Victoria Golf and Country Resort near Kandy, Sri Lanka, is in progress with a project to renovate its course infrastructure.
Once complete, the layout will have new turf, a new automatic irrigation system and improved drainage.
Victoria has engaged golf development consultant Sam Sakocius of Qualitas Project Control to oversee the golf course project.
Sakocius was first contacted by Ana Punchihewa, former president of Sri Lanka Cricket. “As a past president of the Sri Lanka Golf Union and a national celebrity, he was asked by the chairman of the island nation’s largest public company if he could do something with the Victoria Golf and Country Resort in the south central mountains, which they recently acquired as part of a larger business deal,” said Sakocius.
The course opened in 1999. Donald Steel reflects on his experiences of the original project: “In the league table of working experiences, Victoria was romantically unique. It was made by its stunning setting but embellished by the fact that its construction owed more to manpower than machine power. I should add that there was some elephant power in a part of the world where supplier yards are dependent on elephants to do the ‘donkey work’. The whole design and construction were like turning the clock back but testament that the formula worked wonderfully well.
“We had a completely free hand in the design although communications with Mark Bostock and Tony Whitham were always constant and fruitful. They were the only people who could answer our questions. Tony’s contribution to organising and overseeing the entire construction period cannot be overstated, and for me, Martin Ebert was a comforting right-hand man.”
Six years after the course opened, it was named as the ‘Best in Asia’ by the publication Asian Golf and was also ranked in the top 100 of ‘Most Beautiful Courses in the World’ by Golf Digest.
But since then, the course has slowly fallen into disrepair as equipment has worn out, the irrigation system has succumbed to the heat and weeds, and there has been a lack of money to properly maintain a golf course in the tropics.
Highlights of the par-73 layout include the sixth, which is played from an elevation of 100 feet. “Every hole is interesting and memorable,” said Sakocius. “The course and surrounds may be the prettiest sight I have ever seen, and I have seen my share.
“As Ana began to realise, the course had ‘good bones’ and the chairman began to get excited at the prospect he just acquired an unpolished diamond. He asked what was the best in terms of an event he could do and one of the ideas put before him was an Asian Tour event.”
The renovation budget for the golf course is $1.2 million – relatively modest considering the amount of work that is to be done.
“The project faced a tremendous engineering problem in drawing water from a reservoir that fluctuates over 60 metres seasonally,” said Sakocius. “Also, there are a few bunkers on the site that were being inundated with water flowing directly into them from greens and surrounds.
“The grass, other than what was on the contaminated greens, was essentially non-existent. Golfers played on weeds mostly, green in the monsoon and brown in the dry season. It was clear we would have to find a way to get some reliable water on the site. We would have to find something that was disease and insect resistant and could survive on minimal fertiliser and water.”
Zoysia grass, provided by Atlas Turf International, was chosen due to it performing well in Southeast Asia and the fact that there are severe restrictions on the use of chemicals in Sri Lanka due to sanctions protecting Ceylon tea, which is produced in the country.
Sakocius was also tasked with finding an operator. “My thoughts were that none of the ‘name brands’ would be interested in a facility that was a four-hour drive from the airport in a country that has less than a thousand golfers and only three or four actual golf courses.”
Having contacted many companies, Sakocius said he was shocked that Troon expressed interest. “In the end, we hired them as the eventual management and operator,” said Sakocius. “I was jubilant! To have the international reach of a company like that is more than I could have hoped for.
“In order to keep the golf course project within budget, we came up with an innovative aand extremely efficient system that allows spacious landing zones and good greens and tees, all for a fraction of the typical venture.
“Next, we looked at the bunkers. This was a very good and charming golf course and I didn’t want to monkey around with it or the shot values, but something had to be done. There was no budget to regrade the putting surfaces, so the only solution was to rearrange the bunkers, sometimes splitting them in two, sometimes turning two into one, sometimes eliminating them altogether and using grading techniques to replace one challenge for another. In the end, we were able to maintain the integrity of the design while building something that would last and be maintainable.”
A small turf nursery was planted, and the new Zorro Zoysia strain established very quickly. Sakocius knew after a couple of months he could repropagate the nursery and have plenty of grass to complete the project.
“We took the best of the TifDwarf and propagated a small nursery which we used to replace all the eradicated patches of undesirables on the greens,” said Sakocius. “They are coming in beautifully and Troon has them rolling at a pretty smooth 9-10 Stimpmeter already.”
Some fairways and tees have been regraded, including the expansion of several tees on par threes. Sakocius also said that some drainage and cart path improvements have been made.
Nine holes remain in play while renovation work continues.