Feature Interview with Adam Lawrence p.2

You are the only one I know who has been to Ardfin. Tell us about it!

It is a special place for sure, and you have to applaud Bob Harrison and the crew from SOL Golf who have designed and built the course. The par threes are truly, truly spectacular; there won’t be many sets of one-shotters in the world more memorable. It is a pretty crazy place to build golf, when you think about it: almost entirely rock and peat. Their original plan was to sandcap the entire course, but that went out the window when they realised just how difficult it would be to get that much material to site, so in the end they had to scavenge for topsoil across the entire estate to get enough growing medium. I hope they managed to find enough soil to get adequate width. I heard a rumour recently that the only way people would get to play the course is if they rent the big house on the estate!

Ardfin. The building in the distance is the boathouse where 90s pop pranksters the KLF burned a million pounds.

Ardfin. The building in the distance is the boathouse where 90s pop pranksters the KLF burned a million pounds.

What are the pros and cons of Brexit for golf in the United Kingdom?

I’m so appalled at the idiocy of my fellow citizens that I can’t really begin to be objective about this. I guess there’ll be more foreign visitors as long as the pound remains in the toilet.

You applaud Ballybunion for taking the tough step of shutting down the course and re-grassing in pure fescue last fall. Does this put pressure on other top tier links to strive diligently to present proper playing surfaces?

Hmm, interesting question. I think the Ballybunion greens project is one of the most interesting developments in golf in recent years, and I think John Bambury, Anthony Bennett and everyone involved deserve real credit for their bravery in taking the decision and getting the job done successfully – imagine the kerfuffle if four or five greens had not taken, and the course couldn’t reopen in March! Imagine also the impact on Ballybunion’s bottom line!

Whether it will have an impact on other courses, I hesitate to judge. There is a very good grouping called the Irish Links Initiative, which brings course managers from across Ireland together to share best practices, and I’m sure they will be fascinated to hear from John about his project. And certainly, there is a trend across the world of links to ensure proper conditions as far as possible, which hasn’t always been those clubs’ goal (my favourite story is from Gordon Irvine, who, when he began to consult at Royal Cinque Ports, went into the greenkeeping yard to meet the course manager and stumbled over sack after sack of perennial ryegrass seed. He asked the guy what the grass was doing there, to be told it was used for overseeding. Overseeding one of England’s greatest links with ryegrass, says Gordon? Yes, says the course manager, my greens chairman is a farmer, and when I submitted my budget he looked at the number for seed and said ‘I can get it for half that from my ag merchant!’ Fortunately that was some years ago and they don’t overseed Deal with rye anymore!)

The issue with Ballybunion is that the climate in SW Ireland is pretty favourable for poa, and it’s hard to keep it out. There is a reason why Renaissance Club and Castle Stuart have the most fescue in their swards – it’s because they are new and they started with 100 per cent fine grass. But over time they will get poa ingress, and Ballybunion will be the same.

My friend Stuart Yarwood, course manager of Lymm GC in Cheshire, did an interesting piece on species transition for me a few years ago. But it’s hard work to get fine turf through management and overseeding – which is why John advised Ballybunion to go for the regrassing option. They were able to do that because they had budget available to throw resource at the project – to reconstruct eighteen greens in six weeks is really pretty amazing – and space on the practice field to grow the new turf. I doubt too many clubs are in the same position.

All that said, I do believe fervently in fine grasses as the best and most sustainable surface for golf in the UK and similar environments, and I regret the people who parrot the ‘poa is inevitable, learn to live with it’ line. Lorne Smith is a crazy man, but I love him for it. When I visited the Mourgue d’Algue family’s development outside Bordeaux, Tom Doak’s Golf de Saint-Emilion, I was really impressed to hear from André Mourgue d’Algue his determination to stick to traditional agronomy and greenkeeping methods. French golf is a bit overrun with poa, even on courses where the climate should be perfect for fescue-bent, so André’s words (bearing in mind that the soil on his course is far from ideal) are very reassuring.

Are you a fan of the redesign of Turnberry?

Yes, I think it’s magnificent. Martin Ebert told me before the project started that his view of Turnberry was that the highs were very, very high, but that some of the detail work was not really top drawer. It is much better on every level now; not just the glamorous stuff of the new ninth, tenth and eleventh, but also detail stuff like on the par three fifteenth, a hole I have always loved, but which didn’t really use its site to best effect. There was a bowled quality to the right edge of the green previously, which meant that the pin could not be located against the big drop off. Martin has fixed that, and really improved the hole.

I remember talking about Turnberry with Martin before the 2009 Open and his telling me that he would like to move the tenth green back to the site of the eleventh tee complex, to demolish the ugly construction that was the tee complex, and to build a new eleventh green in a spot that he and George Brown, the long-time Turnberry course manager, had found. Well, now he’s done that and it’s sensational. George died last year and in my opinion they should name the hole after him.

Golf is increasingly being created in environments very different from traditional sites. Where, if anywhere, does it work? Where do you feel it is likely doomed to fail?

Inert landfill is a model that works pretty well. If you get paid to dispose of construction spoil and you can use that spoil to help construct the golf course, then you are transforming the economics of a golf project. There have been projects of that kind in the UK for decades – the Trent Jones course at Stockley Park near Heathrow was an early example from the 80s – but recently we’ve seen a few that have been rather more ambitious, like Centurion Club near St Albans, and the Shire in Barnet.

We’ve seen a number of projects on denatured sites recently. Budersand in Germany is perhaps the most dramatic example, but there have been others. Brian Keating, the Australian who was responsible for the initial phase of development at Machrihanish Dunes, has a project at Irvine in Ayrshire that is part links, part rehabilitation of a denatured site – I don’t know at the moment whether it is going to happen.

I think urban golf is an interesting model. It doesn’t have to be on the scale of Ferry Point in NYC, but we’ve had years of the most interesting projects being on great sites in the back of beyond, and I would like to see people trying to build golf, probably small courses of one form or another, close to where people live. Topgolf, which is now trying to bring its American success back to the UK, where it was founded, but operates on a smaller scale, proves there is demand for it.

People said after the crash of 2008 that the golf and real estate model was broken, but I have never believed that. I just think that we have to find new and better ways of doing development golf so that the golf is more self-sustainable.

I’m not convinced that golf is doomed to fail in any particular environment. Desert golf, for example, seems completely at odds with everything I think is important; but even in that environment, there are ways to be more sustainable. Why, for example, could you not make extensive use of solar energy in a desert golf environment, and improve your sustainability that way? The SolarDrive solar golf cart roof solution, for example, is brilliant, and frankly if I ruled the world it’d be compulsory for carts in hot environments.

From Baja to Turkey, I have seen spectacular photos of courses in GCA with dramatic elevation changes. Yet few seem walkable. Does it mute the enjoyment of playing in exotic locales if, for instance, a golf cart is part of the equation?

A good question. Years ago, I went to a conference at Aphrodite Hills in Cyprus, and listened in to one panel discussion in which I heard a well-respected golf travel guy announce that any idiot could have built a great course on that site. I laughed, because I remembered Cabell Robinson, the idiot in question, telling me it was perhaps the most difficult property he’d ever worked on. Aphrodite is built, essentially, on two mountain plateaux, and there’s a huge valley between the two of them. Cabell solved the problem by building a drop shot par three into the valley – the cart path looks like something the Tour de France might ascend – and having a cart ride of in excess of half a mile in between two holes. Not ideal, and if you said, well, that is a site where golf should never have been built, I wouldn’t necessarily disagree. But it was, it’s pretty good, it does well and it gives pleasure to many, many people. Which is, in the end, the reason for its existence.

I would always rather walk, and I’d always rather play a golf course that makes that not only possible, but straightforward. But then, I remember the first time I played Yas Links, with my friend Jerry Kilby, in temperatures approaching 40C. Yas, given bearable weather, isn’t a hard walk, in fact it has one of my very favourite walking features, a tee that is basically one step off the preceding green. But in that heat, forget it. So we played in a cart, wearing shorts, and drinking LOTS of water, and we had a great time. Sue me.

I’d like to see some of the tourist golf markets work harder on establishing a caddie culture. Last year, I went to Thailand for the first time, to see Paul Jansen’s excellent renovation of the Laguna Phuket course (I was already in Singapore; don’t fret folks, I didn’t go all the way to Thailand to see one course). Now, anyone who has played golf in Thailand will be aware of the ubiquity of (female) caddies there, and it’s great, it is a truly authentic golf culture all of its own. In Turkey, in Morocco, in loads of other countries where labour costs are low, you could have a great caddie culture around the golf courses, and it would do what caddying always does; introduce people to golf who otherwise would never know it and embed the game in the host society. I admire the places in America that have retained caddies, but I think they’re bonkers; who on earth wants to add the best part of a hundred bucks to the cost of a round of golf?

A country like the United Kingdom has a great understanding of what constitutes good golf. What is it like to going to countries much newer to the game who don’t necessarily have a similar high golf I.Q.?

I am not quite sure that I agree with your premise. There are plenty of temples of golf where the members would be very happy to have the greenkeeper water the hell out of the place, and a good number of courses in much less established golf markets that are kept really nicely. It all depends on what people have been led to expect, and the only solution is education. It is a great mistake made by Americans to assume that all British golfers are denizens of an ancient links and expect the ground to be like concrete and the grass tighter than a Scotsman’s wallet. Most Brits play inland all the time, and in truth most of them fly their shots at the pin where they can and have a little whinge when the green is hard enough for the ball to bounce through.

It’s easy to go to south-east Asia, find a golf course that is soggy and conclude that the locals have a low golf IQ. But managing turfgrass in the tropics is hard! It’s very difficult to be firm and fast when you could have a foot of rain in one night, and when it rains EVERY DAY in the wet season.

Travelling to play or see golf in countries where golf is new and unusual is interesting. I really dislike the feeling of being a ‘white settler’ in a country, flying in and travelling to a little island of luxury where the only locals you meet are the ones cleaning your room. A few years ago, I went with David Kidd to see Guacalito de la Isla, his course in Nicaragua, built for Carlos Pellas Chamorro, the country’s richest man. Nicaragua is a very poor country, and Guacalito is super-luxury. Obviously no-one local, except for maybe don Carlos and his friends, will play there; it’s designed to attract rich tourists. But, you know, rich tourists aren’t all bad; they spend money and they help create good jobs in a location where there aren’t so many. And don Carlos seems like a pretty enlightened developer; the first thing he had David’s crew do, before they even start on the golf course, was to build a football pitch for the locals.

But the truth is that the only way that golf will get a real foothold in new markets is to build affordable golf courses that are aimed at locals, not expensive palaces aimed at Germans, Brits or Americans. We at GCA have been criticised for being too keen on those big, fancy projects, and I admit there is some truth in that. Even where low budget project exist, they aren’t as easy for people like me to find out about and cover, they don’t have big PR budgets. It’s a problem, and will continue to be.

Is there a place you enthusiastically recommend a golfer to go because the cultural merits more than make up for any deficiency in golf?

Ah, now, this is a little bit of a sore point for me. There is a perception in the golf travel business that golfers just want to play, eat and drink when they’re on holiday, and have no interest in the surrounding culture. That may well be largely true, to be honest, so perhaps my beef is with the golfers rather than the developers or the travel firms.

But personally, I like to mix up my travel; I want good food, I want art and culture; and I want golf.  While I will sometimes charge round golf courses like a crazy man, that’s only when there’s a lot I need to see and a short time to see them in; I think the two-courses-a-day-and-then-drive-100-miles-to-the-next-course brigade are certifiably insane (Yes, Eric Smith, I mean you). Plus I often travel with Lucy, my wife, who doesn’t play (in fact she refers to herself sometimes as a ‘golf hating harridan’), and so I am looking out for things that will interest her too.

So, with that in mind, here’s Adam’s Guide To Golf Travel That Goes Beyond Course And Bar:

Turkey. The cluster of golf courses on the Belek strip, near Antalya on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast, has a lot to recommend it; the standard of golf is quite high, though in truth the area lacks a genuine marquee course. Perry Dye’s Lykia Links, built among the most beautiful set of sand dunes, alongside a beach where turtles nest, should have been it, but Perry bulldozed the hell out of the site. And the way the development has been done, with ten or more individual standalone resorts, all with golf and hotels, and no central focus, is not ideal, because people end up stuck on one resort and have to take cabs if they want to play other courses: I wish they had zoned in a town centre area, with a marina, restaurants and the like.

However, Turkey is a treasure trove of fascinating things, especially ancient remains. Within fifteen minutes drive of Lykia Links is the perfectly preserved Roman theatre of Aspendos. The spectacular ancient city of Perge is less than forty minutes away. If you’re a bit more adventurous, the fantastic ruins of Aphrodisias, with a huge stadium that will make your jaw drop, is a couple of hours drive.

Italy. Sir Rocco Forte’s Verdura resort development in Sicily is very nice, with two excellent eighteen hole courses by Kyle Phillips. But the ancient Greek colony of Agrigento, for hundreds of years one of the most important cities of the Mediterranean world, is only minutes away. How could you pass it up? I couldn’t.

Morocco. God, I love Morocco. The food is fantastic, the people are lovely and their hospitality is unmatched anywhere in the world. And, better still, they all speak French, so I can communicate with them, but, unlike the French sometimes do, they don’t get het up when I mangle the language. Stay in a riad in Marrakech or Fes for a week and I defy you to emerge without having put on at least ten pounds; they just keep plying you with wonderful things to eat. The Moroccan royal family has been promoting golf development in the country for decades and the result is there’s quite a lot of good courses all over the country. Best, according to the ever-reliable Tom Dunne, is the course in the gardens of the royal palace in Agadir, but you need a personal invite from Prince Moulay Rachid to get on (Tom got that, I didn’t, but he says it’s a lock for world top 100). Elsewhere in Agadir, Kyle Phillips’ new Tagezhout course is fabulous. An hour west of Casablanca, the huge Sol Kerzner development at Mazagan is really about the casino, but the hotel is excellent and the golf course, in natural sand dunes by the Atlantic coast, is terrific work by Frank Heneghan, the best course I have seen from the Gary Player stable. In Rabat, the two courses at Royal Golf Daressalam, home for many years to the Trophee Hassan II, now a European Tour event, are very strong work by Cabell Robinson for Trent Jones; a terrific plot of land on which the golf sits lightly. But the place to go, to see Morocco as well as to play golf, is Marrakech. Perhaps fifteen or twenty courses now surround the Red City; none, to my knowledge, is truly outstanding, but all provide decent holiday golf. I like Assoufid the best. But the joy of Marrakech is the old city, the medina. Go see Yves St Laurent’s garden, the Jardin Majorelle. Stroll the narrow streets of the medina, and emerge to the huge square, the Jemaa el-Fnaa, where, for a thousand years, camel trains from across the Sahara have ended their journey, traders have met to do deals, and innumerable hangers on have tried to scratch a living. Watch the snake charmers, the storytellers; yes, they’re pushy, but if you make it clear you are just watching they’ll be fine, especially if you learn a few words of Arabic (‘salaam aleikum’, peace be with you, goes a long way across the Muslim world, as does ‘shukran’, thank you). And then, at sunset, the square clears and becomes the largest open air restaurant on earth as dozens of chefs with portable stoves set up their offerings. Food’s good too, though be sure to drink bottled water. And then maybe stroll into La Mamounia, a grand hotel for 100 years, and have a nightcap in the bar where Winston Churchill used to drink. And, just to make you feel better, Marrakech’s first proper waste water treatment plant was partially funded by some of the golf developments; the city gets sewage disposal and the courses get the treated water to irrigate. Brilliant sustainability story.

Canada. I just want to say that if I hear of anyone doing a hit and run at Cabot without going to sample Stanley Thompson’s masterpiece Highlands Links, and experiencing the beauty of the Cabot Trail, I will hunt them down and punch them.

Highlands Links, the greatest walk in golf. October 2010.

Highlands Links, the greatest walk in golf. October 2010.

Apart from being editor of Golf Course Architecture, you also consult at clubs. How might your advice defer from that of a golf course architect?

Most of the stuff I have done at golf club has been in conjunction with a golf architect, so it’s a bit of a moot point. I’m not a golf designer and not qualified to be one, so I don’t have any desire to trespass on that turf. My work has largely focused on helping clubs to understand the architectural history of their golf course and to draw some conclusions from that on what their strategy should be for the future. Along with golf architect Tim Lobb, I’ve completed what we call ‘course design policy reports’ for clubs like St George’s Hill, Woking and the Berkshire; basically, those reports seek to identify the key changes in the courses through their history, and to identify what the original architect was trying to do when he laid them out – and to set a policy that future changes should be in sympathy with the original architect, rather than fighting against him. I hope this will lead to restoration in some cases, but if it doesn’t, and it just helps stop a future captain digging a totally inappropriate bunker on a whim, that’s good too.

It wasn’t a consulting gig, I was just visiting the course, but I went to Golf de Fontainebleau in France last year, and after I’d seen the course I had lunch with the club secretary and president. They asked me what I thought, and I said ‘If I were a golf architect, I’d tell you that you need to spend half a million Euros rebuilding your bunkers, but I’m not, so I won’t’. That was a little bit flip, and actually they do need some bunker work, but my point was to tell them that it shouldn’t be their first priority – what they need to do first of all is to fix their tree problem and their grassing lines.

I also work with golf clubs on marketing; helping them get better copy on the golf course on their website and other literature. It’s a source of amusement and irritation to me that so many clubs have more and better information on their clubhouse facilities than they do about their course, which you’d think was their very raison d’etre. I always say that if the ‘Pro’s Tip’ on any hole says something like ‘A drive down the middle of the fairway is ideal here’ then they’re probably not saying anything of interest!

Where are you off to the rest of the year (i.e. to what may readers look forward)?

Lofoten Links, September 2012.

Lofoten Links, September 2012.

I’m trying to get over to the west of Ireland to see the works at Skellig Bay (or Hog’s Head as it has been renamed) and Adare Manor, and I’ve been invited on what sounds like a pretty spectacular trip to Korea in October. But my main goal, travel-wise, is to get back up to Lofoten Links in northern Norway; I went a few years ago when they were in early construction on their expansion to eighteen holes, and now they’re open I really want to see what they’ve done. It is an astonishing place; about 100km inside the Arctic Circle and right on the Arctic Ocean with a resident pod of killer whales. Sun doesn’t set for weeks in summer, or rise in the winter; the Gulf Stream keeps it remarkably mild for its position. Oh, and it’s one of the best places in the world to see the aurora borealis in the autumn. The only problem is that it’s exactly the sort of place that Lucy would like to go too, so if I go without her, I’m likely to have marital difficulties. Last year, I got an invite to go on a press trip to Tahiti. Opportunity of a lifetime, but quite likely to result in divorce! In the end I was quite glad it fell through!

To learn more about Adam Lawrence and his consulting services, please visit: www.amlgolf.com

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