Feature Interview with Paul Jansen
April, 2020

Paul Jansen at Himalayan GC with Nepalese colleagues.

1. To my knowledge, you are the only person we have interviewed that was born in Zimbabwe and raised in South Africa! How did such an upbringing shape your sensibilities in golf course architecture?

We left Zimbabwe when I was very young and settled in Durban, South Africa where I took up the game. My father, who was born and grew up in Zimbabwe, would tell me stories about playing at places like Royal Harare GC, Chapman GC or even in Bulawayo but other than that, I had no knowledge of golf north of the border growing up. The last time I visited Zimbabwe was in 1987 but I did visit a few golf courses relatively close by in Zambia last year and this has motivated me to head back to Zimbabwe for reasons other than golf.

I started playing at Royal Durban GC (not to be confused with the more renowned Durban CC) when I was 11. The course was unique in that it was situated in the middle of a horse racetrack, which came into play on a number of holes, and there was also a main road that ran through the centre of the course. Playing golf repeatedly at RDGC effected on my sensibilities in that it showed me that unconventional features actually add interest rather than take away from the sport. That is something that I embrace in my own work today.

RDGC had reciprocal agreements with a high percentage of golf courses across the land which afforded me the opportunity to play golf in a lot of different environments throughout South Africa which eventually sparked my interest in design.

South Africa has a few dozen golf courses designed by renowned course architects like Col S.V Hotchkin, C.H Allison, Fred Hawtree and Bob Grimsdell, most of which I’ve been fortunate to visit but I am still most fond of Durban CC by Laurie Waters from a design perspective. I was always enthused by some of the wonderful ground movement and naturalness at Durban CC and its other course Beachwood a few miles up the road.

Having said that, the unique offerings that have probably shaped my mindset the most are the Gary Player CC at the Sun City Resort and other “bushveld” golf courses including some modern takes like Kabaku Komatipoort, Elements, Zebula and Skukuza. These courses are uniquely African, all have strong sense of place and emphasize the natural environment and overall experience.

Zebula is an example of bushveld golf that enjoys a strong sense of place.

2. After university, you were based in London for 8 years, then Switzerland for 3 years and now Canada for 6 years yet have never worked in the place that you lived! You have been to approximately 60 (!) countries so how is it that you have come primarily to work in  undeveloped or developing regions like Turkey, Vietnam, Thailand, Bangladesh and Romania?

I would like to have stayed in South Africa but if I knew that if I wanted to get into this profession, I needed to work abroad to progress my education. Therefore, when I completed my studies in Johannesburg, I left for the U.S.A. to do an internship with course Architect Thomas E Clarke of Ault, Clarke and Associates, who happens to have been your last month’s Feature Interviewee. Talk about a small world! Anyway, I was based outside of Washington D.C. for nearly a year and toured courses with Tom around the D.C. area for the majority of my stay.

After my time in the States, I went to the United Kingdom at the end of 2000. I was lucky to hold a British Passport and toured as many links and heathland courses as I could, plus I explored Europe. I needed to find employment relatively quickly and ideally in course design. When I started with Nick Faldo in London, ALL the work was outside of the United Kingdom in places like Portugal, Turkey, Ireland, Italy and Denmark. After the 2009 market correction, the majority of the work shifted to Asia and the developing world. I continued to work with Nick even when I was based in Switzerland.

3. How did you come to work for Nick Faldo Design? 

When I moved to the United Kingdom, I didn’t get back into course design straight away. There were limited opportunities at the time and I needed to find work quickly as I was running out of money. I was fortunate however, I had studied Geographic Information Systems (GIS) as part of my degree, and was able to get work in this field. GIS was a relatively new phenomenon at the time (today just about everyone uses some form of GIS) and there was demand for people with any experience so I contracted for the railways helping them build some of their early intelligent mapping systems. It paid well, which afforded me the opportunity, in my spare time, to travel throughout the UK and Europe in search of great golf which I did frequently from 2001 – 2004. I also started to purchase as many books on Golf Course Architecture as I could find. So whilst I was not working in course design, I was still educating myself.

Sir Nick Faldo and Paul Jansen at Laguna Lang Co.

Then roughly two and half years later whilst visiting my girlfriend in Poland I got a call from a contact asking if I would be interested to get back into course design. I interviewed with the Faldo team and a few weeks later on holiday in Italy was offered the position. I started at the end of 2004.

4. Which were some of your favorite projects for him?

Ironically, some of the projects that never got completed, specifically Ponta Do Pargo on the island of Madeira and La Repose in South Africa between the cities of Port Elizabeth and East London. Those were magnificent sites and the teams were fantastic. The golf course at Ponta Do Pargo was at the western tip of Madeira and we routed 8 of the holes along the cliff edge with 200m+ drop to the ocean.

Pic of Ponta Do Pargo, Madiera

The La Repose site was situated in and alongside some of the biggest sand dunes in the Southern Hemisphere.

La Respose, South Africa

5. That’s awful – the photographs are magnificent! What happened to those projects? Does the opportunity exist today to build on those sites? 

I’m a glass half full kind of a guy, so you have to think one day maybe there will be a golf course in these locations but there is so much unpredictability in both golf development and the world today.

I spoke with friend Stuart Mclean – who was the previous editor of Southern African Golf Digest and also penned the wonderful book South Africa’s greatest golf destinations – about the La Repose project not too long ago. Stuart was involved in the project back in 2006 and he did not speak as if there was a chance it would restart anytime soon.

Regarding Ponta Do Pargo, I remain in contact with a few of the people on the island who were involved when we were full steam ahead and they recently informed me that the government is considering restarting, which is a positive but that was before the current crisis we find ourselves. What’s important to note about that project is that the government had already invested a substantial amount of money purchasing the land and completing the majority of the infrastructure so there is motive to get it done.

6. Please drill down on the 7th and 11th holes at Laguna Lang Co and discuss the options presented to the golfer.

Well, the location of the 7th hole was the lowest point at Lang Co and was wet and featureless. I remember on one of my first trips to site I ventured into a pack of stray water buffalo in this area. My instinct was to run since buffalo in Africa are incredibly dangerous but thankfully the buffalo you find in Asia are placid, well-natured and essential for rice crop production. See Holes 3, 4 and 15 at Laguna Lang Co for examples.

There was a stream system in front of the proposed tee set that would flood most of the area during the monsoon period. Using material we mined from the site, we raised most of the hole by between 1 – 2.5 metres (7 foot). We then proceeded to built a short 4 that bottle necked the closer you got to the green. You could attack the green from the tee but you had to hit it through a tight chute the closer you got to the green. Those golfers wishing to play safe and left would have to contend with a large clump of trees that would block a view into the green the further left you hit the ball. We tiered the fairway, probably 50 metres at its widest, and stuck in two centre line bunkers. If you are able to navigate your ball to the right side of the fairway, you would be left with an unobstructed view of the green and the contour was more forgiving from this angle. The sandy areas we created left side of the fairway and right side of the green help create strategic interest but are transition as you move onto Holes 8 and 9 which take up some beach frontage.

Holes 7 and 11 and Lang Co.

Regarding the 11th hole, it did not reveal itself  immediately. That section of the property was thick jungle, almost impenetrable to walk through but the mountainside did offer us clues as to what we might find. As you enter the site there was an abundance of large boulders dotted about the slope and my hope was that the other side of the mountain would be the same. Once we found a large rock structure that now backs onto the current 12th tee, we felt that if we cleared a little bit more towards the mountain we might possibly find more and that’s what we did and we got lucky. The 11th and 6th greens are both framed by these spectacular boulders. As we cleared more of the slope on 11, we found more rock so we just kept clearing. We had to manufacture a tee complex but this worked out well and now there is a wonderful route from 10 green to 11 tee through these rock outcrops. We decided to build a long narrow green 50m (150 foot) in depth and maybe 12 – 15m in width to take advantage of the rocks down the entire left side and some of the right side. The back third of the green is nestled in the rocks.

From this …

… to this! The 11th hole at Laguna Lang Co.

There was obviously no need to build any man-made features which would’ve taken attention away from the wonderful natural features. I haven’t been back to Lang Co since 2017 but by all accounts the Golf Director Adam Calver has done a wonderful job maintaining and improving the course.

7. After Faldo Design, then what? 

Ultimately,  I started my own business in Geneva in 2011 but was contracted to complete some projects with the Faldo group like Lang Co which opened in 2013.

My family moved to Canada a few years ago but my work has continued in Asia and the developing world given the relationships I built mostly through my work with Faldo. This means that a high percentage of my time is still spent in Asia. When I travel to a project, I spend considerable time on site as it would not be feasible to travel back and forth every few weeks. On some projects, the work necessitates that I base myself in the country for a good portion of the project term with my team. When I return to see the family, all I do is rest and spend time with my kids in Toronto, Canada.

Initially when I went out by myself,  a primary business goal was to establish myself in the developing world where I could express a lot of my ideas and where I felt the best opportunities existed moving forward. I had also worked or traveled to many of these far flung destinations and was relatively well connected. It’s difficult enough to establish yourself in one state or country, so it has taken a lot of energy, time and money to establish myself in a number of countries.

I am now in a much better position, a bit older also, and am presently focused on spending more time at home in North America since my kids are growing up and I want to be a part of that.

8. You once wrote, ‘As a business sector, I don’t believe we have done ourselves any favours by designing, building and then putting the spotlight on golf courses that are excessive in every way.’

This was a section from an essay I wrote for the R&A golf course management sector a few years back. I have also discussed this subject at length at seminars around the globe with the R&A Head of Sustainability Steve Isaac, Agronomist Micah Woods and with Sam Thomas and Jonathan Smith of the Golf Environment Organization.

Many of the golf courses we read about and watch on TV are not the best examples of responsible design, construction and maintenance, which in turn creates a negative perception on the game. People outside of golf, looking for an opportunity to denigrate our game, use the way these golf courses look to highlight the amount of resources these facilities consume over a large area in support of their view that golf courses are a burden on the environment.

9. What are some egregious examples of waste and excess that you come across?

  1. Over irrigated areas
  2. Over spec’d irrigation systems
  3. Sand capping
  4. Over engineered bunkers with high tech lining
  5. To much input to achieve green
  6. To much emphasis on bunkers as the defining strategic element
  7. Building U.S.G.A. spec greens when not necessary
  8. Too much emphasis on subsurface drainage and not enough emphasis on surface drainage
  9. Too much emphasis on form over function
  10. Excessive amount of highly intensive maintained areas on a golf course outside of the main play areas (tees, fairways and greens). I can’t stress this point enough.
  11. Constant turnover/need to update maintenance equipment

10. Discuss the work being done at the Shangri La Hambantota golf course on the southern tip of Sri Lanka.

When I first visited Shangri La Hambantota in 2017, I was encouraged by the work the team were doing to become more environmentally sustainable. When the golf course was first built, the rough areas were all maintained paspalum grass requiring a substantial amount of water and people input at a real cost. Instead of continuing down this expensive path, the team at Hambantota decided to plant out some of the rough areas with pineapple (I believe pineapple is the national fruit of Sri Lanka and is certainly grown at mass in that part of the country).

This might sound absurd but instead of spending lots of money maintaining a space that sees limited play, they are now spending less money to maintain that space while simultaneously adding productivity to the land with the potential to generate money. From a golf purist’s perspective, the pineapple groves give the golf course more sense of place and the resort can also market itself – accurately – as being environmentally conscious.

Pineapples at Hambantota

The edible crop concept is something that I embrace in my work. When we built Laguna Lang Co, we regenerated nearly 4ha of rice crop field which now borders several of the holes. Golfers experience some of Vietnam whilst playing golf in Vietnam! Again, a strong sense of place manifests itself. Additionally, the rice crop generates food which is used at the resort and by the local communities. Everyone wins, as there are social, economical and environmental benefits.

A rice paddy at Laguna Lang Co.

11. What does ‘less is more’ mean to you? What is an example?

Golf holes or golf courses don’t need to have an excessive amount of features to make them good. When a golf hole or golf course is flooded with man-made features, this more often than not complicates the play area and lessens the opportunity to focus the golfer’s attention on existing features that in all likelihood would have improved the strategic interest and overall experience.

I’ve also sometimes used this term in conversations with clubs where I work. I tell them that spending copious amounts of money won’t necessarily equate to good. In fact, some of my favorite clubs excel because they don’t have lots of money to spend. There are a lot of examples but I will use two that come to mind that are not my own:

Yay Tagon Taung Golf Club, a 27 hole complex about an hours drive outside of Mandalay, Myanmar, is situated among some wonderful natural treescape and framed by mountains dotted with waterfalls and pagodas. Thankfully the play areas were not ruined with an abundant amount of features which gives golfers much more opportunity to appreciate the surrounds.

Yay Tagon Taung, Myanmar.

The same can be said for the Kabaku Komatipoort Golf Club, a nine hole golf course built by the local community of Komatipoort and located within a chip and putt of the Mozambique / South African border. The course is well routed to take advantage of wonderful on-site and off-site influences. Thankfully, that team was also not tempted to go overboard with building man-made features. The result is that golfers is free to experience an intensely African experience.

Kabaku Komatipoort with view out over Kruger National Park.