As we at GCA have always agreed, the most crucial test of a golf course is its playability for golfers of all standards. From the Golden Age onwards, ‘challenging for the best but fun for the hack’ has been the biggest praise any golf course – or its architect – can receive.
But to build a course that achieves this goal is harder now than it has ever been. On the one hand, take today’s leading professional golfers: many of them can routinely carry their drives 300 yards, their problem is not stopping the ball when it lands but trying to control the spin so it doesn’t suck back off the green, and their distance control is precise to the yard. On the other, think about the new Longleaf Tee System being promoted by the American Society of Golf Course Architects, or the work of forward tee gurus Arthur Little and Jann Leeming, and what this is revealing about the ideal length of course for short-hitting women and seniors. The gulf between these two is so vast, it is close to impossible to cater perfectly for both on the same course.
When presented with this issue, GCA’s position is generally pretty clear. Professionals represent a tiny proportion of the total number of golfers, they are almost certainly not coming to your course and if they do, they play for free. As such, it is obvious good sense that the needs of the day-to-day golfer must take precedence. But on too many golf developments, they have not. The marketing power of the phrase ‘championship course’ remains strong, even if there are many hundreds of such courses that have never hosted a championship more prestigious than a club event.
However, when a golf course is being developed by a company like Tavistock Group (part of whose raison d’etre hangs on the appeal of professional golf so you know the Tour will almost certainly be coming to town), when Tiger Woods and Ernie Els are among the investors, and when any number of other leading pros, including Adam Scott, Justin Rose and Ian Poulter, are residents of the property, the situation is rather different.
And it’s that situation that architect Greg Letsche – and his boss, Ernie Els – faced when asked to design a golf course at the ultra-luxury Albany development on the Bahamas island of New Providence. Unlike many high-end Caribbean retreats, which require a ride in a small plane or on a boat to access them from the main airport, Albany is located only ten minutes from Nassau’s international airport, which has direct service from all over North America and also from London – it’s a primo spot.
So Els and Letsche knew they had to do something quite difficult at Albany. They had to make a course that would be suitable for the best golfers on the PGA Tour – as the end-of-season World Challenge was slated to come to the course, which it did from 2015 onwards – but also fun for the development’s well-heeled home owners and resort guests. Oh, and just to add to the fun – quite a few people, such as the aforementioned Woods, Rose and Scott – would fall into both categories.
Just to make matters more challenging still, the Albany site was basically flat and largely composed of rock. The Els team, after careful consideration, opted to solve their problems by adopting the now-popular ‘faux links’ design model. Rock was extracted from the site to build lakes, pulverised and then used to shape ‘dunes’ that separate the holes, which were then capped with sand dredged from the ocean to create a deep-water channel into Albany’s hyper-impressive marina – which provides a home to some of the largest and most luxurious privately-owned yachts in the world.
The standard of this work is outstanding. The rocky ‘dunes’ are both beautiful and convincing, with a pleasing randomness that accurately apes nature; kudos to Greg Letsche and his shaping team, especially given the unappealing nature of the material they had to work with.
Albany is a windy place at the best of times; the golf course is at no point more than a mile or two from the open Atlantic. More than that, it lies in the path of some of the most devastating storms on the planet, most recently Hurricane Matthew, which hit the island last October. Naturally, the likelihood of such storms was foreseen during construction, but there is only a certain amount that mitigation and preplanning can do in the face of nature at its most brutal. A few months on, the cleanup has been so total that only one sign of the hurricane still remains visible: a large proportion of the capping sand on the rocky faux dunes has blown away.
This isn’t a disaster by any means – in fact, the bare ‘dunes’ look great, something Letsche was at pains to emphasise to me, and with which I agree. But it’s not the open, sandy look that was originally sought. They could, I suppose, acquire another huge pile of sand, and spread it on the dunes, but even in a big-budget place like this it is hard to see the point, given the likelihood of it blowing away again at some point. Better to accept the hand you are dealt.
The other aspect of the dunes is that they are used basically for separation and for spectator access. The in-play areas of the course have good contours, but are relatively flat compared to the landforms that run alongside them. Clearly the golf holes themselves are built of different materials from the rocky ‘dunes’, but I’d have liked to see a little more connection between the two. However, the very radical difference in appearance between dunes and playing areas actually makes that lack of connection easier to accept.
In my eyes, the best golfing features of Albany are the par threes, a very strong set. Ernie Els agrees: “To my mind, the most memorable holes at Albany are the ones that are most links-like, where the greens are cut, almost pushed back, into the surrounding dunes. Hole number two stands out. It’s a par three cut into a dune and is quite reminiscent of the thirteenth at Muirfield, one of my favourite courses.” The seventeenth too is a fine hole, with a lake wrapped around the left side, and feeding slopes at the front of the green that can turn a decent shot into a wet one pretty quickly. The short par four fourteenth, at less than 300 yards from the championship tees (on a course that measures over 7,300 yards), is also one that many will remember; the split fairway tempts golfers to try to drive the green, but anyone who takes on the shot and misses will find a very tricky little second shot indeed.
Albany’s practice facilities are outstanding, and a number of its professional golfer residents use them to tune up for Major championships in peace. They clearly also help World Challenge competitors get their game ultra-sharp too. By any standards other than those of the top Tour guys, Albany is a tough, tough golf course. But the winning scores in the two events played there (and played, remember, by a field of only 18 golfers)? Hideki Matsuyama’s score of 270, 18 under par in 2016, is impressive enough. But Bubba Watson’s 263, 25 below par figures, from 2015, simply defies belief.
This article first appeared in issue 48 of Golf Course Architecture