Turkey may seem an unlikely destination for large-scale golf tourism but the country has a strong link to the game dating back decades. Golf along the Turkish coastal town of Belek was first planned in the early 1990s, with 11 plots of land dedicated and zoned for golf development by the government. Each plot of land was positioned just behind the existing coastal-fronted resort hotels and was planned as a driver to improve hotel occupancy rates in the quiet shoulder and winter months. These months proved to be perfect for the visiting golfers to this traditional beach holiday destination. – Tim Lobb
I spoke to Gürkan Ertasş– the then Head of the Planning Department in The Ministry of Tourism in Turkey and the man responsible for the initial planning strategy of golf in Belek – while working on the Carya Golf Club project. I asked him about the early planning for golf development in Turkey…
Golf Architecture: Was it always thought that 11 plots of land (named G1-11) was the optimum number, or was that all the land that was available?
GE: In the beginning we allocated five golf plots in Belek Tourism Centre. There are five regions in the area where the hotels are located. These are Uckum Tepesi, Tasliburun (where Carya Golf is located),şskele Mevkii,şleribasi and Acisu regions. Our purpose was to allocate each golf plot to the hoteliers of each region and ask them to operate the golf course together. Thus, we did not propose any accommodation facility on the golf plots.
On the other hand, we did not want to spoil the forest area more. After I lost my position in the Ministry (1996) and was sent to Singapore, my colleagues zoned new golf plots (I think it is 11 now) and thus allocated the whole forest area for the same purpose. Plus, they placed accommodation facilities in the golf areas. This was the will of our precious businessmen.
GA: Can you remember the initial projections for golf visitors?
GE: To be frank, we did not make any projections on the number of visitors. In order to extend the tourism period in Turkey we were introducing new tourist activities into the tourism market; golf was one of them.
GA: When were the plots first zoned for golf?
GE: We first zoned the golf plots in 1990-91. All the sites were well vegetated with towering umbrella pines and Eucalyptus trees planted by the forestry department years earlier. The designation of the plot boundaries were carefully planned for a variety of 18-, 36- and 45-hole developments.
One of the interesting aspects of designing and building the golf courses was that the survey information obtained for the Belek region gave incredible detail on the location, age and species of each tree on site. The trees were labelled and tagged with a number, with the corresponding number mapped on the existing survey. Finding one’s way around the site to carefully map tree clearance becomes a finite exercise, as all tree clearance needs to be approved by the Forestry Department prior to commencement. This is a fantastic system that has really facilitated quality golf development in Belek.
The first course
The breakthrough course to be constructed from this careful zoning/ planning was The National Golf Club, designed by David Jones and David Feherty. The construction of the course started in 1993, while staking and finding the final routing occurred the year before. The course opened for play on November 18, 1994 – golf in Belek was born. David Jones recently had these observations about the process…
Golf Architecture: Who was your client and why did they want to develop the golf course?
DJ: In 1991, David Feherty and I went to Belek to meet with Mr Bulent Goktuna, who was a member at Wisley Golf Club and a passionate Turkish golfer. His desire to bring golf to Turkey on a broader scale was ignited when he managed to secure one of the first six plots that were allocated for golf by the government. The plot was obtained for a small fee by Bulent and a 50-year lease was granted. Bulent certainly was a golfing pioneer for Belek and Turkey as a whole.
GA: Were many people playing?
DJ: Bulent had managed to sell around 60-70 golf memberships for the new club to Turkish citizens and global golfing friends. However, the main portion of golfers were coming from Scandinavia and in particular Sweden. From the opening day in 1994, when a plane-load of Swedes came, it had become a popular golfing destination for them during their harsh winter months.
Additionally, in the early days I spent a lot of time talking to other hotel owners, encouraging them to develop the plots into golf courses, as I knew that for the mass golfing market they needed multiple golf courses.
As for transport, in the early days the flights were all through Istanbul as the numbers were not high enough to get charter flights. Once the golfer numbers improved and the charter flights increased, then the golfing scene really started to explode and Belek became a true golfing destination. At the start it was mostly Scandinavians. Later with the introduction of the charter flights we saw the Dutch, the Germans and lastly the British.
Case Study –
I first visited the Belek region in 1999 while employed at European Golf Design. Our firm was designing a 36-hole development (Sultan and Pasha courses) next to The National Golf Club plot. David Jones originally worked on the scheme with Andy Haggar and I was asked to help with the formation of the Pasha course, which was planned to be a more family friendly, shorter course.
The overall site was well-vegetated but without much contour. Due to some low lying areas we had to create fill to lift some of the golf holes out of the ground water. We built the 36 holes together, with Naki Evrandir as construction manager; the courses were opened two years after commencement. Andy, the course architect for the Sultan Course who is now with Faldo Design, recalls that because the land was generally low and flat it was important to raise the playing surfaces up where necessary to enable effective drainage.
“We made the most of the higher ground by incorporating it into the routing and that had the added value of providing natural topographical interest in the layout of the courses,” he said. “We had to balance cut and fill, so that meant some sizeable water features in places in order to help generate the fill we needed. These became a strategic element of the course design.”
The Pasha course was on the flattest part of the land so water bodies became more of a dominant feature on that course. The two courses (Sultan and Pasha) at Antalya GC vary in terms of difficulty though both have proven very popular with guests.
Asked whether he thought most multi-course facilities should offer varying degrees of difficulty to suit a wider range of golfer, Andy said it depended on the location and the market for that resort. “Generally speaking, courses with varying difficulty would seem to be a good idea, so that different standards of golfer can be catered for and also to provide an option for the time it might take to play a round.”
Course superintendent Ahmet Cagil, who started in the Belek area in 1996, said there had been many changes at Antalya since he commenced work there in 2002. “There have been some changes, regarding the course management – mostly on the service side, such as hand-raking bunkers, using walk-behind mowers for greens and tees (for better cutting and better putting surface),” he said. “And fairways are being cut with grass catchers for collecting the old divots and clippings. We ensure that all the cutting is done before the first tee-off. If you consider the first tee off maybe 7.30am and we have 140+ golfers per day per course, it certainly is a busy operation.” He added that to ensure maximum satisfaction they were trying not to send greenkeepers out while customers were on the course (to avoid noise and disruption).
“We used to keep the course open during the over-seeding period,” he explained. “But nowadays we are closing at least 10 days for each 18 holes and we used to use rye grass to over-seed the greens – however now we are using Poa trivialis(for a better putting surface). Of course, it is riskier than rye grass, as it is more sensitive.”
He added that now some of the Belek courses sold their green fees as “all inclusive” – meaning when customers paid the fee, everything in the clubhouse and the golf course was included. “It is the new trend,” he said.
Case Study –
Carya Golf Club
Carya Golf Club, a heathland-inspired golf course on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast, opened for play in November 2008. Just a year after opening, the course ranked in Golf Worldmagazine’s Top-100 courses in Continental Europe; this accolade was accorded before Carya hosted its first significant professional event, the Turkish Airlines Challenge. The European Challenge Tour event took place in the spring of 2010. In 2016 the course hosted the Turkish Airlines Open and the leading European Tour players in the Race to Dubai Series.
With ours designed by Thomson Perrett & Lobb (TPL), this coastal strip is now home to more than 15 golf courses, featuring designs by Nick Faldo and Colin Montgomerie, among others. In preliminary ‘pitch’ meetings with the client in 2005, Ross Perrett and I urged the client to concentrate on producing an exceptional 18-hole golf course instead of the planned 27 holes. We were adamant that it was beneficial for the client and his business to focus on a spacious 18-hole layout that could – and would – compete with all courses in the region.
On being awarded the project, Ross and I, along with Peter Thomson, made a number of site visits, with Peter describing the site as “an exceptional piece of land”. Among the features that most impressed us was the native heather (Erica manipuliflora) that was found on the southern section of the site, where the current 16th hole sits. The indigenous heathland environment came as a surprise, as it was thought that this type of environment was only seen on the heathland courses south-west of London.
A strong, pine-covered sand ridge meanders from east to west through the site; upon further site analysis, it became the centrepiece of the property. Specimen pine trees and long vistas were constant on this ridge, and from the first couple of site visits the design team found the perfect clubhouse location to commence with the golf course concept. A large, gnarly tree became the landmark for what was perceived as the perfect location.
What makes Carya Golf Club distinct, however, is the introduction of heather to augment what was found naturally on the site. Approximately one million heather sprigs were planted around the course – on the tops of bunkers, and to frame the holes – further enhancing its appealing heathland appearance. And, in a first-of-its-kind project, heather was propagated on site in specially constructed glasshouses.
TPL brought in Chris Lomas, a heather specialist, to help with the project. Formerly a course manager of The Berkshire Golf Club – with two of the finest heathland courses in the United Kingdom, and renowned for its formidable swathes of heather lining the fairway – Lomas worked with the local horticultural experts to propagate the native heather carefully in the eight constructed glasshouses before the sprigs were planted out on the course. In total, a team of 20 staff worked almost full-time for a year to propagate the heather. The challenge to propagate healthy heather on site was as big a project as building the golf course itself. However, Fikret Ozturk, the client, was 100 per cent behind the design team’s vision and supported TPL, as necessary, for such a large and unchartered undertaking for the region.
The final product at Carya Golf Club has been a labour of love. The proprietor, Fikret Ozturk, fully backed TPL’s vision to create a special and distinctive golf course. The design team, which also included Philip Spogard, Chris Lomas and leading golf course contractor Golf Med, worked tirelessly to turn the concept into reality, as did everyone else involved who helped to make a dream a reality and create the golfing experience that is Carya Golf Club.
The Belek golfing experiment has seen excellent growth in golfer numbers over the past 20 years:
1995 – 15,130 rounds
2000 – 120,994 rounds
2005 – 232,886 rounds
2010 – 483,537 rounds
2015 – 463,045 rounds
Total: 5,500,697 rounds
(Source: BETUYAB, Belek Hotel Owners Association)
In summary, to create a golfing destination you need great sites that allow for relatively easy and cost-efficient golf development to prosper. Government backing with good transport links are vital for the mass market. All the golf courses in the Belek region were designed by recognised golf course architects. The value of great design is totally vindicated following the popularity and profitability of the golf courses in the Belek region. Golfers love high quality service to return back and spend their holiday money time and time again.
* Tim Lobb was the course designer of Pasha Course (Antalya Golf Club) while employed at European Golf Design and co-designer of Carya Golf Club when Principal at Thomson Perrett & Lobb. Following Peter Thomson’s retirement he is now Principal of LOBB + PARTNERS and remains based in Surrey, UK. He continues to be busy working in Turkey on other projects as well was developments in Europe, Africa and the Middle East.