Time and distance are just a mirage at Jade Dragon Snow Mountain Golf Course in the mythic mountains of ‘Shangri-L
To reach the world's longest golf course, one must travel a long way. For me, this meant a flight southwest across China from Shanghai to Kunming, capital of Yunnan Province. And from Kunming it was still another hop, a short one, to the village of Lijiang, a place of myth and fable now preserved as a UNESCO World Heritage site. My long journey ended at the Banyan Tree Lijiang. This top-notch villa resort shimmers like a mirage on the high, remote, nearly empty Yunnan plateau. There the Banyan Tree staff had already booked a tee time and taxi for Jade Dragon Snow Mountain Golf Course the next morning.
The Jade Dragon course measures 8,548 yards from the back tees, complete with a par-5 hole exceeding 700 yards. Jade Dragon's exaggerated distances are reined in by its altitude. At 10,170 feet (nearly two miles high), this is the world's secondhighest golf course. The elevation confers upon a given golf ball 20 percent more distance. For those who dream of hitting their first 300-yard drive, this is Shangri-La.
In fact, Jade Dragon Snow Mountain Golf Course is literally located in Shangri-La, the region of China thought to have inspired Lost Horizons, James Hilton's fable about a hidden mountain paradise where the residents hardly age - and where golf balls, it seems, barely come back to Earth. The course is located on the eastern side of a jagged 13-peak massif known as Yulong Xue Shan (Jade Dragon Snow Mountain), which tops 18,000 feet. The Snow Mountains are almost always in view on this course, opened in 2001. Its designers, Singapore-based Nelson and Haworth, have had a hand in nearly 10 percent of China's courses. At Jade Mountain, they created a course that meshes perfectly with its uncanny surroundings.
The facilities are of international caliber. The clubhousewith its traditional raised rooflines embraces a modern locker room, heated pool, pro shop and restaurant. Golf carts and caddies are required - and what caddies they turn out to be: uniformed young women who drive the cart, keep the score, gauge the distances, handle the clubs and read the greens. They even fish all errant drives from lakes, roughs and ravines. So what if they pronounce pitching wedge about as well as I use one? As far as golf goes, this is a true slice of Shangri-La.
Hole 1, ‘Snow Mountain' (681 yards, par 5)
The opening hole sets the tone for the front nine with its generous fairway and snow-capped backdrop. No climber has ever reached Fan Peak, the tallest in the Snow Mountain range, and few visiting golfers are likely to birdie this monstrous opening hole. My attempt at a 300-yard drive came up short, and the bunkers at the green proved ravenous. A bit dizzy from the altitude, not warmed up and still adjusting to the rental clubs, I had three excuses - more than enough to cover my double-bogey.
Hole 2, ‘Lake' (517 yards, par 4)
On this dogleg right, a lake intrudes at the bend. I decided to shave off a few yards by driving over the water. Once my resourceful caddy fished the ball out of the deep, I was able to hit, pitch and two-putt the Lake hole having drowned all hopes for an early par.
Hole 5, ‘A Long Way' (711 yards, par 5)
A long way, yes. This is Jade Dragon's longest hole, a downhill demon with a tumbling fairway that rewards straight shooters. Provided you carry the fairway sand and then the bunkers guarding the green, you have a chance here. I managed to roll in a 10-footer for a 6, which felt very much like a par.
Hole 8, ‘Difficult' (267 yards, par 3)
Eight is the luckiest of numbers in the Chinese lexicon, and luck is what I needed. The chief difficulty here is a pond. My trusty caddy recommended a 5-iron to carry this hazard. There's a picturesque little bridge crossing the pond, a perfect place to reflect on Lost Horizons and lost golf balls. Water and rough aside, this is an easy par 3.
Hole 10, ‘Jade' (503 yards, par 4)
Jade Dragon's back nine demands more finesse than distance. The narrowing fairways are tuned to the natural contours of the hillside. The fairway rises then falls, demanding two nice pokes to the green. My drive was true, but to reach the fairway we had to pass over a snake that had slithered onto the cart path. My caddy froze and refused to budge until the little dragon three-putted itself out of the way. I did likewise on the green.
Hole 15, ‘Up Above' (497 yards, par 4)
This dramatic, downward-sloping signature hole brought me face-to-face again with the jagged, snow-draped peaks, where the elevated tee provided my best chance for that elusive 300-yard drive. Against my caddy's advice to play short, I went all out - with the usual result, topping the ball with authority. Even so, my drive rolled well past the 300-yard mark. It is immaterial how many shots I squandered from there to reach the flag, since with my drive I had already reached Nirvana.
Hole 17, ‘Beautiful' (263 yards, par 3)
This wild and gorgeous hole is well named. All that stands between tee and green are the jaws of a deep ravine. I wound up and let fly. My caddy spent five minutes scouring the belly of the gorge.
Hole 18, ‘Far' (695 yards, par 5)
This very long, slightly uphill finishing hole requires several equally long shots and the avoidance of sandpits in the fairway. I kept out of trouble and got my bogey. Pars seem few and far between on this otherworldly layout, where time and distance are stretched to the limit. It took me barely two hours to complete the world's longest course, paradoxically the quickest round I've ever played.