Course construction was almost complete at Victoria, near Kandy in Sri Lanka when a hotel operator made a visit from India. It was 1998.
He was developing a course himself in Bangalore.We told him the course was going to cost less than US$600,000 to build, which included an irrigation system, though for greens and tees only. He said that such a figure was impossible and that the course could not be any good with such a paltry outlay. His own was going to cost upwards of US$10 million. In February 2005 the course at Victoria was voted 'The Best Course on the Subcontinent' by the readers of Asian Golf Monthly. I have to admit that the reaction of the gentleman caused the developers of Victoria to worry a little but thankfully their trust in our approach held firm.
Now US$600,000 to build a high quality golf course is a figure we will not be able to repeat, but the story does illustrate that there are both economical and lavish ways to build a course.
Our own philosophy is to build a high quality course for the most reasonable sum possible. This follows the thinking of Alister MacKenzie who professed: "Economy in course construction consists of obtaining the best possible results at a minimum cost."
I feel it is important that developers at least consider being advised by golf course architects who follow such a philosophy. On too many occasions it seems as though the sole aim of the architect is to spend as much of the client's money as possible.
However, some of the courses we have been involved with have cost a lot of money, the most expensive being in the region of US$10 million. These figures came about as a result of adverse site conditions including a need for heavy earth movement, occasionally through rock and extremely poor soils. It cannot be emphasised enough how important the site characteristics are when it comes to the costs of course construction.We have recently been invited to look at sites where it would be difficult for mountain goats to keep their balance!
Returning to Sri Lanka, how did the course get built for such a small sum? A large portion of the credit must be given to Tony Whitham, project manager and subsequently general manager of the resort. He had a great knowledge of the island, having worked there as a tea planter before heading to Australia to work in the Parks Department in Melbourne. He used local people in the construction, people who turned out to be extremely talented in their roles, despite the fact that many of them did not even know that golf existed! When trees needed to be cut down Tony set a certain number of rupees per tree and various teams set about the task with axes at a tremendous rate. Earth movement was restricted by our design. The course routing was critical as the slopes were significant at many parts of the site. The earth movement which was necessary was achieved by a local contractor with some old but workable bulldozers.
Green shaping had to be handled with great care to achieve the best results. Nigel Ely, a shaper from the UK, spent eight weeks on the island teaching a local operator the method of setting out the levels to our plans and shaping from them. They did a great job as the results are as good as any we have been involved with. The root zone for the greens and tees was mixed manually by hard working ladies and spread by hand rather than machine.
Irrigation was restricted to greens and tees. Having fairway irrigation would be valuable but the course still functions well throughout the year, its playing characteristics depending upon the seasons. Drainage characteristics of the site, with wonderful soil conditions throughout, were excellent so virtually no fairway pipe drainage was required.
The circumstances at Victoria were exceptional but I often wonder what other architects would have made of the site and what the cost of the course would have been. Significantly greater costs, and the project would not have proved feasible. The quality of the terrain meant that we could only find a need for 12 bunkers for the whole course.Would other architects have been so frugal? How many others would have restricted earth movement to the same degree?
The philosophy which guides us through all of our projects stems from that of the grand masters of the past. Colt, MacKenzie, Macdonald, Ross, Tillinghast and Simpson did not produce low quality courses by being given relatively low budgets. The quality of the land which they had to deal with generally allowed an economical route to produce great results but my fear is that their resourcefulness and concentration on the fine detail of golf course design are talents which are in danger of being lost. However, there is cause for hope. It is refreshing to see signs of a return towards a more sensible approach, with courses such as Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw's Sand Hills in Nebraska being perhaps the best known example. It is an approach which should receive wholehearted support.
Martin Ebert is a partner of Mackenzie and Ebert.
This article first appeared in issue 3 of Golf Course Architecture, published in January 2006.