Building terrific golf courses on unpromising sites is one test of an architect’s ability. But the other side of the coin is important too: what can you do when presented with land that is only too obvious in its potential?
Golf architect Gary Roger Baird is currently tackling this happy problem. At Haenam Pines, near the town of Mokpo in the far south-west of South Korea, Baird is building 27 holes of golf on a site that, he says, reminds him forcefully of the legendary California course Pebble Beach. Baird is no stranger to building in Korea, or the rest of Asia for that matter. A golf course architect for over 35 years, initially working for Robert Trent Jones, he set up his own company, Global Golf Design, in the late 1970s. He has been working in Korea for over 15 years. “Any time you work far from home, it’s challenging,” he says. “But I’m used to the country and my associate Jae Lee, who has run our Sacramento office since 1990, is of Korean origin, so when we are called for interviews for projects, we don’t have the communications problems others might have.”
“Golf in Korea is exploding, helped by the number of kids who come over to the US to go to college,” says Baird. “But the majority of projects up to now have been private, and often located well away from major centres of population because of land protection regulations, so it has been difficult for many of the people who are interested in golf to find somewhere to play. Now, the creation of public golf is taking off. The government has issued an edict saying that around 210 public golf courses should be built by 2008, and prefer that any new private 18 hole project should provide nine holes of public golf as part of the plan.”
Baird, along with his colleague Jae Lee, made several visits to the Haenam site in the process of winning the assignment – less arduous than might otherwise have been the case, given that Global currently has ten projects in process in Korea, but still a clear demonstration of his commitment to doing the best job possible.
The 27 hole complex at Haenam Pines will, in line with this regulation, include nine holes that are open to the public, as well as the main 18 hole private club. But it is the site that has excited Baird. “The site is so special that both the client and I know we have the opportunity of a lifetime, and we’re determined to make a worldwide impact,” he says. “Practically every hole will have views over the ocean – in fact, your senses are so overwhelmed by the view, it’s going to be a challenge to concentrate on the golf.” Because the site is right at the tip of a peninsula, the ocean – and its ever-changing winds – will affect both sides of the golf course.
Baird says that his routing – which has gone through many different iterations as he attempts to use the features of the site to best effect – will see the final seven holes of the course running directly along the cliff tops, which are 40m above the water. Holes 1-10, for the most part, occupy slightly higher ground, providing panoramic ocean views even on those holes that are not directly along the cliff tops. “There’s been a few occasions where we’ve identified wonderful green sites, but the associated tee locations weren’t ideal,” he says. “Every time I’ve walked the site I’ve seen something new, and said to myself, well, if you keep seeing new things you’d better keep walking.”
“The topography and the soils are excellent for golf,” he says. “There’s very little need to cut and fill, and the soils are for the most part favourable – the first 11 holes will be built on mostly sandy loam. Out at the tip of the peninsula there are a number of native pine trees, and the area is quite rocky, as you’d expect of a cliff top location. We’ll be using a high proportion of native grasses.”
Baird says his key design influences come from studying the works of classic architects such as Donald Ross and Alister MacKenzie. “I try to help the golfer become a better player by encouraging him to think his way around the course, and by requiring him to play shots of different lengths and in different conditions,” he says. “I really admire MacKenzie’s use of camouflage, and I want my courses to feel as natural as I can make them. The secret of a great golf course is looking as if it’s been there forever.”
At Haenam, Baird’s plan is for the 7,300 yard course to be built in a relatively noninterventionist manner, making the best use of the natural features of the site, rather than requiring vast earthworks. “Nature is the architect here,” he says. “We are trying to place our hand on the site very, very gently. The land tells you the kind of design it needs.” Construction is scheduled to begin in early 2006, and the course is expected to open in 2007. And the location for Baird’s next course? “I would hope from near where our family originated four generations ago… England, Scotland, and Ireland. It’s a must for me,” he says.
This article first appeared in issue 2 of Golf Course Architecture, published in October 2005.