Adam Lawrence travelled to Messinia, Greece, to see a massive new golf development.
If asked to name two countries in Europe which should have a far bigger golf tourism industry than they do then Italy and Greece stand at the head of the table. Italy at least has a reasonable amount of golf, but given the strength of its overall tourist offer, the country punches way below its weight. In Greece, though, the matter is still more stark. Despite being one of the most successful tourist destinations in the world, having sea, sun and culture in abundance, it lacks any golf infrastructure worth a mention.
Golf in Greece currently amounts to four courses, one each on the islands of Corfu, Crete and Rhodes, and the Glyfada course outside Athens. There has been much talk of grandiose plans to add more over the years, and the current Greek government, headed by prime minister Karamanlis, is certainly more amenable to large-scale tourist development, including golf, than those that preceded it, which generally perceived integrated resorts as a threat to the country's mostly small-scale holiday industry. And, indeed, a number of resort projects across the country are progressing at a steady pace.
Prime among those projects is the enormous Costa Navarino development currently underway in the Messinia region of the Peleponnese – right at the southwestern tip of the country. Here, developer Temes – which is controlled by the shipowning Constantakopoulos family – is behind an ambitious programme to build four golf resorts within half an hours' drive of each other.
Family patriarch Vassilis Constantakopoulos was born in the Messinia area, and has been buying land there for more than 20 years. The scale of his purchases is impressive – over 1,500 hectares in four parcels – but it emphasises one of the difficulties that would-be resort developers have found in Greece. Those four parcels were in fact put together from over 1,000 individual land deals; and this is typical of the region. Acquiring a plot of land large enough to build a successful resort is very difficult – even for those with deep pockets – because of the fractured nature of landownership.
Nonetheless, the land has been acquired, and two of the four sites are well into development. The developers have christened the project as a whole 'Costa Navarino' after the bay on the Ionian coast which was the location for the world's final battle entirely fought between sailing ships. The Battle of Navarino, fought in 1827, proved to be the key turning point of the Greek War of Independence.
Costa Navarino is a massive undertaking. By 2015, according to Temes managing director Achilles Constantakopoulos, the project will encompass four resorts, seven golf courses, twelve hotels and over 1,000 villas. The first resort, named Navarino Dunes, is now nearing completion, and incorporates an 18 hole course, designed by European Golf Design's Ross McMurray and signature professional Bernhard Langer, two luxury hotels with, jointly, almost 700 rooms, and the kind of spa, leisure and conference facilities expected at a resort of this kind. Both hotels will be Starwood properties, under the Luxury Collection and Westin brands, and a large proportion of the rooms will have private swimming pools. Around 120 villas will complete the resort.
The Navarino Dunes golf course is also now close to finished, and should open in 2009. Architect McMurray and his signature designer Langer have crafted a course that, while clearly designed for resort play – fairways are wide, and there will be little rough – has the potential to offer a stern test, especially if a decent breeze blows from the Ionian Sea. The design is intended to evoke links-like qualities, and certainly there are a number of holes, especially on the front nine, with a distinctly seaside feel to them. The back nine is built around a small river, and has a more orthodox Mediterranean feel to it, with olive and citrus trees present in large numbers.
Where Navarino Dunes does not have a traditional resort feel is around the greens.
Mostly very large, they have some dramatic undulations and are protected by some mean-looking pot bunkers. I pointed out the severity of some of the bunkers to architect McMurray on my visit. Fresh from taking his signature designer on a tour of the site, he gleefully told me: "Bernhard wants them even deeper!" This challenging feel is apparent from the very beginning. The opening hole, 394 metres (430 yards) from the back tee, is played to a raised green with two extremely deep pot bunkers dug into the front left. Plenty of golfers will come to grief here. On the second tee, the golfer gets his first view of the Ionian, and indeed the green is perched above the beach (at Navarino Dunes, as at most such courses, the majority of the prime seafront space is reserved for the hotels). The hole is a fairly straightforward shortish par four, although the green, which slopes away towards the sea, will not be straightforward. Here, I think, the view is better than the golf.
On the fourth hole, the golfer will start to see the severe green contours. A long, though usually downwind par four, the hole will play very much more difficult with a tucked pin. In particular, there is a plateau to the back right which will require a tremendous shot to get close to.
The first one shot hole, the fifth, is where the course starts to get really interesting.
Only 133 metres (145 yards) at its longest – and significantly shorter from the tees most will play – the hole might seem simple. But the green is built at the top of a steep hillside – indeed it is supported at the back by a stone wall – and there is a significant slope from high left to low right, meaning a left side flag will be hard to access. The sucker pin, though, is back left. Here the designers have created a small 'thumbprint' depression, just large enough to create a wonderful hole location. Wedge in hand, the golfer hunting a two will have to find a way to get his ball down the slope to the holeside without bouncing through the back. Aerial attack is possible, but distance control must be precise; a running approach must deal with the sideslope which will carry the ball away from the hollow. The ideal shot, therefore, is a running draw with a wedge. Personally I don't have that shot – but I long to try it! This hole is a textbook example of a creative design solution making something exciting out of very little: what could have been a boring short par three tucked in between the access road and the scarp has the potential to be one of the standout holes on the course (although players who find the flag in the fat of the green may wonder where the excitement is).
Another fine par three is to be found at the eighth, where the designers have built the front of the green up just enough to block out the views behind, creating an appealing skyline look. This, along with the following hole, seemed to me to be the most authentically linksy part of the course: one could easily imagine the green having been created by slicing the top off a sand dune. I have some qualms over the massive bunker dug into the upslope at front right, which will dominate the view, but the hole is splendid. And the ninth features one of the best greens on the course, protected by a diagonal ridge at the front rather than by sand. With the flag at back left – the far side of the diagonal – players might feel that they have a straightforward approach shot, but many will find otherwise as their balls are deflected away by the ridge.
Construction on the back nine was less advanced during my visit. However, the closing holes will be especially interesting. The seventeenth, a fine par three, has an angled green that evokes the challenge of North Berwick's famous Redan and its innumerable replicas, although being slightly downhill the visual intimidation factor is less intense.
From the back tee at 185 metres (202 yards), it will be a very difficult shot indeed, as the tee's position sharpens the challenge of the angled green. I am not sure the classic way of attacking a redan hole – a swinging draw – will be practical from here, and I preferred the forward tees which seemed to offer more options. The par five closing hole has another steep green, with a large step in the middle: it will not be the comfortable birdie many golfers expect when they see a three shot hole.
A few miles around the bay from Navarino Dunes lies Navarino Bay, the second resort to come on stream. Again this will have a single golf course and two hotels, the first of which will be operated by Banyan Tree, the group's first European property. The Bay property is more undulating, and the course – designed by the practice of Robert Trent Jones II – makes good use of this. One par three hole in particular features a stunning greensite right on the edge of a severe drop. The short par four fifteenth will play directly along the bay, while seven holes make use of the canyons to the inland of the property.
The two remaining resorts – tentatively named Blue and Hills – will be developed over the next few years. Troon Golf executive Paul Dellanzo (Troon will operate the courses) told me he believed the Costa Navarino project was Europe's most exciting tourist development since the Aga Khan built Costa Smerelda in Sardinia. This remains to be seen – but the sheer scale and ambition of Navarino is breathtaking. If this is Greece's entry onto the golf tourism stage it is quite a debut.
This article first appeared in issue 14 of Golf Course Architecture, published in October 2008.