Story & photos by Mike Besa
One of the most underrated golf courses in the country has to be Forest Hills Golf and Country Club’s Nicklaus Course in Cogeo, Rizal. This is world-class golf at its finest. It is one of the best ball strikers’ golf courses in the country. How did the song go? If you can play well here, you can play well anywhere.
Let’s not mince words here. The Nicklaus Course at Forest Hills is a tough track. The United States Golf Association course ratings of 74.7 and slope of 138 make the Nicklaus all most golfers can handle (the blues are not much easier at 72.8/134). Even so, this is just one heck of a golf course.
At just over 7100 from the tips (and just under 6700 from the blues), the Nicklaus is acceptably long by modern standards but the elevation changes and the accuracy demanded from the tee box make this a golf course best navigated by those that have good command of the tee shot. Length off the tee is almost a requirement but the knowledge of where to place the drive is the key to setting up the holes to score.
The hilly topography makes a cart almost essential. The holes themselves are walkable but some of those green to tee distances will tire you out. These same topographical features will place the most severe demands on your ball striking.
Even lies on some holes are nonexistent. You will be forced to deal with uneven lies at many times during the round. You can avoid them a few holes by playing to flat spots in the fairway. Most times this will leave you further back in the fairway; far back enough to push you to the edge of your comfort zone but that’s a price you have to pay.
Distance control with your approach shots is key. The most difficult greens play uphill. Judging the elevation and the wind correctly will have a huge impact on your score to the good.
Once you get on, the greens are fabulous. They are almost devoid of grain. You can confidently putt along the line of the visible break and know that your ball won’t finish too far away from the hole. The approaches are generally firm, allowing you several options of how to handle balls just off the putting surface.
The first hole offers you a beautiful vista off the tee. The hole plays downward almost all the way but uphill to the elevated green. The green is set at an angle to the fairway so you’ll need to find the correct side of the fairway for the optimum angle for your approach shot into the two-tiered green.
The second hole is just plain tough. At 458 yards from the tips, it’s about all that most amateurs can handle. The fairway slopes from left to right, which helps get you into position, but the approach shot is complicated by a creek that bisects the fairway and continues up the left side of the green.
The fifth hole on the Nicklaus Course is one of the most difficult par fours in the country. You need a long, well-placed tee shot to get a good angle at the green. The fairway is narrow and made more so by a hazard and trees to the right. The green itself is very narrow and is bounded by a hazard on its entire right side. If you’re not in position A to go for the pin, playing it like a par 5 will save you a few strokes.
The inward nine is a test of driving. The second nine is 200 yards longer than the first and definitely feels it. There are many great driving holes here but none better than 11 and 12. Call them beauty and the beast.
Eleven is the beauty. The elevated tee frames the shot with the clubhouse, a water hazard and the forested landscape and takes some of the sting out of the hole’s 455-yard length. The fairway is wide and accommodating but stray too far to one side or another and you’ll have to take a penalty. The green complex slopes from right to left allowing for some creativity with the approach shot. A stunning golf hole.
Twelve is the beast. The view from the tee is the best on the golf course. It plays even more steeply downhill than 11 but it is over 20 yards longer. The fairway looks like a miniscule target; it takes courage to get the ball started on the ideal line. The green is a tough multitiered affair and elevated as it is, makes it a very tough target to hit.
Fourteen is also designed along the same lines, elevated tee shot to a downhill green then back up another hill to the green. But don’t let any of that take away from the severity of the hole. The 14th green is tiny compared to the one on 12 making it an even more elusive target. But that sense of accomplishment of hitting this green in regulation is something.
The piece de resistance is the home hole, the 18th green, in particular. Forget everything else about this 429-yard beauty, just focus on what you’re going to do with your approach to the green. You see, there’s a bunker in the middle of the green. A pot bunker, no less. This makes it imperative that you weigh your options judiciously before even attempting to go for this green.
If you can get around in single digits then brother, you have game. It takes all the skills to do so. The course will expose any weaknesses quickly and without remorse. Big numbers lurk behind careless play at key points in the round. Strategy and the capability to execute it are key.
The golf course is in very good shape and will get better still. The reason is twofold; first, there’s a new, dynamic young team at the helm in Forest Hills—General Manager Raymond Bunquin makes his way back to the Fil-Estate group of golf courses. He’s very ably assisted by Golf Director Jude Eustaquio and Golf Course Superintendent Nevin Austria. Austria and Bunquin both worked at Sherwood Hills Golf Club, so this is a reunion of sorts from them. All care deeply about golf and respect the courses at Forest Hills. They are poised to take it to another level.
Second, the club finally bit the bullet and refreshed their maintenance equipment fleet. This will enable Austria and the rest of the grounds crew to raise the standard of their work. It cost a good bit of money but this are funds well invested for the future of the twin golf courses at Forest Hills.
The club has recently received the approved changes to the Nicklaus course from Golden Bear; Nicklaus’s design group. Modifications to the golf course will be to turn the second hole into a par 5 by building a new green complex above and to the left of the location of the current green. The most significant change will be to the 18th green. The green has become smaller over the years due to erosion and set up practices. They aren’t going to remove the bunker, so it will continue to plague golfers for years to come.
Today some 17 years on the facilities are still brilliant. The clubhouse is large and airy and affords a great view of the Ortigas Center on a clear day. The locker facilities are expansive. A trip to the sauna and a dip in the jacuzzi will do wonders to soothe the pain of a good walk spoiled.
Given all its strengths, it’s a wonder that Forest Hills isn’t a more popular golf destination. The drive up the length of Marcos Highway might have something to do with that, but if you love your golf, there aren’t many golf courses that make that drive one worth taking. The Nicklaus Course at Forest Hills Golf and Country Club is just such a golf course.
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