Stock image of a Trump luxury resort. Photo: iStock/Getty Images
Stock image of a Trump luxury resort. Photo: iStock/Getty Images

Sprawled out along Bali’s west coast, overlooking the iconic island temple of Tanah Lot, the picturesque Nirwana golf resort is once again a growing point of conflict between the forces of capitalism and the guardians of Hindu religious beliefs.

Back in 1994, residents rebelled against powerful businessman Aburizal Bakrie buying 121 hectares of prime coastal rice fields to build the US$200 million resort, seeing it as an unacceptable invasion of the sanctity of one of Bali’s holiest temples.

They lost that battle but aesthetically at least Nirwana’s leafy, landscaped beauty has a far better feel to it than the ugly asphalted carpark and scores of ramshackle food-stalls and souvenir shops that mark the tourist entrance to Tanah Lot next door.

Now, with Indonesian billionaire Hary Tanoesoedibjo and his managerial partner, US President Donald Trump, seeking to redevelop the course into a six-star resort, land values are competing with cultural values as the main impediment to the march of the moneyed.

Tanoesoedibjo is offering US$10,000 to US$15,000 an are (100 square meters) as he seeks to add 30 hectares to Nirwana’s existing boundaries to accommodate not only an ultra-luxury hotel, but a rebuilt country club, an expanded championship course and franchised villas.

Chief Executive of Indonesia’s MNC Group Hary Tanoesoedibjo during a visit to the Indonesia Stock Exchange in Jakarta, February 3, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Beawiharta

Overall, his Media Nusantara Citra (MNC) Group plans to spend US$1 billion on that project and on the redevelopment of Lido Lakes, a fading resort south of Jakarta which will also be managed by the Trump Hotel Collection.

A special guest at Trump’s inauguration, Tanoesoedibjo has often expressed presidential ambitions of his own. But after the racist backlash against Jakarta governor Basuki “Ahok” Purnama, now jailed on politicized blasphemy charges, it would appear a long time before an ethnic-Chinese national is elected to the country’s highest office.

After supporting Purnama’s victorious rival, Anies Baswaden, in the April gubernatorial race, Tanoesoedibjo is now looked on as one of the possible financiers of opposition leader Prabowo Subianto’s expected second bid for the presidency in 2019.

In a case he claims is politically-motivated, the billionaire is currently in trouble with the law for allegedly sending a threatening message to the deputy attorney general over a 2009 corruption case involving a telecommunications firm he once owned.

Tanoesoedibjo, who bought Nirwana from the cash-strapped Bakrie in 2013, intends to close the course at the end of this month to begin a three-year makeover that will almost certainly put it out of the financial reach of the weekend hacker.

But these are very different times from when Bakrie’s money did the talking. Some of those willing to sell want a cool US$52,000 an are, compared to $26,000 sought by one Balinese with a six-are holding adjoining Tanah Lot itself.

A stock image of Bali’s seaside Hindu Tanah Lot temple. Photo: iStock/Getty Images

It isn’t clear how many landowners have been targeted, but others don’t want to sell at all or are only willing to rent their land to a developer everyone believes is rolling in cash and can effectively be held to ransom.

The Trump organization, which came on board last year, is only lending its brand name, which could conceivably be mud by the time the refurbishment is completed at the end of the controversial president’s first term.

Apart from that there is also concern over what Tanoesoedibjo intends to build in the place of the current 300-room hotel, which conforms with Bali’s stipulation that no building can be higher than a tallish palm tree.

The 51-year-old tycoon has insisted there is no Trump tower on the drawing board and he will adhere to local culture and zoning restrictions, promising that the tallest structure will be within that maximum height restriction of 15 meters.

On that score, there would only be one winner in any new stand-off with Parisada Dharma Indonesia (PHDI), Bali’s highest Hindu body, even if it did fail to enforce a two kilometer exclusion zone between Tanah Lot and any development unrelated to spiritual needs in the 1990s.

Hary Tanoesoedibjo (C), a media and property mogul who is building two Trump Organization projects, arrives at police special crime unit office in Jakarta on July 7, 2017. Photo: AFP/ Akbar Yusuf

It has always seemed remarkable how Bali has managed to retain its strong cultural and religious identity despite the presence of millions of tourists and other modern-day influences. In fact, it doesn’t just survive – it thrives as an authentic resort destination.

That’s because the Balinese believe everything on earth is occupied by spirits. As such, the rituals they perform to placate them play havoc with working lives and eat up about 30% of the average household’s income.

Sitting on a boat-shaped rock 50 meters offshore, Tanah Lot is only accessible at low tide. But the thousands of tourists who visit each day are only permitted as far as the foot of the temple.

Designed by Australian golf legend Greg Norman and opened in 1997, the 6,805-yard course’s signature hole is the par-three No 7, which the average golfer can reach with a 4 iron from an elevated tee with a picture-postcard view of Tanah Lot.

But for all of its challenging holes, spectacular views and average 8.6 out of ten rating among more than 450 golfers, it does not feature on the Asian Golf Circuit and has never hosted a major championship.

The Nirwana Golf Club in a stock image. Photo: iStock/Getty Images

Tanoesoedibjo clearly hopes to change that. Norman and Trump may be close by some accounts, but it is champion golfer Phil Mickelson who has been brought in to re-design part of the course.

Rather than bulldozing the existing layout, which reputedly has a special place in Norman’s heart, insiders say the developers are planning to lengthen it to 7,300 meters or more, the standard for most of today’s golf courses.

Even then, designers say stretching fairways to the maximum as a way of protecting par from elite professional golfers may be a fool’s errand in a day of finely-honed techniques and vastly improved clubs.

“When 660-yard par 5s are being eagled courtesy of 3 woods carrying 320 yards on second shots, that says long holes in themselves are not enough,” says Brett Mogg, a partner in golf course architects Nelson & Haworth.

Pointing to the hardest hole in the recent US Open being a short, driveable par 4, with a devilishly contoured green and surrounds, he says if enough thought is given to the approaches, then length should not be a major factor.

It has always seemed remarkable how Bali has managed to retain its strong cultural and religious identity despite the presence of millions of tourists and other modern-day influences. In fact, it doesn’t just survive – it thrives as an authentic resort destination.

Nirwana is not only short, but there are also some issues about getting spectators safely around the course, although this apparently does not include the resident cobra which has made its home close to the men’s 14th tee.

Experts generally agree, however, that Indonesia has a surfeit of suitable courses and that the quality of a course comes a distant second to sponsorship and the willingness of local financiers to come up with the money to attract top-flight golfers.

While Indonesia is not on this year’s Asian Golf Circuit, there may still be an Indonesian Masters and/or an Indonesian Open at the Royale Jakarta and the Robert Trent Jones-designed Damai Indah courses later in the year.

Beyond the money, what will make Nirwana a hit on world-wide television screens is not so much the rigors of the course, the Trump name or even the brilliance of the golf, but its sheer beauty — with Tanah Lot as the jewel in the crown.

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