It was back in early May 2009 that we were first invited to visit a new golf course site north of Beijing. We were told that the site was ‘gently hilly and very sandy with thousands of birch trees and a deep, beautiful valley with crystal-clear streams’. “Yeah right!” we said, as we studied the map of China where we were headed – a remote part of far northern Hebei Province, some 500 kilometres by road north of Beijing. The site boundary was in fact the Inner Mongolian border. “Sand dunes in the mountains, 600 kilometres inland from the Bohai Sea!” we remarked sarcastically. Despite our scepticism, we jumped in the car for the seven-hour, torturous drive… that six months later we would have suffered through perhaps 20 times. – Ben Davey
It was with this sense of trepidation and scepticism that we left the Great Wall behind us on our first site visit. Entering the high mountains to the north east of Beijing, the roads quickly deteriorate – as does the standard of driving. The heavy trucks and buses, driven by hard-core, chain-smoking individuals, are terrifying, with overtaking manoeuvres and crazy driving de rigueur; it seems giving way depends on the size of the vehicle… and who will come off the worse. Trucks always have ‘right of way’, whereas pedestrians, dogs, goats, cows and village men pulling old-fashioned carts never do!
Passing through the cooler climes of the former royal city of Chengde, where Emperors used to holiday in summer, we entered a spectacular landscape of near-vertical mountains, steep valleys and raging rivers. As the roads became quieter, and the population and traffic far less congested, the rugged, dramatic landscape gradually gave way to gentle hills, to forests of birch trees and to (yes!) sand dunes – golf country, as if in Scotland… and all of this at an elevation of 1500 metres above sea level.
We were gobsmacked. In essence the site was pretty much as our client described to us – only far better!
The nearest town to the site was Yudakou. The town has a few hundred residents, a main street with some simple shops and eateries – all very basic – and a population that seemed extremely poor. The nearest large town is Weichang in Hebei, or Duolin in Inner Mongolia. The hotel was simple in the extreme(!) – and if it was 10 degrees outside, you could be certain it would be 5 degrees in your hotel room!
The first time we saw the site we were gobsmacked! Our client had talked it up, but they had no idea just how good it was. The site is basically an elevated plateau of rolling hills and sand dunes, forests of stunning white-trunked birch trees, exposed sand drifts and so many possible golf holes it defied the imagination. All of this sat above a steep valley, perhaps 100 metres in depth. In essence, the site was pretty much just as had been described to us – only far better!
What made it an even better prospect was that the client said that there was no real boundary, that about 3000 hectares was available and he wanted us to tell him where the best land for the golf course was and then he would discuss it/negotiate with the local government! A dream job, one might say, although one we soon realised was fraught with difficulty.
Planning the site
The main conundrum was that without a boundary, we had no idea where to start and this was made more difficult by the total lack of any site information. All we had was an old government survey, with 10-metre contours at a scale of 1:10,000. (Only a hard copy… nothing electronic.) There was nothing in the way of aerial photography, so we had no idea where any of the trees were (we were not permitted to remove any vegetation). Of course, we requested the site be surveyed (but it was a vast area) only to be told that “once you have worked out the golf course, then we will survey it”. Planning the golf course in the usual way by using a paper survey with levels and features, whilst testing and checking things on site, was impossible. We had to do it all on site.
The first task was to find the clubhouse location and this had to meet the following criteria:
- Minimal distance to existing infrastructure, especially power and roads, and a potential airstrip site;
- Views and aspect south; and
- Adequate space for starting and closing holes, driving range, etc.
Having been given such a vast area to work with, it may seem our options were limitless but, in reality, Point 1 (above) meant that the first 18 holes had to be located at the far southern end of the site closest to the roads and other infrastructure. What eventuated was actually a 72-hole ‘master plan’ with the first 18 starting at the clubhouse and heading out northward to a distant point for nine holes, where a future clubhouse and hotel was planned. The return nine came back south to the clubhouse. The Stage 1 clubhouse at the southern end would also serve a second 18 holes that went out and back through a valley to the west, whilst the future clubhouse/hotel at the northern end would eventually serve a third and fourth 18 holes to the far north. So the master plan was for two clubhouses, one in the south and one in the north, each servicing 36 holes of golf.
Having determined a suitable clubhouse location and having worked out how the 1st, 2nd, 17th and 18th holes would roughly work, we had to set about piecing together the remainder of the golf course. There was only one way to do this in the absence of any site information – and that was on foot. Fortunately we were armed with some modern technology in the form of laser-distance binoculars and an army of helpers on foot and in four-wheel drives with stakes.
The first 18 holes plan
Although the site was vast and our options seemingly limitless, as it turned out, the process was not all that difficult. This was mainly due to the following constraints:
- We were clearly told that absolutely no tree removal would be permitted; we were therefore limited in where golf holes could be placed (this was not a bad thing because as the photos suggest, the fairways lines almost seemed predetermined);
- No earthworks were permitted – only minimal cut-and-fill to create tees and greens – in fact no ‘large’ machines were permitted on site at all;
- Time was critical and the client and the government needed results and needed them fast. We had to accept that there were a thousand golf holes out there; we had just to come up with 18 of them that all worked within the constraints. If we got too caught up with one great hole that didn’t link well with the rest, then we were just going to get frustrated and waste time.
The 18 holes were all staked; tees, turning points at roughly 250 metres and centre of green. We had a rough idea of hole lengths from our own laser measurements. We staked the edge of fairways and then this was all surveyed, including the levels. This process took about two weeks.
We received the survey shortly after and it was very interesting to ‘see’ what we had staked in plan view on paper for the first time. One’s perceptions of space and distance are distorted on the ground when elevation change and trees ‘screen’ things from view. Some holes that we thought were miles apart seemed too close, and vice versa – but it all worked fine on the ground.
We knew that the most important role on this unique site was going to be the golf course shaper; we also knew that the communication between us and that shaper was going to be crucial to the final result. In simple terms we needed someone experienced on similar natural sandy sites, someone who had built ‘natural’ bunkers, someone who understood our vision and had seen the courses we compared this to, and someone we could relate to. That person needed to be able to interpret a hand-drawn sketch with a few spot levels and arrows and squiggly lines for bunkers and use their own imagination and experience to shape beautiful features. Fortunately for us that man was Ben Chambers, a fellow Aussie from Melbourne. Ben arrived in mid-June of 2009 and was gone again one month later! But in that one month he managed to build five green complexes and several tees.
The construction story for this project follows a similar vein to many other projects across China around the same time. There are many reasons why things don’t work out as expected; most of them political and beyond the grasp of foreign designers, sometimes financial – but nearly always a falling out at some level between the client and the government. We didn’t care about the reasons, only the result; and in retrospect, we were fortunate with the timing because at least we got something built!
Whilst Ben built the greens, design partner Bob Shearer and I marked on site the edge of fairways (actually the edge of the first cut of rough). This was done by simply walking the edge whilst a rotary hoe followed behind, ploughing the soil down to about 200mm. Once the edge was defined, the operator then ploughed everything ‘inside’ the edge. After a fairway was ploughed, local villagers would then hand rake out all the grass tufts, sticks and any other debris. A tractor towing a rake then ‘finished’ each fairway in preparation for grassing. After grass seed had been spread, each fairway was then covered in seed matting until germination. There was no other work done to any fairway – no earthworks whatsoever, only ploughing.
Whilst the greens were being constructed, attempts were made by the ‘Project Manager’ to construct several tees by hand using local labour! This was a dismal failure; nonetheless these tees were also grassed, despite our protestations.
We designed an 18-hole golf course and did 18 greens ‘sketches’ for Ben to construct. Ben started on green 16 and then moved on to 15, 17, 14, and 13. It was around the time that green 13 was being completed that Ben’s visa expiry date loomed and a trip down to Beijing was required.
We are unsure what ensued but Ben was never required back after his Beijing trip. We suspect that the project was stopped (as many others were around that time) by government politics. Ben eventually returned back to Australia in July 2009, having spent just on five weeks in China.
My last visit to the site was in September 2009 at which time the five completed holes were finished and grassed. Other work had been attempted after Ben’s departure but done very poorly. Since then the project was apparently on-sold to another developer.
The completed holes
The 13th through 17th holes were completed whilst some work was also done on the 18th although not by Ben. The following holes were completed:
- The 13th is a short par-3 of just 140 metres. A natural crater bunker guards the front and right of the green. The green and surrounds all slope from left to low right.
- The 14th hole is a 360-metre par-4 that plays from an elevated tee to a beautifully natural-shaped fairway to an elevated green set against a sand blow-out.
- The 15th is a long par-4 of about 420 metres with a huge crater of a bunker/natural sandy area front left of the green. A player is rewarded for playing their drive close to a sand drift on the right of the fairway for the better-angled approach. The green slopes sharply back to front.
- The 16th is about 390 metres and plays from an elevated tee and then sweeps right. The green is the wildest we did.
- The 17th is a long (200-metre) par-3 to another extraordinary green site; and
- The 18th is a par-5 of about 500 metres that sweeps uphill; the fairway was hoed but the green never completed as we wished.
What makes a great golf site?
This spectacular site had two major shortcomings. First, the climate there is awful. Anyone who has been to Beijing in winter knows how cold it can get – well, imagine 400 kilometres further north and 1500 metres higher! The temperature was generally about 10 degrees Celsius colder than Beijing on any given day. Even in late September 2009, the trees had turned gold and red and the temperature was no more than 8-10 degrees. Winters are frigid. Golf in that climate can only be played four months per year.
The second shortcoming was the location. The seven-hour drive from Beijing was horrendous and there was nothing within a two-three hour drive in terms of decent accommodation or food. The nearest major airport was Beijing, although there is a small airport at Chifeng in Inner Mongolia approximately three hours away. We had no idea who was going to come to such a remote, inhospitable place to play golf. There were big plans to construct a hotel, villas, new roads… but we fear there was never enough interest or money for this to happen.
A Barnbougle, a Bandon or a Sand Hills works because the golfing populations of Australia and the US are educated; they appreciate a great site and a great design and part of the allure is their remoteness. However, without great food and decent accommodation, even these places would be less appealing. Without any of these luxuries (yet), and with a golfing mind-set that is still very much about doing business, good service, ease and luxury, and a land where generally the courses are presented in a very ‘sterile’ formula-driven manner (clean-edged white bunkers, lots of water, caddies, cart paths, etc.) we were always unsure whether this great site, in that climate and location and the wild-looking golf course we were building could work (yet) in China. Unfortunately, for now, I suspect we were right.