When comparing course design work in central and northern Europe to the Middle East, one might think that the main concern would be a change of design regarding game strategy, style, difficulty, genre and playability.
Actually, this is not the case, as we all have our own ideas, design tactics and styles (most of us, anyway) that we use wherever we go.
Designs are, however, greatly influenced by the environment, climate, geology and topography, which of course vary greatly from Europe to the Middle East.
As far as I am concerned one of the greatest differences between the two geographical areas is manpower. Labour is expensive in Europe and an average 18-hole golf course cannot usually afford a team of more than six to ten people. Therefore, courses in Europe should be designed to be maintenance-friendly, which means that the proliferation of bunkers, steep slopes on bunkers and turf areas, Himalayan greens with wonky perimeters should definitely be avoided.
A bunker is one of the most maintenance-intensive features on a golf course, especially as most dear golfers do not rake them anyway. There is nothing worse than a badly maintained bunker where the grass is growing into the sand and the bunker surface is full of footprints and hollows caused by previous players.
I am not a fan of fairway bunkers anyway, as I prefer to use trees for game strategy. Some of my colleagues however, have remodelled small, stylish and dainty courses in Europe by inserting as many as 85 fair-sized bunkers, resulting in an absolute nightmare for the maintenance team and the average golfer.
A proliferation of bunkers could be excused in the Middle East as the greenkeeping team is generally composed of 25-35 people and usually benefits from newer and more sophisticated maintenance equipment. Such manpower certainly allows a decent maintenance of bunkers, steep slopes and all the other delightful and often absurd niceties that complicate the maintenance of a golf course.
Theoretically, a greater amount of bunker surface could save water as the bunker sand does not have to be irrigated. For this to be efficient it requires an appropriate design of the bunkers coupled with sophisticated placement of pop-ups around the bunker perimeter. But even a slight breeze will decrease such theoretical water savings.
The other main factors are water and drainage. Every plant has to be irrigated in the Middle East: grass, trees, shrubs and ground cover, which leads to the use of huge amounts of water, especially in summer when nobody is playing! A design in the Middle East must concentrate on the reduction of irrigation water, which is rather complicated due to the extreme heat, wind and blowing sand.
The only way to decrease water consumption (apart from water saving agents added to the sand) is to diminish turf areas, which is very unpopular with most golfers and definitely makes the game more difficult. This leads to a Catch-22 situation, as large turf areas attract more golfers but cost more money.
Drainage is very important in central and northern Europe but can be greatly reduced in the Middle East, although sudden and ferocious storms can easily transform some areas of the golf course into torrential rivers.
Most courses in the Middle East are built to sell houses. Unfortunately, they do not produce golfers as it is a proven fact that up to 90 per cent of house owners on a golf course frontage in the Middle East do not play golf! The design of a real estate course is completely different to a stand-alone course as the safety of the villas and buildings surrounding the course are of prime concern and require essential and adequate buffer zones.
The constant additional demands for land by the developer for more and more real estate versus the requirements to ensure minimum safety for the golf course is a tireless and frustrating struggle between the architect and the client. There are many examples of real estate courses that have become very dangerous, especially due to the new playing equipment. The desired use of good dog-legs on real estate courses is very limited as dog-legs decrease valuable land for the villas. We are always reminded by the developer that it is the real estate that pays for the golf course!
Finally, one particular phenomenon that we have to deal with in Europe and not in the Middle East is the overwhelming and often farcical procedures required to obtain a building permit to build a golf course. Due to this phenomenon, golf course real estate projects are nearly non-existent in central and northern Europe, except for some cases that were allowed to build due to lucrative incentives to the local authorities.
In the last 30-40 years, legislators have classified many beautiful areas completely out of bounds and the remaining land is mostly regulated by unlikely restrictions which is why most great courses are older courses. In fact, many of those regulations are unwarranted as it is a proven fact that golf courses are good for the environment. The designs of courses in second-rate areas is an enormous challenge to the architect, who is asked to create great courses whilst continuously compromising with the authorities.
Being a golf course architect is not easy these days…!
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This article was originally published in Golf Course Architecture October 2017.