Dino De Abreu of novo Landscape and Golf Course Architecture International talks to GCA about Whistling Thorn, an 18-hole par-three course he designed at Serengeti Estates near Johannesburg in South Africa.
The club opened in 2009 with 27 holes by Nicklaus Design. In 2018, owner David Nagle approached local golf course architect De Abreu with the idea of transforming nine of those holes into eighteen par threes, drawing on the sport of cricket for inspiration.
Cricket matches traditionally take up a full day, or for the elite format – test cricket – five days. In the early 2000s, the English Cricket Board introduced Twenty20 (or T20) cricket, a shortened form that can be completed in less than three hours. It exploded in popularity and is now played around the globe.
The concept of #P3Golf emerged – eighteen par threes that will require golfers to use every club in the bag. Whistling Thorn’s holes range from 97 to 305 yards. There are a variety of water hazards and elevated tees provide good visibility of large greens with scope for a range of pin positions. Crucially, the course is playable for all.
In February this year, the club hosted the Canon Serengeti Par 3 Challenge on the Sunshine Ladies Tour, fulfilling one of Nagle’s ambitions for the club’s new par-three course. The next ambition is to drive adoption of the #P3Golf format.
What was the brief given to you by Nagle and how have you satisfied it?
The brief was to create a memorable experience that was novel and would tick the boxes of every calibre of golfer who played it. The Serengeti facility already offers a Nicklaus 18-hole course, but its existing nine-hole Nicklaus-designed course was to be transformed. Speed, memorability and diversity was my design approach.
Along with the championship par-three course, we also designed and constructed a nine-hole short course (30-60-yard holes) and a short game practice facility, which now completes the entire offering of the property.
Environmental stewardship also played a large role in the creation of the Whistling Thorn course. The goal was to reduce the manicured turfgrass area by 60 per cent, which was successfully achieved. Over 1,200 trees were also planted.
Could you tell me a bit about the layout?
The challenge was to create eighteen unique opportunities that could both suit the novice player, as well as the professional. This project required a substantial earthworks component in order to define the individual golf holes as well as deliver on aesthetic appeal to existing homeowners. Aesthetically, all holes are screened from the next, truly creating an individual visual whenever a player tees it up.
Greens average at 500 square metres and feature soft slopes with plenty of pinnable areas. Putting surface speed also plays a large role in setup – there are substantial bailout areas, strategically planned, which increase target areas. This means that the player always has a chance.
There are crisp, organically shaped bunkers – lined with Better Billy Bunker – that are strategically positioned to obscure tournament pins as well as allowing for run on entrances to greens.
By ‘interrupting’ the manicured turfgrass continuity of the old course, with the newly designed targeted playing areas, native tall grass corridors were introduced. This facilitated habitat creation/circulation and the reintroduction of fauna into the area, as well as the reduction of irrigation and fertigation of over 60 per cent of the original. With South Africa being a water scarce country, this is a great achievement and welcomed by the environmental authorities.
What design features can golfers expect?
Nine holes interact with water and every green is different. Every green surface is visible from elevated tees and there are no blind approaches.
One hole that stands out to me is the eleventh, called ‘The Beach’. A picturesque green, complemented by a ‘beach’ bunker, defines the intrinsic beauty of this hole.
The eighteenth, ‘Wee Laddie’, is an island closer with all the ingredients that make a great finishing hole. A well-guarded green, with water behind and bunkers across the front, requiring a perfect shot for par. Spectator value guaranteed, followed by a wee dram at the bar to celebrate!
How is the course’s short format similar to T20 cricket?
The course is laid out with spectator value in mind, as seen at the large crowds at a T20 match. Like the Waste Management Phoenix Open, the opportunity exists to set up large stadium-style seating with views of multiple holes, something very difficult to achieve on a traditional course. The first two holes and the closing two are a great example of this, with all tees and greens visible from one vantage point. Serengeti has also mixed it up with the competition formats on the par-three course – a change away from the traditional and mundane competitions.
Any final thoughts on the project?
It was a challenge to create a new unique facility guided by existing course corridors and services, but we have successfully completed the rebuild in a very environmentally sensitive area and safely integrated the new course with the existing residences. Property value of adjacent homes has increased due to aesthetic improvement on the course.
Feedback from patrons has been exceptional. Both the low-handicap player and novice golfer thoroughly enjoy the facility. A major positive is that the patron feels like they have played a full round of golf, but in half the time.
There have also been improvements in revenue for the golf operations and there has been an increase in interest regarding property development in the area.
Read more about the course and the inspiration provided by T20 cricket in the April 2020 issue of Golf Course Architecture. For a printed subscription or free digital edition, please visit our subscriptions page.