The opening of the Valley Course at The Els Club Desaru Coast last week marked the first design collaboration between Ernie Els Design and Vijay Singh. GCA spoke to ‘The Big Fijian’ to discuss his recent work and what golfers can expect from the course in south-east Malaysia
What were your first impressions of the site prior to the construction of the Valley Course?
The impact was immediate. Even though it was densely covered in vegetation, the elevation changes gave us lots of routing opportunities, which, as a designer, gives you the challenge and prospect of creating something unique.
Given the scale of the wider Desaru Coast destination development, I felt we could create something iconic. We always strive to deliver a product that impresses and surpasses expectations. Combining with Ernie and his team allowed us to blend our visions to really get the most out of the property.
What goals did you have in mind while creating the Valley Course?
We wanted to develop a course that complemented the Ocean Course, while providing a distinct experience for visitors. The land really lent itself to layering bunkers at different elevation points, placing a premium on strategy and positioning. On a personal level, I have always enjoyed golf courses that encourage me to try and play a range of shots. I try to design courses that have a visual impact, but allow golfers to consider the various ways that they can tackle the holes. At the Valley Course, we wanted to create some impact around the aesthetics of the course, but create something with real character and personality.
What can golfers expect when they play the Valley Course?
This course will reward golfers for good play but penalise wayward shots. I also feel that it provides a real element of escapism for golfers. You find yourself on this tranquil corner of south-east Malaysia, overlooking the ocean and to Singapore in the distance. The atmosphere and location really set the tone and we think the golf course only adds to the experience of the Desaru Coast.
You are always curious as a designer as to how golfers will react – part of the excitement really. I am looking forward to experiencing the final product myself and to hearing first-hand feedback from visitors.
Were you and Ernie Els in a similar mind about what the course would look like?
The benefit of a collaboration of this nature is in the depth of opinion it generates and the vision to bring creative ideas to life.
Ernie has a great eye for design and his leadership team are some of the most knowledgeable guys in the business. We shared some ideas and began mapping out the process. I really enjoyed spending time on the ground with the Ernie Els Design team and gave me a chance to cover off the smallest details and leave satisfied the end product would do the vision justice.
How did you go about converting from thinking like a player, to thinking like a designer?
I would say the range of golf courses I have played around the world over my career has shaped my opinion on what makes a great golf course design. I have played some of the toughest-conditioned courses, that leave you feeling pretty raw about the experience, but at the same time relished the challenge a more difficult course poses.
You have to strike the balance as a designer and find your own sweet-spot. There is much debate about who the great designers are, but it is so subjective. I try and approach the design as I saw the game; needing all the shots and rewarding well-placed and executed shots. When you get your hands on a great piece of land, like Desaru Coast, you can do this.
How has your experience been in Malaysia?
Malaysia has been great. The ownership group have been exceptional; professional in their approach and steadfast in their ambition to deliver a world-class destination in Desaru and wider economic impact for the nation’s tourism economy. The region of Johor Bahru has also shown some real class in how it is innovating and planning for the future.
The people I have met along the way will live long in my memory and I hope the Valley Course will play its part in creating a legacy for Johor Bahru and elevate Malaysia’s standing as one of the very best golf destinations in the world. The universal language of the great game of golf never ceases to amaze me.