Interview: Golfplan

Interview: Golfplan
By RNL

The trail-blazing exploits of one of the elder statesmen of golf course design have left their mark in 65 countries. But with Ron Fream increasingly taking a back seat, will Golfplan continue its globetrotting adventures? Mark Alexander finds out.

David Dale is unashamedly passionate about golf design, and he’s been like that for as long as he can remember. Mention the course at Nine Bridges in Korea which he designed with his cohorts at Golfplan, and his response touches on the fanatical. “To grasp how that place feels, think about the golf courses that have given you goose bumps,” he says fervently. “I’ve only been on one golf course that has given me goose bumps and it wasn’t Augusta, it wasn’t Pebble Beach and it wasn’t Cypress Point. It’s a design that Ron [Fream] did in Singapore at the Sentosa Golf Club. It was a hot day and I walked around that course getting chills. I was in awe of how peaceful it was and how seamlessly the golf tied in from the edge of the fairway to the existing landscape. That’s what Nine Bridges does.”

It’s perhaps telling that Dale’s defining goose bump moment came in a country that’s half way around the world from his base in California. It’s even more significant that the designer who created the layout is now the executive director of the company Dale heads up.

“I first met Ron in June 1988 on my first day of employment,” he recalls. “I was hired by the senior architect Fred Bliss who told me I might not meet Ron on my first day. Then, out came Ron from an old office carrying a garbage can full of magazines he hadn’t opened because he’d been on the road. He said ‘You must be Dave Dale. You’re a big guy, start loading up.”

Within a couple of days Dale had graduated to working on his first design. Twenty one years later, Dale is president of Golfplan – the design practice Fream set up in 1972. The pair were later joined by Kevin Ramsey and together the trio have built a business based around a willingness to explore the farthest corners of the world and build remarkable golf courses there. With examples of their work in countries like Brunei, China, Finland, and Mongolia, to name but a few, Golfplan is a bona fide international practice.

“At a groundbreaking ceremony, a commentator once said that if we had enough money we would grow grass on the moon,” says Dale. “Although we haven’t built a golf course there, if there was a way of doing it, Golfplan would find it and it would be very enjoyable.” It all started in 1966 when Fream’s talents were spotted by Robert Trent Jones. Before his appointment he had been working towards a masters in turfgrass management following six years of studying ornamental horticulture. His idea was to become a golf superintendent but his wealth of botanical knowledge was a valuable commodity and he was quickly snapped up by RTJ. “I was hired by the Robert Trent Jones firm because I knew how to grow grass,” Fream says. “They had golfers, engineers and wonderful landscape architects but they didn’t know which end of a tree you put in the ground.”

Despite their shortcomings, the RTJ team was able to continue Fream’s schooling through international travel. “During my four years with them, I earned my PhD degree,” Fream jokes. “Jones was the only international firm at that time and the main brand, much like Nicklaus or Fazio is today. Because of my background I floated between design, drawings, maintenance and construction inspections – it was a wonderfully diverse four-year education which I couldn’t have gained from any other firm.”

A short stint with Robert ‘Red’ Lawrence followed before Fream hooked up with the meticulous Robert Muir Graves who impressed on the young architect the importance of detailed drawings – marking a radical change from RTJ’s freeform approach. “The works plans Golfplan produces today are basically the same ones I adopted when I set up the company in 1972. It’s fairly standard now but I still don’t think anyone produces the type of detailed greens drawings we do. That was a product of Graves’ influence. With Jones and Graves, I learned how to do things and how not to do things.”

He says during this pick ‘n’ mix apprenticeship he developed the idealistic notion of putting the client and the project before Golfplan’s profits. It’s a plan that served him well. More than 40 years of designing golf courses has resulted in a portfolio covering 65 countries requiring approximately 3,000 airline flights and a well-thumbed passport.

Although the 67 year old Fream is still the cornerstone of Golfplan, his involvement is increasingly on a projectby- project basis as he looks forward to travelling the world without the burden of meetings and site visits. But while Fream is one of the industry’s elder statesmen and certainly the most widely travelled, he admits his foreign adventures began out of necessity rather than design.

Only a few months after setting up Golfplan with ex-RTJ man Terry Storm, Fream chanced upon an Australian magazine sporting an advert for Peter Thomson and Michael Wolveridge and it sparked an idea. “I thought it would be interesting to do something elsewhere because the US market wasn’t that bold. Jones was still getting the bulk of the work and the market wasn’t that big, so I sent a letter to Thomson Wolveridge Associates and I got a letter back. We traded letters and they asked if I could meet them in Nagano, Japan. I was a little sceptical that Michael Wolveridge even existed, but I used my credit card to pay for the tickets and I went. I’d only ever been to Mexico, so when I was on the flight over I asked the stewardess to write down some Japanese phrases to help me find the hotel.”

Fream met Wolveridge at Nagano Palace Hotel and on a veranda overlooking the palace, the pair opened a bottle of duty free whisky and kick-started a partnership that would last almost seven years. Golfplan became the back office for Thomson Wolveridge Associates and Fream embarked on a globetrotting adventure he still enjoys today.

His willingness to travel to far-flung places to work on projects with modest budgets meant Fream was often the first American architect to set foot in many now-familiar golfing destinations. In 1973 he made his first trip to Indonesia followed by an inaugural visit to Malaysia three years later. He was in China by 1980, and shortly after he started work in Korea where Golfplan has completed an estimated US$1billion of construction work. With so many to choose from, you’d think it would be difficult to pinpoint a single project to adequately define Fream’s passion for travel but surprisingly he’s able to pick one out with ease. He cites a course built for President Suharto of Indonesia in 1975 which exposed him to such unspoiled natural beauty that it fundamentally changed his life.

“I went there in 1973 for Peter Thomson,” he says. “In those days, Bali was Shangri-La, a tropical paradise and home to the gods all in one. We built the Bali Handara which was regularly in the top 25 resort courses. The experience profoundly influenced me in terms of a greater awareness of the environment. I had studied ecology at college but when I got to Bali, it was there blatantly in front of me – it was a protected environment with terraced rice paddies, beautiful villages, flowers and bare-breasted women carrying offerings to the temples. It was wonderful and literally influenced the rest of my life.”

The effect of the project is most apparent in Fream’s office which is adorned with Balinese carvings and artwork although its influence runs far deeper than some trinkets. The virginal beauty of Bali instilled a desire in Fream to seek out landscapes that were relatively untouched. It led him to explore the farthest reaches of the world and perhaps explains Golfplan’s most challenging project to date.

“We’re in mid-construction on a golf course in Mongolia,” Fream explains. “We have climatic conditions there that I’ve never encountered anywhere else. The site is windswept by winds coming out of Siberia heading for Beijing. The ground freezes to a depth of two metres and in the winter the temperature drops to minus thirty Celsius. The wind is going to rip the hell out of the grasses.”

As unpleasant as it sounds, Fream says this stark and dramatic landscape will provide a much-needed respite from the heat and pollution that blight northern China and Korea during the summer. It’s also typical of the kind of project that has helped Fream establish a formidable reputation for breaking new ground.

For Ramsey, who joined Golfplan as a senior golf course architect in 1999, this trail-blazing approach was exactly what the doctor had ordered. “To me, the world was shrinking,” he recalls. “In the US we’re fairly limited by the sites we get. You rarely get a Bandon Dunes like Tom Doak and David McLay Kidd did, but in a foreign market, you get stunning sites that you just don’t get in the US. So there are opportunities you’d never get unless you’re doing international work.”

And on that score, Golfplan has certainly delivered. What’s more, the company’s remarkable international track record also provides an important reserve of valuable contacts. “We still have challenges ahead,” says Ramsey. “But the fact that we have projects in almost every continent is a resource to draw upon. Desperate times require desperate measures, and firms will jump on a plane to go to a golf show in Beijing and hopefully get introduced to somebody. But if you don’t have that introduction lined up, it’ll be difficult. For us, we have introductions on every trip, no matter where we go because we’ve been working with the people over there for years, and that helps us to move things forward.”

Golfplan is currently making headway on a number of projects including a remarkable 170 hectare island development in the middle of Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, which has been initially laid out to include nine holes, and the restoration of the Bukit Course at Singapore Island Country Club which was originally designed by James Braid. Add to that the follow-up to Nine Bridges – the US$40 million Haesley Nine Bridges course which is an hour’s drive south east from Seoul – and it becomes clear that Golfplan’s all-encompassing approach is paying dividends.

Indeed, while the company’s history is almost unrivalled and overshadows many more recognisable design shops, its future could bring it even closer to the fore as more touted firms wither in the economic slump. With fascinating projects aplenty – plans are afoot to route one through the Great Wall of China while another includes a par five hole that will cross the Cambodian and Vietnam borders not once but twice – it seems the best is yet to come.

“During the last ten years, we’ve done some of our best work,” Ramsey concludes. “The settings are great while the quality of the design work and its implementation are better than ever. We’re firing on all cylinders.”

This article first appeared in issue 16 of Golf Course Architecture, published in April 2009.

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