Adam Lawrence visited the Riffa Views development in Bahrain to see architect Robin Hiseman's work on the revamped Royal Golf Club.
Golf and housing have been bedfellows for the best part of a century. It has not always been the happiest of relationships, for golf at least. Holes with homes on each side, out of bounds gardens waiting to snaffle up the slightest mistake, are rarely the best places to enjoy a relaxing game of golf.
Constant road crossings between a green and the next tee hinder the natural flow of the course, and make for a longer, less enjoyable walk. Because it is, generally, the housing that pays the developer's bills, the golf course is too often the unloved younger brother, relegated to the worst land.
Enlightened developers, though, are around the world realising the flaws in this model. Double loaded fairways, it seems to me at least, are falling out of fashion faster than last year's catwalk collections. Housing clusters, which allow for greater density of homes in places, which foster a sense of community among residents, and which free up space for golf holes to exist side by side, are increasingly the order of the day. And as a consequence, the quality of golf that can be found on mixed developments is, perhaps, higher than ever before.
Riffa Views, Bahrain's first integrated golf and housing development is a good example of this trend. At Riffa, where architect Robin Hiseman of European Golf Design is working alongside signature designer Colin Montgomerie and British/Bahraini joint venture golf course contractor Braemar Nass, the course has been given room to breathe – and the results are worth seeing.
What is especially interesting about Riffa is that the course is a clear reflection of the current trend for sportier golf. In the past, residential golf mostly meant vanilla golf. Homeowners, developers and designers rationalised, did not want blind tee shots, deep bunkers or humpy-bumpy greens. But just as standalone golf projects have started to re-embrace the look and feel of classical courses – think of Kingsbarns and the Castle Course in the UK, or Bandon Dunes and Sand Hills in the US – so residential golf developers seem to be coming to similar views on sportiness and naturalism.
The scale of Riffa is breathtaking, even in the context of the golfing gold rush currently underway in the Middle East. Over a thousand homes in three estates (only two of which border the course) are being constructed at the same time as the golf. Close to 300 hectares of barren Bahraini desert are now a vast building site, with golf being constructed alongside villas and townhouses, schools and mosques, a shopping mall, country club and the like.
More usually, developers build the golf course first, then infill the site with homes later: it may take five years after the opening of the course before the property is fully built out. At Riffa, it's desert to demesne in only two years: a reflection, I guess, of the dynamic Bahraini economy. Almost 90 per cent of the homes are already sold.
Architect Hiseman calls himself a 'preservationist,' preferring to leave natural features in place wherever possible. The not-yet-finished course shows this desire quite clearly, with the outstanding fifth hole being perhaps the best example. A 430 yard par four with two alternative fairways, the hole is bisected by a wadi, or dry river bed. The golfer can choose to cross the wadi with drive or approach; the carry to the other fairway is around 230 yards from the back tee.
So far so normal. Split fairway holes are attractive and memorable, but getting them right is a massive challenge for golf architects. Too often, there is no real decision to be taken – one route is so obviously the better choice that the alternative is hardly ever used. Here, I think it may be different. The right hand fairway clearly offers the easiest route into most pin positions, but the sloping green and a ridge short of it mean the decision is not so obvious (it's a testing tee shot too). From the other fairway, the ridge also affects the shot: to certain flags a tentative drive will leave a blind approach. Fearing the carry from the left fairway might be too tough for some golfers, Hiseman has opted to put short grass down part of the wadi. This central route might well look appealing from the tee – certainly the pitch to the green will be easiest from down there – but a rough natural cliff edge on the left side, and a stream down the right will make it inadvisable. This is a great hole.
Before there was Riffa Views, there was Riffa Golf Club, which, opened only in 1999, was Bahrain's first grass golf course. The old course occupied around 65 hectares of the site, which was expanded more than fourfold to create the new development. No holes from the old Riffa course have been retained, although some similarities remain (as does the clubhouse site). The first hole occupies roughly the same area as the original, but Hiseman has moved the green to a tremendous natural site at the bottom of a cliff. It's undeniably a great spot for a putting green, but the surroundings have precluded much reshaping of the land, and I suspect the green will receive mixed reactions. Extremely long at around 60 yards, it falls dramatically away from the line of play. Personally, I like it very much, but I can imagine that a golfer whose approach shot has caught the downslope and bounded to the back of the green might have a different view! There are, in my opinion, too few fallaway greens built nowadays – the desire to have receptive putting surfaces is, wrongly, dominant. Maybe the green is a little tough for an opening hole, but for good or ill, it is what the land gave. Inshallah, as they say in these parts.
Building golf in the desert heat of the Middle East is a challenge at the best of times. But with the scale of construction going on at Riffa it is far, far tougher. Braemar Nass, a joint venture between Scottish company Braemar Golf Development and local contractor Nass, is doing a fine job in onerous circumstances. Director Jonathan Pendry, who accompanied me on my trip to Riffa, says that the joint venture is actively looking for new opportunities, both in the Middle East and elsewhere. I imagine he hopes their next job will be a little more straightforward! Getting hold of staff with the specialist skills needed to build high quality courses is a constant struggle for contractors in emerging golf markets. Here, Braemar Nass has hired an experienced British project manager, Martin Champion, who has lived in the Middle East for many years and been involved with several projects. He is driving his large but much less experienced team hard to meet the deadline of November, when the developer has planned a grand opening tournament involving high profile professionals – naturally including signature designer Monty!
This lack of golf experience among the local members of the crew reveals itself in subtle ways. Hiseman is keen to have random edges to the bunkers and waste areas around the course – a style that calls for great skill in construction if it is to appear natural-looking. Indeed, there are some bunkers – notably on the nine hole short course, which is itself an excellent piece of work) – that look terrific. But it transpires that they were edged by Champion himself to show his crew what to do. Getting the rest right will be a challenge for the whole team – all the more so as the dwarf paspalum grass will not grow long enough to allow the shaggy surrounds that often accompany such bunkers and softens the edge.
Another excellent hole is the sixth, a nice par four with an obstacle in the middle of the fairway. Again there is a natural cliff (it's a low cliff, but stick with me) separating the drive landing zone into two. The left half is higher, although a longer shot will be required to get up to the plateau and to have a good view of the green. The drive up the right is simpler, but to most pin positions will leave a more difficult second, given the complex undulations in the green.
Complicated contours are a feature of many of Hiseman's greens at Riffa. There are ledges, ridges and humps aplenty, appropriately reaching an apogee at the home hole, a long par four with water all up the right side. Here, a wide but not very deep green is tilted quite severely towards the player, and includes several 'greens within a green.' A small ledge at the back right is one obvious Sunday pin, but the best of all is in the middle. In this area, the designer has extended the mounds behind the green out into the putting surface, creating a rectangular plateau, defended on three sides by falloffs. To get a ball close to this pin, the player will have several options: a very precise aerial attack, landing on the ledge and stopping quickly, or a running shot that releases up the slope. But the shot that will leave the biggest smile of all is the one that runs up the mound behind the flag and trickles – oh-so-slowly – back down to the holeside. That's the kind of memory to take away from Riffa.
This article first appeared in issue 14 of Golf Course Architecture, published in October 2008.