Ahead of the Ryder Cup, GCA spoke with Dave Sampson, the European Golf Design architect responsible for the redesign of the Marco Simone course near Rome, Italy, which will host the European and US golf teams.
Sampson completed a redesign of the course in 2020, totally transforming the original 1991 design by Jim Fazio and David Mezzacane, with the Ryder Cup in mind. GCA reported on the work in 2021, after the revised course hosted the Italian Open for the first time.
How are you feeling as the Ryder Cup approaches, knowing the golf world is turning its attention to your design?
I think it would be fair to say there’s a little mix of excitement and a few nerves, but I think that's natural. We’re all quietly confident – we’ve been through three Italian Opens, so we have some good experiences that we have gained from those. We have done what we can and now the golf course is in the very capable hands of Lara Arias and her team.
What aspects of the design do you think will prove pivotal in the matches?
We have been involved in a few captain’s walks and Lara has spent a lot of time with Graeme MacNiven, DP World Tour’s tournament agronomist, and David Garland, director of tour operations for the PGA European Tour, on setup and getting feedback from the captains.
It would be fair to say that there’ll be a premium put on accuracy, especially off the tee. One of the challenges of Marco Simone is the amount of elevation change and the undulating lies. I can’t, off the top of my head, think of another Ryder Cup that’s been played over more elevation. So that, in itself, poses its own challenges and asks different questions, which is a good thing – you don’t want to necessarily have a Ryder Cup course that is similar to others.
The American captain, Zach Johnson, summed it up really well when he said Marco Simone is a golf course that demands the player has every shot in their book. From a design point of view, that’s one of the real positives.
What else about the layout should we look out for?
The back nine for sure – it has the drama. The layout’s been routed in a way where you’ve got all the risk-reward holes on the back nine. That brings all the drama from both a player and spectator perspective. There are a couple of driveable par fours at 11 and 16 and then the risk-reward short par-five twelfth and then the short thirteenth. Mixed in amongst them are holes 10, 14, 15 and 16, and three of those are some of the toughest par fours on the course. There’s a good mix of holes which should definitely get spectators involved.
How much have you been involved in the club since your design opened in 2020? Have there been any late tweaks?
We haven’t had too much involvement – we’ve obviously had the captain’s walks and there have been a couple of tweaks to fairway lines and some minor tweaks to a couple of bunkers, but other than that, that’s it. The main focus and relationship have been between Ryder Cup Europe and Lara and her team.
Did you learn anything unexpected from the Italian Opens?
The greens ran amazingly, but they were quite quick as well. It was a brand-new golf course, and the tournament setup guys were learning the greens and the pin positions. There were a couple of pin positions that were a little bit tasty.
Personally, I think that in the last couple of Italian Opens, the green speeds have been pretty much spot on, especially for the angles into the greens and the slopes on them. So, for everybody – designer, setup guys and Lara – there were some great lessons from those three Italian Opens and good experiences which are going to help this coming week.
One of the positives I have personally taken is that Marco Simone is not an overly long course – it’s 7,200 yards – but it definitely presents a good challenge for these players. The tournaments had winning scores of 12 and 13 under so I think that from a design point of view, the course presents a good challenge.
What are your reflections on the project?
Working on a Ryder Cup course is undoubtedly a career highlight. That is something that I’m extremely proud of and it is a fantastic honour. I am humbled to have been given the responsibility for this course.
It hasn’t been the smoothest project we’ve ever worked on as it is a project unlike any other. Normally you are just working with one client, but here there were so many other bodies that had to be involved – Ryder Cup Europe, the Italian Golf Federation, the golf club and so on. It has been a great example of working as a team. We’ve had to overcome various challenges, such as the gas line and electric line – including moving pylons! The work the Federation did to help get that over the line was incredible. We had archaeology thrown in as well, which led to tweaks to the golf course mid-construction, and then obviously, there was Covid.
It definitely had its challenges but we’re a week away and we’re all really excited for what’s to come!