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Official Review by Sean MacDonald, Stadium Journey Special Correspondent
The Singapore Open was first played in 1961 as part of an Asian circuit that included a handful of tournaments in Malaysia, Hong Kong, the Philippines and Japan. When the more official Asian Tour began in 1995, this tournament became one of its key stops until 2002, when it took a three-year hiatus due to a lack of sponsorship. Barclays came on board in 2005 to rescue the tournament and in 2009 the European Tour co-sanctioned the event as part of its year-end tour to warmer climes. With these additions, the Singapore Open is now Asia’s richest tournament and attracts top golfers from around the world.
The event is hosted by the Sentosa Golf Club, which has two championship golf courses, The Serapong and Tanjong. The first two rounds are played on both courses, but the final two rounds take place only on The Serapong, with its great views of the harbor.
Designed by world-renowned architect Ronald Fream, The Serapong was opened in 1982 and measures 7,300 yards from the championship tee, with a par-71 in place for the Singapore Open. In 2007, the course underwent an upgrade that included improvements in both course design and greens technology. That renovation helped The Serapong win Asian Golf Monthly’s “Number 1 Championship Golf Course in Asia". No doubt that award helped the course win favor with the European Tour, who bring along some of their best every year.
In 2012, Rory McIlroy headed a list of European Tour stars that included Colin Montgomerie and Adam Scott. Phil Mickelson earned a sponsor’s invite as well, so for golf aficionados, the tournament provides a great chance to get close to some top players and see some great golf. So how does the course stack up as a spectator venue? Read on to find out the details of the fan experience.
The FANFARE scale is our metric device for rating each stadium experience. It covers the following:
Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
There is one large catering area known as the Spectators' Village, right near the main, hand-operated scoreboard. Inside were a large number of tables and a single concession, run by Harry's, the local bar in Singapore. There were a good number of choices here, including fish and chips, burgers, hot dogs, and a few Asian specialties. Prices were more than reasonable, with nothing more than $12 ($10 US). Drinks were also plentiful, with cups of beer going for $8 and Jagerbombs for just $5. The main problem with this location is that there was no view of the course from here, although televisions has been set up to keep fans apprised of the action happening just a few feet away.
If you wanted to eat and see live golf at the same time, there were two smaller concessions out on the course which served the same menu and provided some upper deck seating for an interesting view of the action as well as views of the harbor and city beyond.
There are also some invitation-only hospitality suites near the 18th green. These offered free food and drink all day long and were spectacular places, not only to enjoy the freebies but to watch the action from up above. Thanks to a colleague, I was a guest of Verizon, the tournament's Premier Sponsor, and they had eats from the nearby Shangri-La hotel there that were better than anything I've ever had in a stadium. Which means that I did not try any of the regular fare available at Harry's. However, as this area is not accessible to those without a pass, it is not fair to rate the venue's F&B offerings based on this, so I will give it three stars based on the Harry's menu available at the Spectators' Village.
Normally when considering the atmosphere of a sports venue, we are looking for noise, excitement, thrills, light shows, cheerleaders, etc. Not in golf. Here, the opposite is true. What we want is a beautiful, walkable course with respectful fans cheering in the right spots, perfect weekend weather, quiet at the tees and greens, and just enough shade around the course to help fans avoid a nasty sunburn. I spent two days here and although much of my time was spent in the Verizon suite, when I ventured out on the course, I understood why golf fans spend their entire day watching men and women hit a little white ball around. This was the first pro golf tournament I attended and I realize that it doesn't compare to the majors in the United States, but with only about 12,000 fans here on the final day, there was no problem finding a place to sit and watch the action at any hole.
To be fair, there was a massive rainstorm on Friday that caused the third round to start late on Saturday afternoon. Thankfully the rain was long gone by the weekend and hence the atmosphere was nearly perfect for me. The only blemish here is the humidity, which is unavoidable. Walking around the course can be difficult at times, particularly around noon. Wear shorts, bring a hat and plenty of water, and use sunscreen liberally. This is the tropics and if you forget that for a minute, you will soon be reminded.
The golf course is located on the entertainment island of Sentosa, just south of Harbourfront. The island has dozens of themed areas, with Universal Studios the main attraction. There is also a casino for visitors (locals must pay $100 to enter) and several beaches (and beach bars) lie on the south coast. There are also plenty of special areas for kids and families. Some say that Sentosa stands for So Expensive, Nothing To See Anyway, but these days there is enough to keep you busy for a day or two. There are also dozens of dining destinations, with Chili's the one that you would seek if you happen to be missing the taste of home in North America.
Phil Mickelson said that Singapore fans are the best behaved in the world and for the most part he would be right. When there was no immediate action, fans chatted amiably with strangers, or took pictures of the golfers. But when a tee shot was about to be struck, or a key putt was being lined up, people shut up and watched, as good golf fans should. But there were a few nogoodniks in the crowd, including one lady who pushed her way in front of a Canadian guy standing next to me. They proceed to argue in the most polite manner possible, but there was no ignoring the underlying tension between the foreigner and the local, a growing problem in the country. Given that there was more than enough space mere meters away, her actions were inexcusable, but the Canadian eventually tired of the discussion and moved there when he realized that she was simply not going to give up her hard-won spot.
There was also a small problem in the hospitality suites, where fans could be heard on the 18th green and often continued to talk during play. I don't think the noise was enough to bother the golfers, but the general etiquette is to keep quiet when a shot is being lined up, and that etiquette was not as strictly adhered to as I would have liked as a spectator.
These are minor quibbles though, and overall I came away very impressed with the fans of the Singapore Open, the vast majority of whom respect the game and had a great time.
Getting to Sentosa from downtown Singapore is easy. You can take the MRT to Harbourfront and then a monorail over the small channel that separates the two islands, or walk along the boardwalk. There is even a cable car, but at $28 return, probably not worth it. Then, once on the island, you can take the free Yellow Line bus to the golf course. All of this sounds relatively simple, but it takes time, so I would recommend taking a taxi from downtown, which would likely cost less than $20. If you have a car, you can drive and park on the island for just $3.20 but traffic on the way out will be slightly bothersome.
As you pass through the main entrance, you walk through an air-conditioned hall with sponsors on either side. Take time here to see if any freebies are being given away, you might grab a hat or umbrella (both could be necessary given how quickly the weather changes here) without even trying.
Once you reach the main scoreboard, you will find the 10th tee to your left, while the 1st tee is off to the right. As this is a golf course, there is no problem making your way around following the asphalt pathways. The only problem is that these pathways are right next to the fairways and some golfers are not that good. I was nearly struck by a tee shot from a still unknown golfer; the ball landing about two feet behind me, then rolling back down the sidewalk, forcing me to jump out of its way yet again. It was quite fun to watch the other fans scatter as the ball gathered pace on the downhill slope before it came to rest in a small patch of grass next to the path. Regardless of my experience, when walking around any golf course, keep alert and know where the golfers are.
I did have some problems returning home on Saturday due to traffic and limited buses so if you are not familiar with the area, it might be best to grab a taxi or stay at the course until things clear up, which wouldn't take more than an hour.
Tickets were $20 for Thursday or Friday and $50 for Saturday or Sunday, a great value given that some top talent was in attendance. With food and drink also reasonably priced and the event itself being played on a beautiful course, I don't see how you could ask for anything more. This was one of the most enjoyable weekends I have spent at a sporting event and I hope to return next year.
I received a free ball cap from Emirates Airlines at the entrance and their other merchandise was being given away throughout the weekend, judging from the fans with various sponsor hats and umbrellas scattered about the course.
There was a "Chip to Dubai" contest wherein the winner would get a free trip to watch the European Tour's final event in the United Arab Emirates.
The main hand-operated scoreboard was fantastic, particularly between the 2nd and 3rd rounds when the volunteers had to quickly reset the players' groups based on their score after two rounds. Would have been great to have had a video camera record this for a time-lapse movie later on.
Finally, the location and views here merit another point.
To be totally honest, the concept of extras doesn't really apply to golf courses, which are attractions in their own right. Once you are on the course, you can relax. There may be no spectator sport better suited to a relaxing sports experience than golf, at least when the weather is perfect.
Unfortunately, at the time of this review Barclays has not renewed their sponsorship contract, leaving the tournament without a major benefactor. Reports indicate that the event will be held for at least the next five years, but the long-term viability is in doubt. If you like to watch golf in a tropical climate and see a vibrant city at the same time, make your way to Singapore for their Open Championship next November, 2013.
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