Interview: Keith Williams

Sean Dudley
By Sean Dudley

For all its beauty, the edge of Loch Lomond was hardly the most promising site for a great golf course, but one was built. And now another may follow. Adam Lawrence spoke to Loch Lomond GC chief executive Keith Williams about the club's development.

The history of golf course design and development is stuffed full of ideas that dance along a narrow dividing line between visionary and crazy. From Pine Valley to Bandon Dunes, many of the great golf developments have come about despite apparently suffering from insuperable problems, whether of site, location or climate. Loch Lomond Golf Club (LLGC) sits happily in that company.

No-one who has been to the club, watched the Scottish Open on television or even driven past on the A82 heading for the Highlands could question the beauty of the setting. But it is one of the wettest parts of Scotland, a country where the natives appear to have as many words for rain as the Inuit do for snow. And yet this is increasingly popular terrain for golf, with the original Loch Lomond course having been highly acclaimed, the new Carrick course being developed by DeVere Hotels currently under construction a few miles further south along the lochside, and plans for a further course at LLGC.

Opened in 1993, designed by Tom Weiskopf and Jay Morrish and home to the Scottish Open, the course has been acclaimed for its architecture and conditioning – but the drainage has always been a bugbear. Now, though, director of agronomy Ken Siems and his team are most of the way through what must be one of the most dramatic drainage projects anywhere in the golfing world. Vast quantities of sand are being used as top dressing, and miles of drainage pipes are being introduced. "Some of the materials that were on site originally – such as fill from the construction of the A82 trunk road – were really not ideal for building a golf course," says chief executive Keith Williams.

"Combine that with the amount of rain we get and it's easy to understand why we have had drainage issues." The drainage project at Loch Lomond is one of the most ambitious anywhere. Given the local climate and the nature of the soil, it could hardly be otherwise. Each year, over 20,000 metres of drains are installed under the course, and Siems says his objective is to have a drain every four metres – and every two metres in problem areas.

"I want the course to drain like a links," says Siems.

"And it will – we now have two and a half inches of sand on each fairway. Our goal is to have five inches, and when we achieve that, the course will be completely dry.We're about four years away from achieving that, but I think we're only a year or so away from being in a position that the weather doesn't have an impact on the playability of the golf course. And that will have an impact on our turf – at the moment, our greens are a mix of bent and poa, tees are bent and rye, fairways are bent, and the rough is rye.We would like to be mostly fescue, and we keep slitting more fescue into our seed mixes, but it's a five year project to transition properly." With around 11,000-12,000 rounds played each year, including the Scottish Open, the traffic at Loch Lomond is very light by comparison to most other high-profile courses, which naturally helps Siems and his team keep the place looking immaculate. On the other hand, they have ferociously high standards. "It's really a tremendous treat to play on a golf course where you hardly ever see a divot mark," says Williams. "On lots of parkland courses, the traffic is heavy, and you are bound to have some scarring. Here that isn't the case." A few years ago the club bought the new links at Dundonald in Ayrshire, which Kyle Phillips had designed. The build, though, had not gone entirely as planned, and the course – then known as Southern Gailes – was lacking in facilities, if not in architecture. "There were no services into the site," says Williams. "No water, no gas, no sewage." The transaction was completed in February of 2003, and, by July, the club had connected the essential services and erected a temporary clubhouse.

Although the Dundonald course was built – unlike Loch Lomond – on extremely desirable golfing land, which drained very well, the course was not ideal for winter golf because of the high water table in the area, which left the site wet out of season. "There was no thought of drainage when it was constructed, which meant winter play wasn't possible," says Williams. "And the architecture has been constrained by the original developer – for example, on holes five and nine, Kyle had been told that he couldn't move any earth." This was quickly changed. "I met Kyle on the site shortly after we acquired the course," says Williams. "He and I discussed some of the holes, and he mentioned a number of changes he'd like to make. There happened to be a shaper on site, so I said 'Get going right away.' Ten days later, the changes were finished.

"What I said to Kyle was 'Listen, this is your golf course.Who are we to tell you what to do?'" says Williams. "He has been so good for us – he was very well aware the golf course wasn't finished when we bought it. He's very open minded – one day, he and I were looking down the seventh fairway, and I said 'Maybe we should look at putting a mound in there.' He thought about it for a while, and said 'Yes, I like that idea' – and the mound was built."Most of Dundonald's bunkering has also been redone, with between 40 and 50 bunkers due to be rerevetted this winter.

Given Loch Lomond's American connections – owner Lyle Anderson is based in the US, as is around a third of the membership – Williams says the purchase and development of Dundonald has necessitated some education of his American colleagues, specifically on the need to use less water on the course, and the consequent undesirability of lush green grass on a links. "But most of our members will play the classic links while they are over here, so it isn't that tough a job," he says. With Ayrshire containing two regular Open venues, and the championship returning to Turnberry in 2009, Williams says the club has hopes of being nominated as a qualifying venue.

Unlike Loch Lomond itself, which is reserved strictly for members and guests, Dundonald allows limited visitor play. "At the moment, because of the distance from the club, the temporary clubhouse and the lack of on-site accommodation, Dundonald doesn't get that much play," says Williams. "And we thought it would be a good idea to allow a certain number of people on to the golf course, to help it become better known.

With a current membership roll of around 650, but with an increase in member numbers expected over the next few years, the club has long been investigating the possibility of constructing an extra 18 holes on the remainder of the Rossdhu estate. Jack Nicklaus has produced a routing, indepth conversations have taken place with the National Park authorities and other relevant bodies such as Scottish Natural Heritage, and an archaeological dig has just been completed. There are other environmental surveys to be completed, but Williams says the hope is that construction will get under way in late 2006 or at the start of 2007. "The land is just as good as that on which the Weiskopf course is built," he says. "So I think there is the potential for the new course to be just as acclaimed."

This article first appeared in issue 3 of Golf Course Architecture, published in January 2006.