Where I grew up, making the turn meant a bag of M&Ms and a Dr. Pepper. As I began to experience the world outside of the tall pines of East Texas, I learned that a hot dog or maybe even a turkey sandwich was available to keep the pangs at bay on the back nine. So you can imagine my surprise when I was offered gourmet fish cakes and noodles.
But here in the mountains of the Gangwon Province of South Korea, it had become obvious that we were in for an entirely new golf experience. With its perfectly manicured mix of architecture, art and fairways, Whistling Rock Country Club is considered South Korean golf at its finest. It’s either a step back or forward in time, and even with a couple of years to reflect on it, I’m still not entirely sure which.
As a visiting member of the media, I was part of a small group invited to play Whistling Rock, described as a “harmony of art and nature” and featuring three nines named Cocoon, Temple and Cloud. All I knew was that we were going to the South Korean mountains to play some golf over an hour from the nearest triple-decker range in Seoul.
The course is located about 90 minutes northeast of the South Korean capital city of nearly 10 million people. The streets there are as fast and busy as any you’ll find in New York, but I was thrown by how much more the difference between wealth and poverty is exaggerated. Considering the technology and innovation that come out of South Korea, it’s astonishing to learn that it has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. The stat makes more sense when you witness the massive divide between the rich and poor.
The underclass live in drab, government-built high-rises that seem to stretch beyond the city limits. Visitors like me are largely shielded from the life of the poor, unless their grueling, service-oriented jobs call for its exposure. Caddying is one of them; those we encountered throughout our trip were downright stunned when we tipped them what would be standard for American caddies. Meanwhile, the wealthy have personal drivers and lavish condos. They eat at upscale restaurants in expensive suits and spend weekday evenings out with clients and coworkers, with the weekends reserved for time at home with family. It isn’t unusual to see a group of businessmen at a high-end karaoke bar at 11 p.m. on a weeknight, sipping on top-shelf whiskey and toasting to their lots in life.
And they golf. They absolutely love it. They can’t get enough. They have television channels dedicated just to South Korean golf, and the game continues to boom throughout the country.
The issue, of course, is that in order to play the game, you must have deep pockets. It’s not uncommon for golfers in Seoul to be asked to fork over $75,000 in initiation fees for courses so packed that football-stadium lights appear out of nowhere as the sun goes down and there are two greens on each hole to allow for them to recover from so much traffic.
Golf in South Korea is unabashedly a rich person’s sport. That’s the hurdle so many countries and cultures deal with in terms of growing the game. Interestingly, that hasn’t sapped the South Korean general public’s thirst for it. Go to one of those triple-decker driving ranges and you might run into an aspiring professional golfer or three fine-tuning their game on mats from the top floor. Prices are outrageous, land is limited and yet somehow more and more are afflicted with the addiction.
As our bus crawled north of the hectic city in bumper-to-bumper traffic, I was still shaking off the effects of my flight (long enough to watch three NFL games) and couldn’t wrap my brain around what was about to unfold. After all, it wasn’t like we were traveling to the Scottish Highlands or the Melbourne Sandbelt.
I came to the realization that when it came to South Korean golf, I knew many of the female professionals and very little about everything else.
Whistling Rock was established in 2011, taken from vision to reality by Lee Ho-jin, chairman of the Taekwang Group, a South Korean conglomerate that deals in textiles, petrochemicals, electronics, finances and plenty more. Lee is one of the 50 richest people in South Korea, worth some $920 million according to a 2017 Forbes report. He spared no expense on Whistling Rock, spending an estimated $60 million to blast 27 immaculate holes into a mountainside overlooking the Chuncheon Lake basin.
Ted Robinson Jr.—a Southern Californian who grew up in a golf-design family and laid out Robinson Ranch in Santa Clarita, California, along with projects in Hawaii, Costa Rica and Indonesia—was the original architect. With the mandate of creating a “naturalistic methodology,” Robinson and his team punched through the rocky terrain to build the initial layout. In 2016, Eric Iverson, a senior associate at Tom Doak’s Renaissance Design, was brought in to make several strategic renovations to the Cocoon and Temple nines.
I doubt Robinson or Iverson had ever been on a project like this. It’s not often that architects have to design green complexes in the shadow of a giant metallic orb in the craggy hillside above. But Lee loves his art, as I was about to discover.
After mercifully exiting the busy expressway, our luxury shuttle began its ascent. We wound up the mountainside until, all of a sudden, there it was.
Many words came to mind when approaching the clubhouse, but “municipal” wasn’t one of them. This thing is as much a clubhouse as a Frank Lloyd Wright house is an Airbnb. The massive travertine building is meant to be the living embodiment of what Whistling Rock is about: golf and art. Highly decorated Dutch architect Francine Houben, known for her firm’s modernization of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in Washington, D.C., and the $200 million renovation of the New York Public Library’s Mid-Manhattan Library, was tasked with its design and found one of the highest pieces of land on the property to put this $40 million clubhouse-cum-art-gallery.
As we approached, the entire staff was outside, at full attention, ready to greet us. The ladies were in traditional hanboks, bowing in a formal welcome that put to shame any quaint lei you get when landing in Maui. You realize you’re here to be served and entertained well before you hit your first 5-yard draw.
That art that Lee is so passionate about? It’s tastefully and strategically placed throughout the clubhouse and golf course. (Hence the orbs.) According to Whistling Rock’s website, nine different metallic balls are scattered around the property to “provide the golfer a different kind of journey—a mysterious ‘expedition of discovery’ in art and nature.” The orbs are massive and colorful and, frankly, mesmerizing. Our group took as many photos of the balls as anything else on the property.
The golf course almost looks out of place where it sits because it’s so incredibly well-maintained. The three nine-hole courses all approach the game in the same way: It’s supposed to look flawless first and be fun second. You can see the massive undertaking wherever you turn: huge blowouts of rock, lakes perfectly placed, clubhouse looming, all framing the simple idea of what a golf course design should include (a short par 3, a drivable par 4, a getable par 5, etc.).
Each nine has an impressive teahouse that looks like something out of Architectural Digest, with the design of each structure themed to the nine’s specific philosophy. The Cocoon teahouse looks like, well, a cocoon. The Cloud house is perched so high that it feels like you’re in an episode of “Treehouse Masters” as you look out over five of the nine holes. The Temple’s version is in the middle of the course and has the quiet tone appropriate for a house of worship.
It all adds up to a surreal experience, the golf version of when Robin Williams’ character wakes up in a painting in the movie What Dreams May Come. The course, the colors, the art—it’s perfect in a way that’s all just a little too perfect. You don’t go to Whistling Rock for a three-day golf getaway with your buddies. Hell, you probably don’t go for a serious match at all. You’re there for the spectacle of it.
Then, just when you’re falling into this fresco of manicured peacefulness, you’re shaken back to reality when military planes dip out of the clouds and helicopter traffic drowns out the voices of your playing partners. The expensive, hard-won harmony of Whistling Rock—like everything else in South Korea—must contend with the discord of conflict. Those peaceful orbs and teahouses are less than two hours from the demilitarized zones that separate South Korea from North Korea.
While jarring for us, it’s daily life for the Whistling Rock staff and they don’t let it affect their mission. The caddies, all women, walk alongside robotic, driverless carts and learn your game fast. My caddie, Miss Kim, called me off an iron on our second hole of the day—which ended up being the right call—without having watched me warm up. She somehow just knew.
When I made birdie, her enthusiasm went well beyond that of most American caddies, and for good reason: With every birdie, there’s a formal presentation of a butterfly pin affixed to your lapel or hat, wherever you want. Make another one and they do it again. A playing partner of mine drove a short par 4 and buried the eagle putt. As we pulled around to the clubhouse after our round, the entire staff—50-plus people—was outside to give him a standing ovation. The celebration didn’t stop there: He was presented with a leather-bound folder commemorating his accomplishment, including a list of everyone in the group and even the type of ball he was playing (Titleist 2, I believe).
So, when it’s all said and done, how good is Whistling Rock as a golf course? Is investing eight figures into art installations and tranquil teahouses and amazing service and butterfly pins good enough for the course to be considered great? Because that is what Whistling Rock wants. It wants to be known as the best golf course in South Korea and, eventually, one of the best in the world.
Before arriving at a decision, I consulted a friend of mine who visited Whistling Rock a year before I did on a similar media invitation. We marveled at the similarity of our experiences and both ended up talking much more about everything that went along with the round rather than the specifics of the course itself. (His visit even included a not-so-stealthy cameraman snapping photos during breakfast, which later appeared in a commemorative keepsake photo album, and a post-round meal comprising seven courses and a dip into Whistling Rock’s wine cellar. At least one bottle is said to be a gift to the club from the vineyards of the Danish queen.)
We agreed that it’s difficult to categorize Whistling Rock because there simply may not be anything to compare it to. You’re playing golf in a Van Gogh with futuristic carts and five-star food all but forced upon you, with enough firepower overhead to wipe out the entire peninsula at any minute.
It’s not Augusta, not Royal Melbourne, not a four-ball at Muirfield. The course isn’t overly difficult or ridiculously easy. You can make a birdie and lose a ball on the next hole as easily as you can in Sacramento or Perth or Johannesburg. The culture mandates that Whistling Rock be what it is.
For an American tourist, it’s a simply unforgettable experience. But as you enter the property, it’s clear what it takes to be elite in this country. Whistling Rock has roughly 300 members, all shelling out more than $1.2 million apiece to join (but hey, after you write that check, the club doesn’t collect annual dues and allows you a full refund of your money after 10 years of membership). It’s not the muni where locals go to hang. There are no youth programs here. It’s designed to be a respite from the bustle of Seoul, a place where businessmen go blow off some steam before heading back to the grind. How much does service take priority over the quality of golf? There isn’t a driving range at Whistling Rock. But they’ll convert the first hole of the Cloud course into one for American tourists who just sat on an airliner for 11 hours.
So while it was dramatically different for us, it’s perfect for the membership. The noodles and fish cakes at the turn? Of course they were amazing. This place does exactly what it is meant to do: provide a five-star experience to the wealthy who are lucky enough to join the Rock. There isn’t a massive gate that turns people away, but it is plain to all what type of people are allowed in and what type aren’t.
In that regard, it was a bit disappointing.
One of the beauties of golf in Scotland is how open it feels. The sport was created there and remains accessible to all, and that goes beyond the St. Andrews and Kingsbarns and Carnousties. If you need to save cash for Guinness, there are any number of local tracks. There’s also Tain or Brora or Fraserburgh if you want to spend a little more and go back in time on a links course that will take your breath away.
The United States has gone another route. The best courses have, for the general golfing public, a huge “DO NOT ENTER” sign. To play the top 100 courses in the U.S., you have to be somebody, know somebody or pay somebody. That’s one of the miscalculations that I don’t love about golf in our country.
In that regard, South Korea feels like it took a page from our book. They cherish their golf, but they don’t exactly care if everyone gets to experience it. Golf is and will remain something for the fabulously wealthy. Even the well-off can’t just yank $1.2 million out of their checking accounts for a few dozen rounds a year.
Without a doubt, playing Whistling Rock was one of the most memorable golf experiences of my life. I still marvel about just what the hell happened in those five hours on the top of that mountain. It was lavish and over the top and beautiful and otherworldly. The next time someone brags about a high-class golf experience, just point west, some 12 in-flight hours or so, to a painting most will never get to see.