier golf courses in the Philippines, Santa Barbara played host to the great golf names of the era. Renowned American and British pros, such as Gene Sarazen and Jug McSpadden, made it a point to play Sta. Barbara whenever they were in the Philippines. Here they met, played and were soundly beaten at their own game by the Club’s pride—Miguel Sequito. Small and skinny, Sequito played the game unshod, confounding newcomers. Sarazen, in particular, was astounded at his play and the two became lifelong friends.

Sequito started at Santa Barbara in 1913 as a ball boy and was paid ten centavos day. He earned twice as much as a caddie by the time he was 12. At 15 he was the caddie master. During his 69 years of service to the Club he was also a locker room attendant, clerk, collector, cook, superintendent and golf instructor.

Restricted by Club policy, Miguel and the other caddies could play only on moonlit nights, using their intimate knowledge of the golf course to drive the ball to the target. This was how Sequito honed his skills to perfection. Even more amazing is that he accomplished all this with an old, half –faced, wooden driver handed down by a member.

At the 1935 Philippine Open at Wack Wack Golf Club in Mandaluyong, Miguel Sequito led the field after three days of play against the likes of Australian golfing legend Norman Von Nida and the great Filipino champion Larry Montes. He faltered in the final round because his feet were blistered from wearing shoes for the first time. Wack Wack shunned barefoot players. Sequito continued to represent Santa Barbara Golf and Country Club proudly and with great dignity in many Philippine opens. His memory is forever enshrined in the annals of the Club.

That fabulous era of carefree country club life with its lively Saturday night big band parties ended when the Pacific War reached the Philippines in December 1941. The Santa Barbara clubhouse was used by the USAFFE for the duration of the war until it was overrun and burned down by the Japanese. Mercifully, the golf course wasn’t seriously damage, though low lying gullies were converted into rice fields by the caddies to support their families. Almost all records were destroyed or lost, save for a precious few that were preserved by some members and faithful employees.

When the American liberation forces arrived in Iloilo, they used the course as their campsite. Hundreds of tents lined what are now the 14th and 15th holes, while tanks mowed down the lush grass. Concrete floorings for officers’ quarters were laid out along the fairways, further defacing the golf course.

After the war, some of the expatriates returned to Iloilo and together with Club members and golfers from the now destroyed Polo Golf Club reorganized the Club, christening it Iloilo Golf and Country Club. A nipa hut was again built on the site of the old clubhouse. What little money there was went to the purchase of surplus war equipment for restoring the golf course.

It took well over a year just to bring the course to playable condition. For lack of space at the makeshift clubhouse, house committee chair Joe Pickrich used the trunk of his car as a mobile bar, which ran on the honor system.  The members served themselves and listed down what they consumed. Everybody hoped that honor among men would not be forgotten when one had one too many.

The first postwar president was Wallace McGregor Davies Sr. from the trading house of Strachan and McMurray. In 1949 Vicente Arenas became the first Filipino to serve as president of the Club. (As was the custom, the position of vice president was reserved for a foreigner since expats still comprised more than half of the membership.) Arenas was followed by Carlos Jalandoni, Sr. (1951), Jose E. Locsin (1953), Ignacio Salazar (1955), Francisco Jison (1957), Francisco Q. Maravilla (1959) and Juan M. Cacho (1961). Jalandoni was reelected in 1963 and alternated as president and chairman emeritus until his death in 1997.

In 1947 a more permanent clubhouse was built on its present site, a better choice, being out of the line of fire of poorly struck golf shots aimed at the adjacent green. An army Quonset hut, costing a princely P500, was installed atop another structure by architect and member T.S. Zafiro Ledesma. During Locsin’s term, a concrete annex was added to the Quonset hut. The upper floor served as the social hall and the ground floor as the bar and refreshment area. The locker and shower rooms were renovated and a terrace was added.

The postwar boom fuelled the rapid growth of the game’s popularity. Numerous competitions, such as the now-defunct Alunan Cup, were regularly held with rival clubs in Negros. Annual national tournaments, such as the Fil-Am in Baguio, added to the prestige of the champion clubs. The Iloilo Golf Club held its own monthly tournaments and the annual match-play Calcutta sponsored by Dewar’s Whiskey. The Club Championships have been conducted annually since the 1930s.

A second low point in the club’s history occurred during the height of the Hukbalahap movement (1951-52), when the danger of the insurgency all but put an end to the social activities of the club. The few who continued to play did so early in the morning or left well before dark as a precaution. Nothing untoward ever happened, though. It seems that one of the leaders of the Huks, a certain Patrimonio, was a tenant of Paco Maravilla; that’s why the Huks tolerated the golfers.

Maravilla oversaw major renovations on the course undertaken during Jison’s term. Hundreds of trees were planted or replaced, tees were moved back and the greens were improved. Putting surfaces were overlain with a better carpet grass of the Zoysia variety obtained from the Manila Golf Club.

As Club president in 1958, Maravilla got the board’s approval to expand the nine-hole layout into a full 18-hole golf course. The problem was how to integrate the new and old holes without them crisscrossing. To solve the dilemma, Maravilla visited all the golf courses he could all over the country in search of ideas for his redesign. He added what are now holes 12 and 13 to the course. Then he leased a patch of land from the Yranela family and put the the sixth and seventh holes there. His wife Doña Francisca Q. de Maravilla generously allowed the use of her adjoining property holes number two and three. The bulldozer for the ground work was provided by Steve Tajanlangit Sr. free of charge.

The improvements were done slowly over a 25-year period because of the shortage of funds, something that did not hinder Maravilla and his board of directors. Today, holes five, eight, 11, 15 and 18 are intact. The current configuration reflects Maravilla’s respect for the course and his love for the game.

IN 1980, while dredging the lake fronting hole number ten, a rubber ball popped up. No ordinary golf ball, it was a Haskell ball that bore the markings of Wright & Ditson, Pat. April 11, 1899. A Gutta Percha ball, the predecessor of the Haskell was also recovered but immediately disintegrated. Later, in 1982, another Haskell ball (Spaulding Pat. April 11, 1899) was unearthed.

These finds offer incontrovertible evidence of the age of the Santa Barbara golf course and lend credence to the Club’s claim as the oldest existing golf course in the Philippines. A contender for this recognition was Zamboanga Golf Club, whose first holes were laid out in 1911 by the troops of the American General “Black Jack” Pershing. Manila Golf Club, founded in 1901, lost its bid for the title when it moved from Caloocan to Makati after World War II.

The National Historical Institute (NHI) validated the Club’s origins and declared it a national historical site and 2007 its centenary year. The unveiling of its of  historical marker has was graced by former President Fidel V. Ramos, himself an avid golfer, Ambeth Ocampo director of the NHI, dignitaries from the British Embassy, the Iloilo elite and participants of the Mayor’s Cup, the tournament that kicked off celebrations for the Club’s centenary year.

The Iloilo Golf and Country Club  was contacted by the Society of 1907 Golf Clubs some two years before; an organization of golf clubs founded in 1907 and based at the Lymm Golf Club in Chesire, England. Membership is by invitation only; the invitation is earned when the club’s origins are confirmed with the Royal and Ancient; the game’s governing body, then and now. The Society is dedicated to the preservation of the common heritage of some of the oldest golf clubs in the world and to foster relations between member clubs. Iloilo’s acceptance into that fold was significant. Mick Shopland, the Society president and co-founder was on hand for the start of the centenary celebrations. Shopland and his wife Dot, a one-time ladies’ captain at their home club at Lymm, braved the trip from England to participate in the Mayor’s Cup. A remarkable man with an undying love for the game, he keeps a log of his golfing travels. In 16 years, Mick has played more than 3,000 rounds of golf on 784 different courses all over the world; he’s left divots on golf courses as far flung as Kenya, New Zealand and the Dominican Republic. He can now add the Iloilo Golf and Country Club in Santa Barbara, the oldest golf course in the Philippines to that formidable resume.

Today the town of Santa Barbara is moving forward very quickly. The Iloilo airport has been moved from IloiloCity’s borough of Mandurriao to just up the road from the golf course. This has changed life in the sleepy town forever. The Club’s current board of directors headed by Henry Go realize this and has moved to prepare the Club for the eventuality. The club is in the process of buying the only tract of land it yet didn’t own within the boundaries of the Club’s property and is now studying its options. One of these is redesigning the holes to take advantage of additional ground and the construction of a driving range. The course will soon undergo a further rerouting to properly prepare her for the future and improve the on course experience. By all indications, the Iloilo Golf and Country Club seems set for the next one hundred years.