Wednesday 22 November 2017

Tee-time in Turkey

After being driven to distraction on the golf course, Gerard McCarthy found himself at the mercy of a Chinese masseur and a very flimsy piece of clothing at the hammam

A Turkish
A Turkish hammam
The Roman theatre at Aspendos

Gerard McCarthy

Most golfers will tell you that there are major differences between club golf and holiday golf, and there are a few lessons some of us just never seem to learn when we go abroad with the full set of Mizunos, a week's supply of balls and enough sun cream to protect a multitude.

The principle lesson is: never drink and drive -- and by driving, I mean either the golf buggy or hitting your driver.

I was painfully reminded of this vital piece of advice on a recent trip to Belek in Antalya province in southwestern Turkey, a new destination on the golf map which is doing its utmost to muscle in on the still-robust golf-tourism market.

Without going into too much detail about the standard of play on this particular trip, by the time we reached the 10th tee on day one of our competition, we were on first-name terms with the guy who drives the refreshment (beer) buggy -- Benazim, or Benny as we ended up calling him.

Some half-dozen balls (Titleist Pro V1s at €5 a pop) had vanished forever into the many lakes dotted around the course, having briefly worried the local bird life during their wayward flight through the balmy air.

To top matters, two of us ended up lugging our clubs over the final four holes after the buggy gave up the ghost during one of countless trips into inhospitable terrain in an ultimately futile search for missing golf balls.

Still, there is a lot of consolation on offer when you come off the 18th green after possibly the worst round of your life. For a small tip, the staff will clean your clubs and leave them looking as though they never left the bag -- so psychologically you can blank out the entire round and turn your attention to a relaxing meal on the veranda.

And, it has to be said, the Turks are a friendly and hospitable bunch who offer good service and good food at a very reasonable price.

Turkey is currently in the same place as Spain or Portugal 30 years ago when golf-course development really began to take off. In a country with a population of nearly 50 million, only about 4,000 Turks play golf, but that hasn't stopped them seeing the tourism potential.

Belek is on the so-called Turkish Riviera, and golf courses, surrounded by picturesque mountains and the glistening Med, are springing up like mushrooms.

In this area alone, there are now more than a dozen top-quality courses, designed by such notables of the game as Nick Faldo and Colin Montgomerie. The two courses that we played -- the Sultan and the Pasha, both part of Antalya Golf Club -- were designed by the former Northern Irish professional David Jones.

It's a very similar scene to the Costas or the Algarve. The sun shines for almost 12 months of the year, mostly everybody takes a buggy, and only tourists and slightly insane people go out on the course when the mercury rises to the sort of temperature that would force your typical Bedouin into his tent.

Still, this area faces one major obstacle in grabbing much of the Spanish and Portuguese markets -- the distance you need to travel to get there. One of the great joys of heading to Malaga, Lisbon or the Algarve is that you can have your breakfast in Dublin, your lunch in Spain or Portugal and be on the first tee by early afternoon.

Not so in Antalya. For a start, you can completely write off the day getting there -- and also the one coming home. If you are willing to accept that you will spend at least eight hours of these two days entirely in airports or on airplanes, then fine.

However, there are other attractions to go with the golf that may lure you to this far-flung shore, not least the chance to avail of a Turkish hammam -- a traditional bath.

I'm not a particularly shy or inhibited person, but I could tell the moment I entered the spa for my first hammam that it was going to present a bit of a challenge.

For a start, I was coerced into donning a particularly flimsy, disposable G-string. Nothing else.

The two other guests about to avail of the same treatment -- a pair of German Tony Sopranos -- were dressed in similar attire, though they appeared far more comfortable than me.

They'd been before, obviously. The three of us had been assigned our own personal Chinese masseurs, all of whom could easily pass for extras in a Bruce Lee movie -- all hard muscle and sinews and looking as though they could break a few breeze blocks with a swift chop of the hand.

So off we go, following our masseurs through several corridors lined with rose petals and candles. Soft music drifts overhead from hidden speakers and the air is suffused with sweet smells of incense and spices.

And then we arrive at the hammam itself. It's a beautiful room, all marble with a domed ceiling. In the middle is the heated marble slab, big enough for four or five people, while around the outside there are little alcoves with marble basins, battered silver bowls and running hot and cold taps.

All of this appears to be some sort of ploy to lull you into a false sense of security because, now, the three of us are told to lie on the marble slab. And the action begins in earnest.

We are sluiced down with jugs of water that vary in temperature from cool to so hot it's just bearable. And I can tell you, hand on heart, there is no graceful way to roll over on a slab of marble, slippery with soap and water, when the only stitch covering your modesty is a disposable G-string.

Soon, there is water sloshing everywhere, there are suds everywhere, scrub mittens are produced, and skin is scraped until it turns to a tingling red.

Steam rises in hot clouds towards the dome, the oils are produced and the massage starts. Wet and oily flesh slaps off the marble, making a sound like fishermen landing the early morning catch on the pier at Howth.

By now I'm hanging on to what's left of the G-string for dear life as my Chinese friend rubs and scrubs legs, armpits, face, back, front.

I feel as though the masseur is about to break me into hundreds of different pieces.

At the end, I'm given some much-needed body lotion to soothe the superficial heat rash and scratches from the hammam. Whoever described golf and spas as relaxing, healing -- almost spiritual -- experiences? W

Irish Independent

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