No-one could accuse the Constantakopoulos family, developers of Costa Navarino in Greece, of a lack of ambition.
Even after the first phase of the Navarino project added two eighteens, Greece still had only seven full-sized golf courses (and one nine-holer). Add to that the brutal economic depression that hit the country after the turmoil of 2008, forcing successive governments to go to the IMF in search of bailout funds and resulting in GDP shrinking by a third, and the sheer scale of the Navarino blueprint is quite awesome.
Sure, progress with the development has been slower than the developers reckoned would be the case back in 2010, but that’s hardly a criticism. Family patriarch Captain Vassilis Constantakopoulos, who died in 2011, had been acquiring land in his home region of Messenia for twenty years and more, ultimately getting hold of more than 1,000 hectares in four separate parcels – involving over 1,000 individual transactions.
One of those parcels, called Navarino Dunes, is basically developed, except for a real estate component which is now being built alongside the Romanos and Westin hotels and the Dunes course, designed by Ross McMurray of European Golf Design (and signed by Bernhard Langer). The second, Navarino Bay, has had golf, designed by the firm of Robert Trent Jones II, for some years, but has only now got its spectacular clubhouse. A hotel building is currently under way, both on the Bay site itself and next door at Navarino Waterfront, where a marina and town centre are under construction. The fourth parcel, tentatively named Navarino Blue, and several miles to the south, near the regional capital of Kalamata, is still one for the future. But the third, and largest piece of land, Navarino Hills, is what we are primarily concerned with here.
The Hills site lies above the Navarino Bay development, with stunning views of the Bay course and the Bay of Navarino itself. The design firm of double Masters champion José María Olazábal is in charge of the project, which involves two courses, currently with working titles of West and East, being built simultaneously, though construction of the West course is further advanced than the East. A third large reservoir, this one capable of holding 500,000 cubic metres of water, is being built as part of the project, and eventually the Hills site will also include villas and a small ‘eco-retreat’ hotel.
Construction has been on the go for more than a year, but there is still no sign of any grass, and indeed quite a few of the holes are still shaped in the rocky subsoil, waiting for the loamy imported topsoil that will serve as a growing medium. This confirms what a quick look at the site makes obvious; this has been, is, and will continue to be a difficult build. Although the site is not as mountainous as it might seem from the very steep access road – it is more like an upland plateau with a steep escarpment at one side – it is fundamentally mostly rock. On top of this, for environmental reasons, no blasting has been permitted, so once the hole corridors are cleared of the indigenous vegetation (which is mostly olive trees, rosemary and other aromatic plants, what would be known in the south of France as ‘garrigue’) they are followed by rock hammers. This is necessarily a slow process. Construction work is in the hands of Greek contractor AP Maragakis, the same firm that built the Dunes and Bay courses.
It is a little early to start opining on how the courses will play. The West, which will be the ‘championship’ course, stretching to 7,024 yards from the black tees, occupies the prime real estate, the stretch of escarpment on the western side of the site. Two spectacular par threes, the twelfth and sixteenth, will hang off the edge of these cliffs. The East course is designed to be a little more rough and natural, and will work its way into the interior of the site, with about 75 metres of elevation change in total. Grassing is expected to start on the West later this year, with a potential soft opening in late 2021, and the East to follow later. Matthias Nemes, managing director of Olazabal Design, told me that he hopes golfers will choose to walk the West, though I noted some fairly substantial transitions between holes, while the hillier East is expected to be a cart course. Frankly, I suspect the same will end up being true of the West; both the Dunes and Bay are emphatically cart courses and I doubt golfers will choose to walk this new course. But you never know.
Olazabal Design lead architect Toni Ortner told GCA: “Our brief was to create two eighteen-hole golf courses and state-of-the-art practice facilities that blend seamlessly with the wonderful surrounding macchia/garrigue Messinian nature. As with all our designs, our principal inspiration came from the landscape the golf course is set within. From the very beginning it was very clear that we were dealing with a very rocky site with wonderful native vegetation, stunning views to the Navarino Bay and the surrounding rolling hills. We went the extra mile in finding a routing that requires a minimum disturbance approach as regards to earthworks and forest clearing, and strove to create golf holes that are rich in variety and appear natural, incorporating local vegetation and topography with minimal landscape shaping.
“We drew inspiration from the already existing Dunes and Bay courses as well as from tree-lined heathland courses such as Sunningdale Old and Liphook. Instead of the heather you find on the well-draining sandy turfs of typical heathland courses we are facing heavy clay on top of rock on the Hills site. However, we are using the swathes of local grasses and scrubs that grow on-site to blend naturally with the manicured fairways and greens. Such landscape will frame the away-side on many bunkers instead of turf. Furthermore, existing rock walls and rock outcrops have been incorporated in the design. Ultimately, the abundant beautiful olive trees that Messenia is known for, many of them are hundreds of years old, are prominent features not only in the surrounding landscape but have also been incorporated as strategic elements on various golf holes.
“Virtually every hole is played in splendid and beautiful solitude, and in harmony with nature. There will be subtlety, a part of drama and a richness of the one fundamental ingredient: pleasurable excitement.”
As with the existing Dunes and Bay courses, the Hills will be grassed with bermuda everywhere except the greens, which will be bent. I vaguely wondered whether the greater elevation might make the site a little cold for warm season grass, but – especially in a location like this, where there is little or no local greenkeeping expertise – it makes sense to stick with what the operators know.
It is impossible to go to Navarino and not be blown away by the sheer ambition on display. As a destination, it has some formidable obstacles to overcome, principally about access; it is fully three hours’ drive from Athens airport via a newly constructed motorway. When I first visited in 2010, Kalamata airport was little more than a landing strip for private aviation; now it is a successful regional airport with summer service from many different parts of Europe. Much of this growth must surely be down to Navarino: the Constantakopoulos family is a significant shareholder in Aegean Airlines, and the restaurant in the new Bay clubhouse has been named Ted’s Lounge after Aegean founder Theodore Vassilakis. But it isn’t just Aegean that is serving Kalamata; airlines from across Europe have added the destination to their rosters, though more flights are assuredly still needed. Impressively, it isn’t just the low-cost carriers who are flying there; customers travelling to an expensive resort such as Navarino are unlikely to fly Ryanair.
This article first appeared in the April 2020 issue of Golf Course Architecture. For a printed subscription or free digital edition, please visit our subscriptions page.