Most people reading this have probably never heard of Whistling Rock Country Club.
Before the 2015 Presidents Cup, I was definitely one of them, as I could not name a single golf course in South Korea. But I saw the look in D.J. Piehowski’s eyes when he reported back about his experience at this club about an hour and a half east of Seoul. I knew that I had to try to see it for myself.
“It was without a doubt the coolest, weirdest golf experience I’ve ever had,” he said. “The service felt way too good to be true. Like, you couldn’t shake the feeling the entire day that they were confusing us with someone far more important.”
When the opportunity to come over and cover the inaugural CJ Cup at Nine Bridges came up, I immediately began trying to find a way to visit this remote destination.
We spend a lot of time in this space trying to help you plan your golf trips. This is not going to be one of those reviews. Golf is booming in South Korea, but golf tourism is not very well established. Most of the top Korean courses are (extremely) private, extravagant, and incredibly expensive. Many courses even pride themselves on their exclusivity, and wear the title as a badge of honor. Whistling Rock is a member’s club and unless your rolodex is stacked full of Korean golf contacts, it’s unlikely that the opportunity to play it will present itself. But through video, pictures, and my best attempt at words, I’ll try to bring to life one of the most unique golf experiences I’ve ever had.
The Korean golf experience is one of formality and hospitality. I had not experienced anything remotely resembling the level of hospitality afforded by these clubs, Whistling Rock in particular. It was beyond anything I’d seen prior, or have seen since.
To help illustrate the bizarre conundrum that is my life, I was picked up by an employee of the club from my $19-a-night Airbnb in Seoul at 7 AM and driven through rural Korea to one of the most extravagant places imaginable. I was dressed in the nicest clothes I brought to Asia – khaki pants and my go-to Holderness & Bourne sweater. I already knew that I was going to be underdressed upon arrival and had no choice but to power through feeling like a fish-out-of-water.
The drive from Seoul was spectacular. The highway carved through mountains and rolling, verdant valleys with the first hues of autumn in the leaves. The journey was a stark contrast to the modernity and sprawl of nearby Seoul.
Climbing the last hill to the parking lot, our car was greeted by an uncomfortably large cadre of people waiting for my arrival. To an American guest, this kind of treatment creates anxiety. But I’m assured by Tony, the driver (and the assistant to David Fisher, the club’s VP of International Business and my host for the day), that this sort of treatment is normal in Korea. And while I’ve played my fair share of country club golf, I’m more of a change-shoes-in-the-parking-lot kinda guy. My mind was racing. They do this for everybody!?!
I dropped my belongings in the locker room, and proceeded upstairs via elevator (lol) for breakfast. I passed a few of the 30,000 bottles of wine stored in-house and sat down with David for eggs and coffee. The clubhouse is described as “a floating beacon above the golf course,” and the views from the upper level immediately provided an appreciation for the scale of the landscape. After that first look at the course I couldn’t make it out to the first tee soon enough. Patience. In Korea, there is much more to the golf experience than time actually spent on course.
We wrapped breakfast, and after a quick change of clothes, strolled out of the enormous glass doors to the patio to meet our caddie. At the handful of Korean clubs I’ve been to, the caddies are all female. There’s one cart per group, capable of accommodating an entire foursome. The ladies are extremely professional, knowledgeable, and approximately eight steps ahead of you the entire day. The carts themselves are capable of driving along the cart paths on their own, controlled by a remote on the caddie’s waist. The first time you see the cart moving on its own, you’re tempted to run it down on foot thinking that it’s a runaway. While you do have the cart to ride between holes from time to time, you typically walk down the fairway from shot to shot, which makes for a drastically different experience than a normal round in a cart. The caddie then waits for you in the fairway with your yardage and an array of clubs to choose from, and the social aspect of the walking portion of the round is effectively preserved.
The Golf Course
Building this golf course was an enormous project, as three quarters of a million cubic meters of rock were blasted to route the three nines. This task was assigned to Ted Robinson, Jr. and his team. While on this site we typically appreciate the art of minimalism when it comes to golf courses, Whistling Rock is the antithesis of minimalism.
“The Doak Scale” is the famous grading system used by architect Tom Doak to evaluate golf courses. His five volume set of The Confidential Guide to Golf Courses goes through golf courses from around the world and rates them on a scale of 0-10. The description for a “0” is as follows:
“A course so contrived and unnatural that it may poison your mind, which I cannot recommend under any circumstances. Reserved for courses that wasted ridiculous sums of money in their construction, and probably shouldn’t have been built in the first place.”
Any time you hear about exorbitant amounts of money being spent on a golf course, your mind automatically turns to the word contrived. Often times when that much dirt is moved, the feeling of artificiality can’t be shaken. However, I was pleasantly surprised that this wasn’t the case at Whistling Rock. The rock formations, the lakes, and the waterfalls were all subtle and didn’t appear man-made at first (or even second) glance. The fact that so much land can be moved and go unrecognized to the naked (albeit unprofessional) eye is remarkable, and I gathered an even greater appreciation for what had been accomplished here. Add to that the scale of the property and it’s truly remarkable what the developers were able to accomplish. The blend of nature, solitude, and peacefulness was seamless.
In communicating with David after the round, he mentioned he’d like me to compare Whistling Rock to another course I would be playing later on in the trip: South Cape. He said he’d be curious to hear what I thought were the good and the great holes from each course. I was happy to oblige, but found the task much more difficult than I had imagined. I walked away from Whistling Rock absolutely blown away by the experience, but simultaneously shocked that I had trouble listing off truly great golf holes in retrospect. And I don’t mean that in a critical way. The sum of all of the parts, the unique landscape, fall foliage, and the serenity of the walk really struck a chord with me in a way that I struggle to describe succinctly. A hole by hole description of Whistling Rock just doesn’t capture the essence or experience of the property, so I’ll be a bit brief in this next section.
There are 27 holes at Whistling Rock. We went through the nines in the standard order of Cocoon-Temple-Cloud.
Cocoon sits on the lowest part of the property. As the name suggests, a metamorphosis occurs and the routing transforms as it approaches higher elevations (the Koreans are not short on metaphors when it comes to golf).
All three nines start with a relaxed, shortish par-4. The first on the Cocoon 9 is about 340 yards, and the tee shot is played out toward an iconic mountain backdrop. A wedge from there brings you to the putting surface, where you immediately get an appreciation for the challenge you’ll be facing. The green contours are fantastic (more on this in a minute).
The 2nd hole is a thrilling risk/reward par-5, and the first of three straight half-par holes (and probably my favorite of the 27). This one is 570 yards from the back tees, with a tee shot playing relatively straight forward. A solid drive left me about 280 in, with this view over the water:
The green appears to be sitting on a cliff edge, and there’s nowhere to miss. It’s a true risk/reward shot, and a big ego test right off the bat (you already know what I chose). A pure 3-wood left me in the small slit of fairway just in front of the green. It’s a gripping and challenging approach that remains one of my most enduring memories of the day.
The second is truly a scene setter:
After two easier holes to start, the Cocoon 9 gets rude. The 3rd is a long uphill par-4 that took a solid drive and a 4-iron to reach. This is also the first of the renovated putting surfaces that are described in a bit. This hole is shown below from behind the green:
It was difficult at times to get a full appreciation for the dramatic elevation changes of some holes until looking back at them from a different angle. There’s always some kind of slope in play. The same goes for the green surfaces, as the slopes often are much more severe than they would appear to the naked eye due to the grandeur of the surroundings.
This element actually prompted the club to soften the slopes on several greens and completely renovate others due to the lack of pinnable space on the surfaces. Specifically, the 3rd green was lowered so that players could run shots up onto the green with the long irons that are required to get home.
Courtesy of the Whistling Rock website, below is a fascinating time-lapse of the renovation. Holy man hours!
Eric Iverson (part of Doak’s Renaissance design group) was commissioned to remodel the greens to tone them down, and the results are exceptional. The slopes are still strong, but the contours are subtle and consistent. Most importantly none of the greens felt tricked up or unnecessarily difficult the day I played them. They’re manageable for the high handicapper, and challenging enough to provoke thought for the low handicapper.
The 4th on the Cocoon 9 is another signature hole. The 340 yards it reads on the card is significantly longer than the crow flies, and gives the player yet another rousing risk/reward shot from the tee. It was about 290 to the center for me, and played even shorter than that.
The 5th goes out to a quiet part of the property, and the 6th tee is where you encounter the first tea house. Consistent with the theme of a day of golf in Korea lasting an entire day, a halfway house is much too deep into the round for your first break. On each of the three nines, a mid-round break is taken in the grandiose (and staffed) tea houses.
The tea houses even have their own page on the club’s website! The club takes great pride in the unique nature of these structures and what they represent, and it sticks out as a vital part of the experience even several months after the trip.
Rested and ready, we emerged from the Cocoon tea house to complete the nine. On the remaining holes of Cocoon, several pin positions were right on that dividing line of rewarding a solid shot and badly punishing a poor one. On the par-5 7th, a new back left pin was added at the bottom of a collection area. From the fairway with a wedge in hand, it looked like a beautiful punchbowl that was going to collect an approach and bring it right next to the stick. I missed the shot right and got crushed.
Consistent with the Cocoon, the Temple 9 eases you in with a short par-4, and then proceeds (again) to a lengthy par-5. Unlike Cocoon 2 the hole is essentially unreachable, playing almost 600 yards, with a severely uphill second shot to a green angled sharply to the right. Both the climb and the hole are tough, but you’re immediately rewarded on the next tee with a launching pad from the highest point on the property to the fairway over 200 feet below.
The par-3 6th:
In addition to the aforementioned renovation of several green complexes, Iverson also redesigned the 8th and 9th holes on the Temple 9. The 8th (below) was transformed from a par-3 into a unique par-4 that bends severely to the left and traverses a large mound in the fairway on the green approach. At about 340 yards, it wasn’t quite drivable for me but offered plentiful options. The 9th was renovated from a par-4 with a tough forced carry approaching the green, to a medium length par-3 over the same hazard.
The Cloud 9 was our final loop of the day, and the difference between it and the other two nines was stark. This was the only nine where Iverson did not renovate the greens, and it was only after playing this nine that I got a full appreciation of the work he did on the other two. The punishment for mishits around the greens was severe and overly-penal. On one occasion, I spun a wedge off the front of the green, then took three chips to get over the huge false front. For a high handicapper, I can see these severe undulations being a deterrent.
As mentioned at the top, Whistling Rock loves its metaphors. All but five of the 27 holes sit on one side of the biggest mountain, and these 22 holes represent life. Through a tunnel and out the other side of the mountain, five holes sit in full seclusion from everything except nature. No other players, no views of the other 22, no view of the clubhouse, and apart from the tea house, no sign of civilization. This part of the property represents the afterlife. This shit is deep!
Despite the severe greens, the Cloud 9 was a perfect finale to the day. Usually 18 holes doesn’t feel like enough, and the unique experience on this part of the property was the perfect nightcap. It’s worth noting that the land in “the afterlife” is even more severe than the previous life, and the challenges that come with these holes are even more extreme. In the evening sunlight, the fall foliage popped even harder. The afterlife might be a sensory overload!
Consistent with the entire experience to this point, the 19th hole experience in Korea is a unique deal. The first step is what they call the sauna. In reality, this is a hot tub in the men’s locker room, except, as you might expect, much more over the top. At Whistling Rock there were multiple tubs, each with its temperature stated to the decimal point. I stripped down to my birthday suit, and climbed in with the other members of the group to debrief on the day. The setting was a bit uncomfortable at first, but I was surprised how quickly I got used to it. By the end of the trip, I was left wondering why every round of golf doesn’t end this way.
Next up was the shower, and the re-dress for dinner. The day started in the dark in Seoul and the sun had long since set as we went back up the elevator to the dining area. As expected the food and the service were top of class. I still can’t quite shake the ridiculousness of the level of hospitality. What do they do when someone who is actually important visits the property?
The food and wine came in droves, and David and I chatted deep into the night. As long as the day was, it was hard to actually pile in the car knowing this is likely a place I won’t ever see again. At least I could leave knowing it’s a place I won’t ever forget.