Seletar Country Club in wealthy but space-hungry Singapore had to give up a significant portion of its site to the government, but what could have been a disaster became an opportunity to reinvent the club.
The island city-state of Singapore is, according to the 2020 survey by the Economist Intelligence Unit, the most expensive place in the world to live (actually joint first with Hong Kong and Osaka in Japan). Its 6.5 million population lives in an area of only 720 square kilometres, making Singapore the second most densely populated sovereign state (after Monaco) on Earth. And, after Qatar and Luxembourg, it has the world’s third highest GDP per head. Unsurprisingly, therefore, a fact of life in Singapore is heavy-duty competition for the state’s most prized resource – land.
None of Singapore’s sixteen golf facilities (twelve private clubs and four public courses) owns its land. All lease it from the government, which has expressed a desire to reduce the amount of land that is used for golf in the country. No golf facility in Singapore currently has a guarantee that it will continue to exist beyond 2040.
Founded by Royal Air Force officers in 1930, Seletar Country Club’s present-day course was designed by Chris Pitman in 1994 and is located in the north of Singapore alongside the Lower Seletar Reservoir, which supplies most of the city state’s drinking water.
Seletar’s lease was due to expire rather sooner than 2040; specifically, in December 2021. As a condition of granting a lease renewal, the government demanded the club give up a 15-metre-wide easement along the edge of the reservoir, to be used as a public pathway. This resulted in a loss of 2.1 hectares of land, with a direct impact on six holes (and, as it turned out, an indirect one on four more) – not the easiest thing to manage on a site that was around 60 hectares, already quite tight by modern standards. Additionally, the club was told that it needed to become 100 per cent self-sustaining in water – in other words, it needed to expand the on-site lake system to store enough water to get through the dry season without taking anything from either groundwater, or the government’s sources.
Singapore has a typically tropical climate, with abundant rain during the wet season, so self-sufficiency in water is not an impossible goal – but for the course to survive the dry season, which generally runs from March to August, the course obviously needs to be able to detain a large amount of water.
To deal with these issues, the club clearly needed some heavy-duty architectural assistance, so it called on David Dale and Kevin Ramsey of the globetrotting Golfplan practice. Ramsey and Dale have reinvented the course, giving it a new design, new grass, and, crucially, a whole new infrastructure.
The numbers are impressive. Before the rebuild, Seletar could detain just over 60,000 cubic metres of water; now that figure is 132,000. The area of maintained turf has gone down from 54.9 to 36.5 hectares. Turf has been replaced with bahiagrass and other non-irrigated landscape elements. The total area of bunkers is down by 43 per cent, and the course has been sandcapped to improve drainage. “This is the model for clubs moving forward, to keep quality high, be much more environmentally responsible and sustainable, and be more efficient with maintenance costs,” says Dale.
The Seletar property, which has around 20 metres of elevation change, is really rather nice; it rolls in a fashion that is just about ideal for golf; never too steep but equally in no sense flat. Standout holes include the excellent short par-four fifth and the par-five seventh, which has water all the way up the right, and a rather spectacular waterfall feature behind the green. Long hitters can think about trying to get home in two, but the shot will be extremely demanding, as the green is offset to the right side, and thus the direct route involves a massive water carry. Another new hole, the par-five fourth, also features an offset green, although this time to the left side.
The new bunkers, like those on the original course, are relatively small and grass faced. Ramsey describes this as a links-like look, although the traps are significantly less punishing than a true revetted pot. Increasing bunker visibility, though, has been a key goal of the rebuild; most are scalloped out on the approach side, so even with the grass faces, the sand is visible. At the par-three sixth, though, the greenside bunkers are less obvious; not blind exactly, but hardly staring the player in the face.
With the new bunkers, the architects have redefined the strategy of holes. “We have created options on shot selection,” says Ramsey. “We always try to make the golfer think before pulling the trigger. Or in some cases, rethink.”
“The smaller greens, strategic greenside bunkering and position of pins for the day directly impact players’ success, when their tee ball is in the proper landing zone in the fairway, or failure, if they are out of position and cannot attack the hole location of the day,” says Dale. “A tee shot down the middle of a fairway does not typically provide the ideal angle for the approach shot.”
The routing is quite interesting. Broadly speaking, the front nine is a loop around the outside of the property, with the back nine occupying the interior land. I think this makes the front nine a little more memorable, because it gets closer for longer to the reservoir, and the edge of site, so borders of the holes are perhaps a little more obviously appealing than on the interior. This is not to say that the back nine is disappointing; holes such as the beautiful par-three eleventh will live long in players’ memories.
Seletar is grassed, everywhere other than greens, which are Platinum TE paspalum, supplied by Atlas Turf International, with Zeon Zoysia, developed by Texas firm Bladerunner Farms, and marketed in Asia by Sports Turf Solutions. Zeon was used on the 2016 Olympic course in Rio and has since created a lot of buzz among warm season turf aficionados. Ramsey says: “Zeon was the natural choice for this project – not only does it have major maintenance benefits over any other warm season grass, but its playability is excellent. The blades are very strong, so the ball sits up, which is good for normal club play, when most people ‘sweep’ the ball. But you can also mow it down low if you want to encourage players to compress the ball, which is ideal for tournament play.”
David Doguet, who developed the turf, says: “Bermuda and paspalum have been the norm up to now for golf in warmer climates. We have been looking at Zoysia grass since the early 1990s, and have developed several new strains, but Zeon is the best yet. Its main differentiating factor has to do with low maintenance: less water, less fertiliser, less chemicals, less mowing, minimal disease pressure and less thatch. Combine that with shade and salt tolerance, you have a very sustainable plant without the inputs while still providing a quality playing surface. Zeon Zoysia has become the most used Zoysia grass worldwide for all of the reasons reported. It continues to be the standard for the highest quality playing surface with the least amount of inputs.”
The rebuild of Seletar is a resourceful and thoughtful project, which is perhaps more about engineering than it is about pure ‘artistic’ golf design. But then, that is absolutely necessary in an environment like Singapore, where difficult weather conditions combine with high costs and extreme pressure on land to create a very challenging environment both for golf architects and their clients, the clubs.
Given the nature of the project and the environment, the build was inevitably highly complex: much credit for its success, therefore, goes to project manager Owen Hester of Green Dynasty, who brought it in on time and below budget. David Dale says that he believes Seletar has the opportunity to establish itself as a leading facility in the country, in which golf is wildly popular. He and his partner have done the club a great deal.
This article first appeared in the July 2020 issue of Golf Course Architecture. For a printed subscription or free digital edition, please visit our subscriptions page.