The renaissance of Aberdovey


The renaissance of Aberdovey
Sean Dudley

John Kemp and Lee Penrose

Though a jewel in the crown of Welsh golf, the famous Aberdovey links has become a little fragmented and tatty around the edges in recent years. Along with one of the world’s finest par three holes in the 149 yard twelfth, which plays to a green elevated some 20m above the adjacent sea, Aberdovey is also recognised internationally as a premier wildlife site. Its renovation was crucial.

Ian Hamilton took over management of the club in 2007. Recognising the potential crisis looming on the horizon Hamilton knew he would need specialist skills and appointed us – architect John Kemp of Islander Golf, and ecologist Lee Penrose of STRI – to oversee the project.

The Aberdovey links, founded in 1892, is a national Site of Special Scientific Interest, Special Area of Conservation and Special Protection Area. The Countryside Council for Wales (CCW) has responsibility for ensuring the site is maintained in its optimum state for its biological and geological interest and the club must work within the constraints laid down by the agency.

During its existence, the club’s membership has had a major impact on the development of the course. A membership redesign of the original (Darwin-famed) links has been amended by three of the biggest names in the industry. However, both Colt and Fowler's recommendations were only executed in piecemeal, and most of Braid's work was seemingly wiped away after a membership revolt. Apparently they found the course in its championship form too difficult and insisted it be changed back.

The remit was to explore the unifying (yet often disjointed) course features and restore them where possible. Though it isn't fair to call this a pure restoration, historical features are being used in the design to restore the links experience. The focus throughout is targeted at restoring elements of the course that have been lost over time such as the prolific bunkering, removing the more penal aspects that have crept into the design.

The most obvious change is in the bunkering. The environmental opportunities behind the course and the drive to create something memorable led the team to explore the possibilities behind using a dramatic variation of the laced-edge, flashed-face style bunkering over the mixture of bunker styles present.

Inspiration was drawn from the natural surroundings on site with appropriate marram and other natural planting utilized providing an instant mature feel to the rustic links dynamic that we sought. The aim was to blur the boundary between course feature and natural habitat, to achieve both golfing and wildlife gains – as the club’s strapline says ‘Don’t Just Play a Course, Play an Environment’.

Bunkers were repositioned purely to reintroduce them back into play. They often fell in awkward positions, seemed out-of-place or just too small and isolated to be of any real playing impact. Therefore the drive has been to cluster bunkers, either visually or physically to increase their strategic role. The focus has been moved from avoiding the bunkers to playing with them – they are simply part of the landscape. The landforms are not being forced to do anything they don't want to. There is a great mixture of large, high-impact bunkers (on the par three ninth) and small scale, low profile bunkers where appropriate. Tees were redesigned to maximise spread and variety, adding some yardage (where safe) and reducing their overall footprint on the wildlife sensitive areas. Similarly work has been carried out to reduce the impact of other golf-related features. Standalone shelters have been removed and screening provided through landform creation or naturalistic planting.

STRI prepared an Environmental Masterplan covering the restoration. This involved drawing together architectural changes, agronomic inputs and ecological improvements for the entire site. Fortunately the club and CCW had almost exactly the same vision for the future of the course in terms of scrub removal, dune grassland improvement and a restoration of the true links habitat.

CCW must grant permission for any earthworks and so the masterplan was the bridging document between the golf and conservation needs of this important site and fundamental in allowing the course renovation to proceed.

The course improvement project is now well underway. Winter 2008/2009 has seen great strides in terms of bunker improvements and tee restoration works being carried out alongside large ecology projects such as bramble removal and recreation of the open, mobile dune style habitat for which the site is so important.

John Kemp is a golf architect based in Orkney, Scotland. Lee Penrose is a senior ecologist with STRI.

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