Remodelling a tired Gold Coast staple has added some spark to both professtional and recational play.
The decision by the PGA of Australia not to renew its contract for the PGA Championship at The Hyatt Coolum Resort, having staged it there successfully for 11 years, was a major upheaval for one of Australia’s longest-running golf tournaments. – Graham Marsh
Since the Australian PGA Championship was first held in 1905 as a match play event, it has been hosted by many of the most famous and historic golf courses in the country. Breaking new ground and finding exciting new markets and opportunities for golf events in Australia has always been a conundrum for the PGA and the Amateur association.
Historically there has been an overwhelming oscillation of the major golf events between Sydney and Melbourne. Logically this has occurred because these two cities are the controllers of the advertising dollars and there are several classic courses capable of staging and hosting major golf events. The unmitigated success of the PGA Championship at Coolum due to the relaxing family holiday atmosphere left the PGA with a difficult decision: return to the proven southern markets or take a bold new step and explore the opportunities in the growing city of the Gold Coast.
The RACV Royal Pines Resort, home of the Australian Ladies Masters since 1992, showed interest in hosting the PGA Championship; however, it was made conditional by the PGA of Australia that the golf course be upgraded to a championship standard worthy of hosting one of the two flagship events on the Australian golfing calendar.
After considerable deliberation by a committee comprised of representatives from all parties with a vested interest, Graham Marsh Golf Design was awarded a contract to remodel the course over a two-year period. The detailed brief consisted of two key elements. First, the course had to be of a championship standard yet still playable for the membership and resort players; and second, all remodelling work was to address the issues of drainage and the ongoing costs of course maintenance.
The final presentation by GMGD went well beyond these issues and outlined a long-term plan that addressed the ever-changing technological advances in the game and how the proposed redesign would help protect the integrity of the course well into the future. The design was heavily constrained by time, flood modelling, budget, tree removal and replacement, weather, grass supply and timely Local and State Government approvals.
WINDING WATERWAYS: The removal of many trees and reshaping of the land form opened up the view slots to the waterways and added enormously to the visuals of the course. Pictured are the par-3 2nd (background) and par-5 9th.
Coordination of the highest level was the order of the day and our resident engineer responsible for overseeing all of this was more than up to the task. He ran it with the precision of a military operation, detailed to the minute and two steps ahead of the client and contractors. He orchestrated a team who had never worked together before into a highly efficient operation, all with a laid-back demeanour and a smile on his face. (Oh, to have a leader like Rangi Campbell on every golf construction site!)
The original designer of the course, Tomojiro Maruyama, fortunately gave us plenty of room to work with and it was his good planning principles that enabled us to stay within the corridors that defined his initial routing. This aspect of his original design cannot be underestimated, as changing any of the major water lakes was simply not an option. As some of these water bodies were connected to the adjacent tidal Nerang River, any alteration automatically triggered State Government involvement and time constraints from their approvals would have simply killed the project from day one.
Construction was scheduled to commence the day the Ladies Masters finished in February 2014 and was programmed through the wet season and winter months, with the course to be playable in time for the PGA Championship in either late November or early December of the same year. Given that the order of four months for establishment and preparation prior to the tournament was considered necessary, this allowed approximately five months to complete the remodelling of nine golf holes. The works on the remaining nine holes would be undertaken the following year, to the same program.
Given the time constraints, planting stolons was simply not an option. Arrangements were made with two grassing companies to grow the selected grasses (Wintergreen fairways and Tifeagle greens) off site, then sod the holes as the works were completed and approved for grassing. Clearly these contracts were pursued well in advance to ensure the sod was healthy and sufficiently mature to be cut and laid in its new environment.
Predictably, extremely high levels of acid sulphate soils were identified and treated as required with countless ‘before’ and ‘after’ tests submitted for approval by the Consulting Engineers.
The flood modelling of the site was perhaps the greatest constraint on the final design. Local Government modelling determined a quantified volume of flood storage across the site and any works had to be undertaken with zero net flood storage loss and zero impact on the flood levels for any adjoining properties. Fortunately, the site was in a backwater of the Nerang River system, so high velocity floodwaters were of little concern.
The 3D design model produced by GMGD was tested against the Local Government flood model to ensure compatibility with the flood constraints. Construction was undertaken on a hole-by-hole basis and upon completion of each hole, an as-built survey was undertaken to ensure it was compliant with the flood model and submitted to council for their approval. An accurate record of the hole-by-hole volumes as the project proceeded kept us on track and guaranteed upon completion we would achieve our objective of zero net flood storage loss. The accompanying plan shows the design plan, with the flood storage calculations for both design and as constructed.
The only way this could be achieved successfully was with full GPS design and construction and GMGD’s ability to fine-tune the design, if it became necessary. Strange as it may seem, every cubic metre of earth moved was critical for gaining council confidence and ultimately their approval. Never in the history of GMGD have we been placed under such scrutiny regarding final levels. As an example, the importation of 15 hectares of sod at 35mm thick has an impact on the site flood storage of over 5,000 cubic metres.
This, along with meeting uncompromising budgetary limitations, places the remodelling of the RACV Royal Pines Golf Course as the most technically challenging project GMGD have tackled in our 35-year history. It did, however, give me great pride that the GMGD team has shown themselves capable of designing to a brief, had met all the technical intricacies and delivered an on-time project that complied with the overall budget.
Since its inception in 1990, Royal Pines had degenerated into a course that was known for its poor drainage, massive poorly maintained bunkers and one that was of little challenge and interest for the more accomplished golfer. Despite the abundance of water on the site, the original Maruyama design made every effort through mounding and huge catchment bunkers to ensure the average player avoided the lakes.
Prior to GMGD’s remodelling work the PGA had added several new tees to give several holes ‘teeth’ for the first PGA Championship in 2013. These were all good additions and in part were incorporated into the final design. It is worth noting that the great majority of the original tees were retained, as there simply was not enough money in the budget for any changes.
Over time, trees had grown and in many instances shade was affecting the growth of healthy turf grass on fairways. Some greens were surrounded by trees, which affected the air circulation that is so important for lowering temperatures during the critical summer months.
My primary goal was to design 18 memorable green complexes that offered a multitude of pin placements, some to challenge the professional and others to allow the average golfer the luxury of a less stressful and more forgiving approach. Angles of approach and a variety of sight lines into a green keep a player on guard by introducing the entire green surround and the different segments of the putting surface. The end goal is to offer a different experience every day, regardless of the prevailing conditions.
Testing the golfer by forcing decisions of club selection from the teeing ground, approach shots and optional shots when a green is missed in regulation figures, is the ultimate challenge of their capacity to think both aggressively and creatively throughout the course of the round. The legendary Peter Thomson taught me that golf was a game that if played through the air all the time was somewhat boringly clinical. It was the ground game that allowed the creative mind to conjure up the multitude of opportunities.
It is also the ground game that has allowed the great links courses of the world to withstand the onslaught of the modern-day player who arrives with all of the latest equipment and a ball that has completely outmanoeuvred the custodians of the game.
Last year at Royal Pines I was heartened watching some of the best in the world deliberating on club selection on many of the tee shots. Avoiding fairway bunkers and positioning the ball for the optimum distance and angle of approach to the hole is the hallmark of a thoughtful and strategically minded player. This was the design intent and certainly my goal: a strategic layout to engage the player’s mind, no matter what their level of play… stimulating a golfer’s ego and mind set into believing there is always another way to challenge a hole is for me an irresistible design challenge.
It has often been said that when it comes to visuals, bunkers to a golf course is like putting on “makeup”. Royal Pines prior to the renovation had 2.2 hectares of sand; the remodelling reduced this to just 0.9 of a hectare. Correctly positioned and visually attractive, the bunkers now serve the purpose of being genuine hazards. The style which we have developed over the years has proven highly successful in heavy rainfall areas, as they resist wind and rain erosion due to the lower profile of the sand faces. Correct siting however is critical to sand being seen. Whilst there is slightly more work in maintaining the grass faces, this must be weighed against the onerous task of pushing sand up each day during the rainy season. If the correct amount of growth retardant is applied routinely the slightly longer grass faces are pleasing to the eye and can be comfortably managed throughout the year.
The opening up of the view slots into the waterways by tree removal and earthworks added enormously to the visuals of the course. There are now six holes on the front nine and five on the back where golfers must heed the threat of water. Perhaps my three favourites are the par-3 2nd, the short par-4 8th and the par-3 16th. A good walk on these three holes following a day’s play, with ball retriever in hand, will yield quite a stock of name-brand, high-quality balls.
By altering some hole lengths within the existing corridors we were able to reposition material to create much-needed viewing spots for the gallery. Now there are viewing mounds on almost every hole for the patrons to watch their favourite players. More viewing mounds would have been ideal but as always, constraints rule the day.
Draining the site when only partial redesign of the fairways and sections of the rough was possible also came with challenges. The survey of the site was pored over in detail, examining grades and existing pits that could be relied upon to shed the water during normal rain events. As with all golf courses on the Gold Coast, in the event of extreme weather conditions they are designed to provide flood storage, thus ensuring the neighbouring roads and houses have immunity. The course received the ultimate test early in 2017 and passed with flying colours. The 18 greens and all but a few of the bunkers weathered the storm and within a couple of days of a massive drenching the course was open for play.
Remodelling any course is never an easy task, even when you have the added luxury of closing a nine at a time to complete the works. It becomes even more problematic when there are two major PGA events to be held in the calendar year – and the construction is scheduled for the rainy season and the winter months. It can only be achieved with the tightest supervision and impeccable planning. Fortunately we had both key issues well under control throughout the two-year development period.
In 2013, Adam Scott, then the reigning US Masters Champion, delivered a score of 14 under par on the old Royal Pines golf course to win by four strokes over American Ricky Fowler. The 9th hole, normally a par-5, was played as a par-4 to help give credibility to a course that was largely considered a “walk in the park” for the top players.
A year later Greg Chalmers was victorious on a partially renovated course (holes 1-9 completed) with a score of 11 under par; he won in a three-way playoff that included the defending champion Scott and South Australian Wade Ormsby. (The playoff lasted eight holes.)
In another three-way playoff in 2015, this time between Australian Nathan Holman, American Harold Varner III and Dylan Frittelli of South Africa, Holman won the event on the first extra hole with a par four. The winning score was even par.
Early in 2016 the LPGA were stunned by the fact that they faced a golf course for the Australian Masters where the men had struggled to beat par over four days. I assured those in charge if they were to set up the golf course sensibly and fairly each day, they could achieve a winning score that would satisfy all stakeholders. Such was the case – with the winning score being 15 under par.
In the 2016 Australian Men’s PGA, Varner erased the disappointment of his 2015 playoff loss by posting a score of 19 under par on a course that was presented with ‘soft’ pin placements and well-watered greens. (It just shows how dramatically a course can be perceived by the manner it is presented on a day-by-day basis.) The low scoring by Varner in 2016 was a knee jerk reaction to the difficulty of the course in 2015. I know that Royal Pines, if presented in tournament condition with championship pins, will reveal a winning score of between 10 and 15 under par.
It has been my observation after 45 years of being closely associated with tournament golf that this score invariably brings out the best players of the week and provides the media and the golfing public with excitement and drama over the four days.
The lack of intestinal fortitude shown by the custodians of the game in controlling the technological advancement by manufacturers has inspired golf architects to conjure up all their knowledge and experience when presented with the task of designing championship golf courses that are expected to stand the test of time. It is not as simple as it may seem. When designing for the very best there is a very fine line between genius and being considered a blithering idiot.
It has been my observation after 45 years of being associated with golf tournaments – that a winning score of 10-15 under invariably brings out the best players of the week.
There is no denying in most sports that a talented, powerful person will always hold an advantage over an opponent of equal talent but with less power. In the modern world of professional golf this can translate into a distance advantage of upward of 50 metres on the tee shot alone. Royal Pines’ redesign is an attempt to level the playing field. It is by no means an attempt to take the long hitters out of the game; it is simply putting them on notice that to score well on Royal Pines they must show far more aptitude than in the past. They will always have an advantage, but it will not be dictated by length alone.
As a golf course owner, I know only too well that for a golf course to be successful financially, it must have repeat business. In an industry showing little growth in recent years, Royal Pines has increased its membership and considerably raised the number of rounds being played since the redesign. More than ever, the coexistence of championship play, membership and resort golf is critical to the very growth and future of this great game.
There will be many other redesign opportunities for golf architects in the years ahead – especially if the custodians of the game continue to bury their heads in a pot bunker rather than seriously tackle the major issues that are continuing to erode the very fabric of our game.