Adam Lawrence reports on a visit to Iceland and a potential world class golf course.
One of the world’s most exciting golf projects is slowly starting to take shape on the windswept southwestern coast of Iceland. Close to the isolated fishing village of Thorlakshöfn, an hour’s drive from Reykjavik, American architect Steve Smyers is planning a golf course he hopes will be the equal of anything to be found on the links of Scotland and Ireland.
But there is much work to do before Smyers – who is the lead architect on the project for Nick Faldo’s design practice, reviving the partnership that built Chart Hills in England in the 1980s – can claim to have built his masterpiece.
For anyone who loves links golf, a walk around the site of the tentatively-named Black Sand Golf Links is a thrilling prospect. The property appears to have everything a golf architect might desire: a vast expanse of huge sand dunes, composed of the eponymous black volcanic sand, wonderful views to the nearby mountains and the more distant active volcano of Hekla and the glacier of Mýrdalsjökull. Surely there must be hundreds of great golf holes lying here, just waiting to be discovered by a patient architect. If ever there was a site that justified the tired old cliché about ‘being designed by God for golf ’ then this, you might think, would be it.
This is, however, far from the case. The forces of wind and water that created these dunes are constantly destroying and reshaping them. As the wind races across the North Atlantic, or whips down from the Arctic, the dunes are ever in a state of flux. Lay golf holes on these dunes, and the holes will have changed radically by the time the grass has established itself. Before Smyers and the rest of the Faldo Design team can create the golf course, they must stabilise the environment. Linksland is formed because rivers bring sand, collected in their journey through the interior, down to the sea. When the sand-laden water hits the ocean, and the prevailing wind and current point in the right direction, that sand is then dumped on the shore. Deposited on the shoreline, the sand is formed into dune patterns by the effects of wind and water. This is why linksland is generally to be found on the leeward side of an estuary: St Andrews is a perfect example.
This land is in a constant state of flux. Large dunes, generally, are young and relatively immature, formed recently on coastlines exposed to big seas and strong winds. Older links – again, think of St Andrews – tend to be lower, with undulations more subtle than striking. At Thorlakshöfn, the dunes that form the sea wall are massive, rising more than 25 metres (80 feet) above the level of the ocean. And all this has been created by nature in the last sixty years: before 1950, there were no dunes here.
The youth of the dunes will make constructing Black Sand a major challenge. On the first day of my visit to the site, a strong wind was blowing, and the dunes could literally be seen to move in front of you. It’s this aspect that completely puts paid to any idea of a ‘lay of the land’ golf course. Try to grow quality turfgrass on these bare dunes as they stand and the seed will be half way to the Azores before it has time to germinate. “I spent between 40-50 days walking the site,” says Smyers. “Initially, I said ‘We must find the holes, not build them’ – I thought it would be my chance to build a golf course without much earthmoving. But after a while, I realised it was completely impractical to do it that way, because of wind and erosion.” Proving the point, as Smyers and I walked the property, we came across a spot that, in his current routing, had been designated as the sixteenth green (it’s a glorious spot, right on top of the seawall dune). But stands of tall grass that, only a few weeks previously, had been on the surface were now almost buried under fully two feet of sand.
In the UK and elsewhere, linksland is generally strongly protected by environmental legislation. Before Greg Norman’s practice could build Doonbeg, on the west coast of Ireland, the developer was required to spend hundreds of thousands of Euros to provide protection for vertigo angustior, a microscopic species of snail found uniquely on the property. The Machrihanish Dunes project, currently being constructed by David McLay Kidd on Scotland’s remote Kintyre peninsula was only given the go-ahead subject to planning constraints that effectively made construction a question of mowing down the existing grasses. And Donald Trump’s desire to build ‘the best links course in the world’ at Balmedie, near Aberdeen in Scotland, remains a distant dream as planners consider the details of the scheme.
Black Sand is rather different. Here, the environmental agencies are embracing the golf. Iceland has a national foundation, the Landgræðsla ríkisins (Soil Conservation Service of Iceland, or SCS), whose responsibility is to reduce the massive problem of soil erosion all across the country. And Landgræðsla director Sveinn Runólfsson has a close tie to this dune system: his father began the process of stabilising it some years ago, by planting the lime grass that now covers much of the dunes. Runólfsson’s agency is an enthusiastic participant in the golf project, seeing in it the opportunity to shore up the sea wall and dramatically improve the stability of the dunes.
The lime grass has played its role in dune stabilisation, as has some work carried out by the Soil Conservation Service banking up the seawall dune. Some five years ago, SCS also bulldozed the sand on top of the seawall dune into a level surface. Oddly, a few years on, the wind and rain have created interesting small scale undulations on the flattened top – ideal for golf.
At intervals along the seawall, the wind has forced a gap in the dune. When this happens, the funnelling effect of wind and rain rapidly creates huge blowouts and bluffs. These are tremendous features, and would, of course, make fantastic hazards and green sites for golf holes, but will all need to be plugged up, and protected from further erosion. The power of the weather is simply too strong – where the blowouts start to form, the process of erosion is accelerated, and it would be impossible to preserve golf holes in such an environment.
This may all sound negative, but the need to stabilise the dune system and to protect the property against the ravages of the weather will itself provide the means of building the golf course and – hopefully – making it financially viable. The explosive growth of the Icelandic economy, plus the convenient location of the Black Sand site, has convinced the developers, a syndicate of investors led by Reykjavik-based property and facilities management group Nysír, that a small village of homes built across from the golf course, could be a successful proposition. With Iceland’s location midway between Europe and the US, there are hopes that golfers from both continents will be regular visitors. True, the Icelandic golf season is not as long as those in lower latitudes, but the 24-hour daylight of midsummer provides plenty of opportunity to play. And, according to a number of local golfers I met while in the country, decent conditions for golf often continue well into October.
To make the village a comfortable place to live, a monstrous dune will be built, surrounding the northern side of the property. Up to three kilometres long and 20 metres high, the dune will be grassed – with up to 8,000 lime grass plants per hectare – and should shelter the whole development from the ravages of the cold north wind. The fill for this dune, and also for the rearward extensions that are designed to strengthen the seawall, will come from the excavation of a large lakebed between the golf course itself and the houses. This lake, although dry when I visited, is fed by natural springs, and generally only dries up late in the summer. By deepening it, the lake will be made a permanent feature of the property, offering separation between course and village, as well as increasing the biodiversity of the site and adding visual appeal. Most important of all, though, is that precious fill.
Once this mass of earthmoving has been completed, Smyers and the Faldo team can move in to create the golf course itself. This will be a challenge on the grand scale. Not only must an entire dune system be created and made to look natural, but the architects and contractors have to find a way to grow fine turf on these windswept sands. The lime grass that has colonised the dunes over the years serves its purpose in terms of stabilisation, but no-one would pretend it has any potential as a golfing grass. Yet remove the lime grass, and the sand blow will start all over again.
There are ways around this dilemma. Sveinn Runólfsson, better placed than anyone to advise on making grass grow in such a location, offers two alternatives. If seeding is necessary, he reckons, an organic soil conditioner called FloBond could be used. FloBond reduces the erosion caused by water runoff, and improves the permeability of soils – and should thus help shaped land stay as it is meant to be until the grass has established itself.
A more aggressive option would be to turf the golf course, either entirely, or in the most sensitive areas. While this would add substantially to the construction budget, the greater speed with which a turfed sward would be ready for play might just counteract the increased cost. The real issue is the availability of turf. Smyers estimates that perhaps 20 hectares of fescue turf would be needed within the first season of construction – which is to say, during 2008. Can the Icelandic turf industry supply such quantities? Runólfsson says yes, which may just make building the golf course rather easier: in the Icelandic climate, fescue will take at least 12 months to grow in from seed, whereas turf should mature much more quickly.
Let me admit it: I was utterly captivated by the possibilities of the Black Sand project. This property has it all – longrange vistas to volcanoes and glaciers, monstrous sand dunes, wild weather – and it fills the mind with the possibilities for great golf. But there are many, many hurdles – and high hurdles at that – to be cleared before the first balls can be struck. And for the project to deliver its ultimate potential is a still greater challenge. It is true that golf architects and construction teams have recently developed the art of shaping land to appear as if it were naturally-created dunes to a very high degree. To see this one need only pay a visit to the Fife coastline and see both Kingsbarns and the soon-to-open St Andrews Castle course. To me, though, Black Sand is a step further on. It’s not a question of restoring a denatured landscape but of finding a way to protect an existing one from the effects of nature. Yet, at the same time, the designers want to build a very natural looking and feeling golf course. Man against nature, yet man also trying to ape nature. It is, some might say, reaching a step too far. But I hope it succeeds, for if it does, the golf industry might see one of its greatest triumphs.
This article first appeared in issue 10 of Golf Course Architecture, published in October 2007.