Qatar International: unlimited ambition?

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    The fifteenth hole on the new Qatar International course, designed by José María Olazábal’s firm

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    The fifteenth green illustrates the putting challenge presented by the course

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    The course is part of a huge overarching development known as ‘Education City’

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    Olazábal flanked by (left to right) golf course architect Toni Ortner, site representative John Bowden and the managing director of his design firm, Matthias Nemes

Adam Lawrence
By Adam Lawrence

Golf development in the Middle East has, from small beginnings thirty years or so, exploded on a scale rarely seen anywhere else in the world. No-one who has seen the contrasting images of the Majlis course and its surroundings in Dubai back in the 1980s, when it was an island of green in the middle of bare desert, and now, an island of green in the middle of a sea of skyscrapers, could fail to be impressed by what has happened in this region.

Elsewhere in the region too, golf projects have become major undertakings, perhaps inevitable in an environment seemingly so naturally hostile to the game. Take the magnificent Yas Links in Abu Dhabi, where, because the course was built using material dredged out of the sea, architect Kyle Phillips was able to design the sea front so as to suit the holes he planned for it. But none, surely, have been quite so huge as the new Qatar International Golf Club (QIGC), the second course in the rapidly-developing country that will make its grand entrance onto the global sporting stage by hosting the football World Cup in 2022.

In that context, it is hardly surprising that the golf course is ambitious, even less so when you learn that the developer behind the project is Qatar Foundation, which, though in principle a private foundation, is so well-backed by the ruling family of the country that it might almost be a government agency. Qatar Foundation’s stated goal is “to support Qatar on its journey from a carbon economy to a knowledge economy by unlocking human potential.” As such it sees golf as an important part of the journey, and it is significant that the golf course is part of a huge overarching development known as ‘Education City’.

Qatar Foundation hired the design firm of José María Olazábal to create the golf course. Olazábal’s practice, though fairly young, has been involved with a number of ambitious projects, such as the Velaa Private Island development we covered in the January issue of GCA, and is itself ambitious to win more high profile work. Olazábal himself has made seven visits to the Qatar site, three during planning and four during construction, and, working closely with his lead golf architect Toni Ortner, is keen to put his personal stamp on the project.

So, what makes QIGC among the most ambitious projects GCA has seen? The most obvious is the determination of the developer and design firm to get everything right, no matter what the cost. Want an example of that? How about this: the entire golf course site, wall to wall, is being constructed to USGA green specifications, with the aim of creating a perched water table across every square metre of the property.

I will admit that, when I first heard this, and knowing the approximate cost of building USGA greens, I thought it was insane. Toni Ortner, however, explained the rationale to me: building in this fashion will, in perpetuity, result in a saving of around 25 per cent on the course’s water requirements. Given the importance of water efficiency in this desert environment, Qatar Foundation preferred to spend the (admittedly huge) sum needed to build in this way upfront to lock in the long-term savings.

This is an interesting take on sustainability, and frankly one that could only be taken on by an organisation with the financial strength of Qatar Foundation. But who is to say that – if capital is not in short supply, but water is – it is not an extremely smart decision? Either way, it demonstrates amply the ‘no stone left unturned’ methodology that is going into the project.

Sustainability, of course, takes many forms. QIGC has, since conception, been part of the Golf Environment Organization’s OnCourse Developments programme, one of the first courses to be built under the auspices of this scheme. Solar panels, energy efficient lighting and a zoned floodlighting system will also contribute to reduced energy consumption. Wastage on-site is sorted to ensure the maximum amount of material can be recycled.

In terms of nature enhancement, the development will use predominantly native Qatari plant species whilst a series of naturalised lakes and the restoration of an old wadi will provide resources for migratory birds to colonise in the region. Bird boxes are already installed in the most complete areas of the development to encourage habitation.

The development has already started showing its contribution to the local community through the Pearl Coaching Programme, which has introduced golf to 10,000 Qatari schoolchildren in ten associated schools, and accredited 79 schoolteachers. Of this programme, Matthias Nemes, managing director of Olazábal Design, says: “Ultimately, sustainability is about growing golf and winning the next generation. Teaching therefore must be a priority and Education City is the perfect environment for it. Our design highlights this philosophy - you will find unusually generous practice facilities located right in the heart of the development as well as other features such as a female-centric practice area and up to two designated kids´ tees per hole.

So what of the golf course itself? Well, firstly, we should say ‘courses’ – the main eighteen hole course is accompanied by a full-length six hole loop, and a nine-hole par three course that wraps around the practice range at the centre of the site. The par three course will be floodlit, again not an obvious step with sustainability in mind; but the use of solar panels and super-efficient lights will ameliorate any issues here. Several holes on the front nine occupy the old wadi, and the wall that surrounded it is being restored as part of the development.

On a development of this kind, one might expect the golf design itself to play it safe. But José María Olazábal and his team have taken a good few risks that stand out. The greens, though not wildly contoured, are far from flat, and, assuming that they can be expected to run at high speeds on a daily basis, will provide plenty of putting challenge. The most interesting holes are perhaps the fifth, a highly strategic par four within the wadi wall, where players will have to pick a line over a lake from the tee to leave their preferred approach shot, and the very impressive par five thirteenth, which features a split fairway. This hole will provide many different challenges to players, depending on the route they choose; I thought it a very strong example of its kind.

Platinum TE paspalum from Atlas Turf is the choice of grass at QIGC, for its salt-tolerant characteristics, which fits neatly with the project’s sustainability goals. This is another example of the developers and their advisers going the extra mile; QIGC is a quite remarkable place which overturns many received wisdoms; I look forward to returning to play the golf course.

This article first appeared in issue 48 of Golf Course Architecture