Dave Sampson – from competition winner to Ryder Cup 2023 course designer

With one year to go to the 2023 Ryder Cup, meet the man who has drawn the battle lines at the Marco Simone Golf Club.

By Graham Jenkins from GOLF TV – https://www.golf.tv/

Dave Sampson was busy packing for a flight from the UK back home to South Africa when a golf magazine landed in front of him.

A competition to design a golf hole had caught his friend’s eye, and he urged Sampson to enter and indulge a passion that had until that point been nothing but a distraction from the more traditional building architecture work that was paying his bills.

As he hastily sketched out some designs before making a dash to the airport, little did he know that he was laying the foundation for a career gear change that would eventually propel him to centre stage at the 2023 Ryder Cup.



“I’m a qualified building architect but got into golf course design, which is where I always really wanted to be, by winning a design competition, which was run by Golf World magazine in collaboration with European Golf Design,” recalls Sampson, sitting beside the Marco Simone course in Rome that he has completely redesigned and which will host the eagerly-awaited match play showpiece this time next year.

Sampson not only left his mark at the Linna Golf Resort in Finland, where his competition winning design eventually became the 487-yard, par-5, 15th hole, but also on European Golf Design (EGD), the course design arm of the broader European Tour Group.

“I eventually came back over to the UK, and I took a job as cricket analyst for Surrey Cricket Club as I knew it would also give me quite a bit of time to pretty much teach myself and learn the trade of golf architecture,” added Sampson, who joined his current employers in 2004 as a design associate.

“I had already had that introduction with EGD through spending some time with them and going through some exercises with them. They were really great in helping me develop what is my passion.”

Sampson has spent the last 20 years helping design and shape some notable courses around the world with his portfolio including Crans Montana in Switzerland, the Golf Evian Resort in France and Royal Greens in Saudi Arabia.

“Every golf course architect has worked on projects at various stages from concept through to construction but unfortunately not that many of them result in getting the excavator in the ground,” laments Sampson. But the Marco Simone course on the outskirts of Rome was one such job.

The original course was designed by Jim Fazio and David Mezzacane before opening for play in 1991, but a complete redesign was a fundamental element of their bid to host the Ryder Cup.

EGD had previously worked on the redesigns of the Ryder Cup layouts at Le Golf National in Paris (2010) and Celtic Manor in south Wales (2008) , so the firm was an obvious partner for the project.

ROME, ITALY – AUGUST 03: A scenic view of the 16th hole prior to the 2023 Ryder Cup at Marco Simone Golf Club on August 03, 2022 in Rome, Italy. (Photo by Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images)

With the key support of course owner and fashion designer, Laura Biagotti, and subsequently her daughter, Lavinia, following her mother’s passing in 2017, the new-look course would eventually take shape.

“EGD was part of the group that put together the bid for the Italian Golf Federation, and I was assigned the job as lead architect,” explains Sampson, fresh from guiding European captain Luke Donald and vice captain Edoardo Molinari around the course.

They won the right to host the 2023 Ryder Cup in 2015, seeing off the challenge of bid rivals Austria, Germany and Spain, and Sampson began work on the project in 2017 by putting together the layouts and the design.

Construction would not begin until the following year with the back nine holes redeveloped in phase one of the project that took another 12 months. Those holes opened for play in late 2019 when work also began on the front nine and these were finished in early 2021 – just in time for last year’s Italian Open.

ROME, ITALY – AUGUST 02: A scenic view of the ninth hole prior to the 2023 Ryder Cup at Marco Simone Golf Club on August 02, 2022 in Rome, Italy. (Photo by Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images)

However, the journey to that point was not as smooth as the perfectly-presented greens that now adorn the course.

“Not every project is a straightforward process and I think it would be fair to say that this one’s been quite challenging,” Sampson reflects with the smile of a man clearly delighted to have emerged from chaos.

“We’ve had to work in unprecedented times with the COVID pandemic, which made things really difficult, especially trying to get out here – not only for us, but the people on site building the golf course.

ROME, ITALY – AUGUST 03: A view of the 18th hole overview prior to the 2023 Ryder Cup at Marco Simone Golf Club on August 03, 2022 in Rome, Italy. (Photo by Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images)

“Then you throw in electrical pylons, gas mainlines and a bit of archaeology, so it would be fair to say there has been the odd challenge’” added Sampson, who was forced to tweak his design due to some archeological discoveries.

“We knew we couldn’t get that close to the castle, but there were two other zones within the project site, which only became evident as we progressed through the job. So we had to be a little bit flexible with a couple of holes to avoid certain areas. You know, this is Rome and you just never know what you’re going to find when you put the bucket in the ground.”

Sampson revealed that he approached the project from a different perspective to his previous work due to the unique nature of the Ryder Cup.

“Normally you get a blank site and you’re trying to find the best 18 golf holes for that piece of land,” he explains, “whereas with the Ryder Cup you’re factoring in many other things. You’re not only trying to find the best holes, you’re trying to find the best holes for the spectators, the best holes for infrastructure, for hospitality, so there are a lot of other factors. So the scale of this job is incomparable to pretty much anything else.”

A reported 270,000 spectators attended the 2018 Ryder Cup, and similar numbers are expected again for the first staging of the event in Italy where the hosts will be looking to bounce back from a 19-9 mauling at the hands of the United States at Whistling Straits last year.

“One of the things we are blessed with on the site is over 50 metres of elevation change across the site and we’ve tried to maximize those opportunities, not only from a golf and playing point of view but also for the spectators,” explains Sampson.

“I think that’s the one thing that the spectators are going to notice, those great long distance views across the site where you get to see four or five golf holes from certain vantage points. I think that’s what’s going to make the event special.”

Following last year’s Italian Open, there were some concerns expressed by some players about certain elements of the design, but Sampson remains confident in the finished product.

“We’ve worked on quite a few tournament golf courses so we have a good understanding of what is required and what works, what doesn’t work,” he explains, “but, I dare say, you’re not going to please everybody.

“I think the people whose opinions are most valid are the captains and that’s where we’re going to be guided from here on in.”

Significant changes to the layout are not likely between now and the Ryder Cup but expect the hosts to leverage everything they can as they bid to return to winning ways.

“As home captain you’re always looking for advantages for your team and to make the course fit our players better than their players,” explained Donald when quizzed on his thoughts about the course.

ROME, ITALY – SEPTEMBER 16: Luke Donald of England plays out of a bunker on the 16th hole on Day Two of the DS Automobiles Italian Open 2022 at Marco Simone Golf Club on September 16, 2022 in Rome, Italy. (Photo by Stuart Franklin/Getty Images)

“We have a sense of what the Americans are good at, what we are good at, and you obviously try to shape the golf course to give ourselves a small advantage. The teams will be very similar on paper but you try to get small advantages that can make a difference in the end.”

It is a layout that Sampson is clearly proud of and believes it will help deliver the action that has become synonymous with the Ryder Cup.

“There are some really key points across the site,” he explains. “I mentioned the elevation change that we have but what we’ve also tried to do is to get a lot of the risk reward holes on the back nine where the drama of the Ryder Cup really is.

“Coupled with that, you’ve got some great long distance views over Rome. So it’s taken in those key views, and factored in some real match-play golf holes that’ll have a lot of drama. So you’ve got holes 11, 12, 16, those are going to be some of the real key pivotal holes where there are going to be birdies and eagles mixed in with double bogies. I think from a spectator point of view, that’s going to be great to watch.”

It is a view that was recently echoed by Rory McIlroy who is set to spearhead Europe’s challenge once again next year.

“The front nine is like the first couple of chapters of a book,” commented the Northern Irishman during the most recent staging of the Italian Open. “It gets you into the book a little bit and sort of sets the story, but the real juicy bits come on the back nine. That’s where you really get into it.”

Does Sampson have a favourite hole that has really brought his design to life?

“I think there are a couple of really good driving holes. So you’ve got the 12th, which is a short par-5 where the players are really asked the question as to how much of the corner do they really want to take on?

“It plays over a valley and it’s quite a dramatic tee shot. I think holes two and 15 are very similar and if I was to pick probably one, I’d probably say 15, it just comes right. It’s a really tough par-4 played from a raised tee to a lower landing area and then back up to a raised green.

ROME, ITALY – AUGUST 03: A scenic view of the 15th hole prior to the 2023 Ryder Cup at Marco Simone Golf Club on August 03, 2022 in Rome, Italy. (Photo by Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images)

“I think during the Ryder Cup, you have got a really good natural amphitheatre around the back of that green. It’s a tough hole, but, you know, not every golf hole can have birdies and eagles. I think this one is one where the players have really got to know to take a par and walk on and I really, really like the way it sits in the land.”

Sampson also believes those lucky enough to witness next year’s match – in person or on TV – will be treated to something really special.

“Golf National was a brilliant Ryder Cup but this one will be different because we have that elevation change,” he enthuses. “I think that’s what the spectators are really going to love about this place. Everything is pretty compact, and they’re going to be able to see many golf holes and have multiple vantage points which for a spectator is really important.

“On top of that, we have got holes 1, 7, 16, and 17, which are in a natural amphitheatre and I think a lot of spectators will gravitate back to that.”

With work all but complete, how does Sampson gauge the success of a project?

“I think we’ll know if it has been a success or not in the first week of October! “ he jokes.

“Like every project, at the end of the day you want to please your client, they’re the ones that have given you the responsibility of creating something special. You obviously want Ryder Cup Europe to be pleased with what you’ve done too – but I guess a win.”

Middle East’s Best Golf Course 2021

Hugely rewarding to see the course we designed at Royal Greens in Saudi Arabia receive “Middle East’s Best Golf Course 2021” & “Saudi Arabia’s Best Golf Course” by World Golf Awards. Having already hosted the Saudi International on the European Tour it is fantastic that the club welcomes the Aramco Saudi Ladies International this week.

Ryder Cup Memorable Moments

It’s Ryder Cup Week and that means memorable Ryder Cup moments. For us those moments were back in 2010 at Celtic Manor with the course we designed (Ross McMurray), The Twenty Ten Course. The 2010 Ryder Cup was even described as the “greatest ever” after the sun shone on a dramatic final day with the then Wales Open champion Graeme McDowell secured the winning point for Europe in the very last match.

Fast forward 11 years and we look forward to 2023 and making more memorable moments on the spectacular 2023 Ryder Cup Course at Marco Simone Golf & Country Club, the course we led the design (Dave Sampson).

Ryder Cup 2010 – Day 4 – 4th October 2010 – Celtic Manor Resort Newport, Wales. Please Credit – Ian Cook – Sportingwales

The Lake Course at Evian Resort Golf Course

We are very proud to have designed The Lake Course at Evian Resort Golf Club. To find out more check out the video clip presented by Sebastien Gros, Evian’s ambassador and French Tour player and David Leadbetter one of the greatest international Tour player coaches. Thanks to Sunset Productions for their support and to Luca DELLOSTA and Edouard GUIBAUD for this second ambitious project.

Press Release – Chislehurst Golf Club and European Golf Design

European Golf Design (‘EGD’), the golf course design company of The European Tour, has been appointed by Chislehurst Golf Club to undertake a full review of its historic golf course and make recommendations on short, medium and long term enhancements.

Located in Kent, just to the south-east of London, the Club was established in 1894 as a nine hole layout which was subsequently expanded to 18 holes early in the following decade. There is evidence as to the involvement of James Braid in both the expansion and subsequent improvement to bunkers in the years immediately prior to the First World War. Although short by modern standards at 5100 yards and playing to a par of 66, the course is anything but a pushover, demanding accuracy and precision over brute strength. However, some of the hazards around the course have become less strategically relevant over the years and part of the design brief is to thoroughly investigate the strategy presented to players and, in relation to bunkering, to return them to the styles and aesthetics experienced over a century ago by reference to the Club’s archives of plans and photographs.

David MacLaren, the Chief Executive Officer of Chislehurst Golf Club, said “This is a progressive club with a very active golf and social membership. Those who know the course love it – those that visit us soon come to love the course too. It has visual interest, it has challenge, it has beauty. Working with European Golf Design to develop a five to ten year programme of improvements allows the Club to move forward positively, but also to reclaim our heritage by re-establishing the original styling which has inevitably been lost in parts over the last one hundred years or so.”

“Working with a Club and on a course with a relationship to Braid is a great honour and privilege,” said Dave Sampson, who will be leading the project on behalf of EGD, “and we are eager to explore all possibilities to restore as much of the original aesthetics and challenge as we can, while keeping the course playable for as many golfers as possible.”

Work on the initial planning began in March and is expected to take two to three months, following which more detailed plans will be prepared, alongside work schedules to fit improvements within the Club’s busy playing and competition schedule.

For more information, please contact Jeremy Slessor, Managing Director at European Golf Design (jslessor@egd.com) or David MacLaren, Chief Executive Officer of Chislehurst Golf Club (davidmaclaren@chislehurstgolfclub.co.uk)

The Magical Golf-Club Crans-sur-Sierre

As this season’s winter works draw to a close at, we reflect on what has been one of the more challenging and restrictive builds over the past few years. This season’s work has involved the following:

  • A new putting green, (twice the size of the previous one)
  • New tee complex for Hole 1,
  • Redesigned green complex for hole 2, as well as
  • A new green and tee complex for hole 3.

 

The actual scope of work itself was smaller in size and complexity to the previous season, however, an extremely wet late autumn meant that some of the main earthworks and drainage were unable to be completed, and would need to be finished off this spring. Which, considering the amount of the works, shouldn’t have been too much of an issue.

Then, along comes Covid-19, and the everything and everyone gets shaken to the core. The uncertainty of if, and when, works could recommence was unknown. Travel restrictions throughout Europe, hotels and restaurants all closed – it was all making things extremely difficult for both the Contractor and ourselves to get back to site.

 

Fortunately however, in the Canton the course is situated in, construction works were able to continue. And, thanks to client assistance in helping everyone obtain the necessary local and national authorizations for entry back into the country, we were all able to return safely to site.

Flights however, had been few and far between – some had to drive to different countries to catch a plane, some had to spend 24 hours in an airport. But, with one hotel still being open, and a restaurant able to deliver meals, at the beginning of April, works were able to tentatively get off the ground again.

 

Yes, works were slow initially, but as time went on and more of the workforce were able to get back into full swing, works progressed well, and we are now looking to be finished in the next two weeks. Considering all the challenges (and trying to get turf deliveries in from the UK), to only be a week or so behind schedule, is testament to all the hard work, dedication and commitment from the Client, the Contractors (SOL Golf and Arrosage Concept) and the head superintendent, Richard Barnes, and all his team. The changes are really starting to come together nicely, and, as the club continually aspire to keep getting better, this season’s work should prove to be another great step forward.

 

Reflecting back over the past 6 weeks, I do have to remind myself that this is Switzerland after all, and like a fine made Swiss watch, everything really does just work like clockwork.

 

Q&A with EGD Golf Course Designer Dave Sampson

With only hours left until we announce the winner of the Design-3-Holes competition we have been running for the past month or so in association with The European Tour and European Tour Destinations, our thoughts cast back to the last time we did something similar.

Back in 2002, Golf World magazine asked us to run a Design A Hole competition. The site chosen was on an actual project and the prize was that the winning entry would be built as part of that project. The winner was a young Englishman, living at the time in South Africa. So impressed we were with his design, and the time we subsequently spent with him during the construction of the hole (which, by the way, became the 15th hole at Linna Golf in Finland), that eventually we offered him a job. Sixteen years later, he’s still with us – and still producing outstanding designs.


Above: The hundreds of entries to the Golf World Design A Hole competition.

Above: The completed 15th Hole at Linna Golf in Finland.

Meet Dave Sampson.

Where were you when you saw the competition in Golf World?
I was over in the UK from South Africa to see my family. I had a friend in London and stayed with him the night before my flight back home. He had a copy of the magazine – in the few hours I had between seeing the magazine and getting on my flight to Johannesburg, I sketched out six different designs, posting them from the departure lounge at Heathrow. A few weeks later, I got a call to say I’d won the competition!

What happened then?
Well, I’d already decided to come back to the UK as soon as my studies were completed. At the time, I was studying for a degree in architecture and just had my thesis to complete. Shortly after that was presented, I travelled back to the UK and got a job as a cricket analyst with Surrey County Cricket Club.

My dad introduced my brother and I to all sports. Winter was golf season, cricket was in the summer. In between we played and watched everything else. I was a pretty handy cricketer (although it has been said that I was the less talented brother at that) but golf was my real passion. I started playing at about the age of nine, and almost from the first moment was drawing golf holes on anything I could find around the house. I pretty much knew from twelve years old that I wanted to design golf courses for a living – almost any car journey in South Africa is a long one given the vastness of the country and my time sat in a car would be spent looking at the landscape we were driving through, imagining holes here and there.

Although I ended up studying building architecture, I started my university career in landscape architecture and only changed when, mid-course, I moved between universities to be nearer to my at-the-time girlfriend. That relationship didn’t last, and nor did my relationship with building architecture, but I did meet my wife, Stacey, there so it was ultimately a great decision to relocate. We’ve now been married thirteen years and have a seven year old son, Michael.

What drives you to continue to excel at what you do?
I love the process. I love the thinking that goes behind unlocking the routing on a particular bit of ground – if you get the routing right, you’re half-way there. I love thinking at both micro and macro levels and how one element of design relates to another. I love the transition from design into construction. I love coming up with something new, something unique.

What do you like to do when you’re not working?
I play as much golf as I can, which is not very much unfortunately. I run and I watch sport on TV fanatically. What I have enjoyed the most about the lockdown over the past couple of months is spending time with Stacey and Michael. The traveling that we do means I am away from home for much of the time, so to be able to spend uninterrupted time with them has been an amazing experience.

What three things that you own say the most about you as a person?
1. My golf clubs – golf and sport are my passions
2. I have this small ‘wooden’ trophy of the 15th hole at Linna. Everyone asks what it is and so I get to tell my story
3. I asked Stacey if I should say my wedding ring, but she said my iPad (go figure…haha)- in her words, it’s pretty much an extension of me (nearly all of the time with sport on it)

Above: Dave with his wife Stacey and son Michael at the Evian Royal Resort, Dave undertook the redesign and renovation of the existing course in preparation for the 5th Major on the LPGA tour, The Evian Championship, in 2013.

New Par 3 course at the Evian Resort Golf Academy

European Golf Design have been working with the Evian Resort for almost 10 years now, and what a pleasure it has been – a client, who year on year strives to grow, evolve and improve their golf offerings, we are honoured for the opportunity to help them on their ambitious journey.

This year their focus turned to the state of the art Golf Academy – an exquisite facility with 180 degree views down over Lac Leman and set above the town of Evian-les-bains. The practice facilities are fantastic, with a double-ended practice range, a large putting green in front of the old Manoir house (which serves as the Clubhouse), and numerous other practice greens to practice all variety of shots. In addition to this, was a 4 hole executive course, and this was where this years changes have taken place.

The brief was to transform the existing course into a 6 hole par 3 course, with the simple instruction being that every hole had to have both the ‘Fun’ and ‘Wow’ factors. To achieve this, we developed a routing which managed to re-utilise all four of the original green sites, with the addition of two new ones. The hole lengths vary from a mere 115m to 165m, with each hole having multiple tees to vary both the lengths and shot angles. We have also managed to incorporate numerous different tee shot offerings – from the drop shot on holes 1 and 4, to the uphill 5th with its semi-blind pin, and the side-slope holes of 3 & 6, variety is in abundance.

Works commenced in the first week of 2020, and all greens, both new and existing, were turfed by early March. The final areas will seeded later on this week, and the new 6 hole par 3 course at the Evian Resort Golf Academy is scheduled to open for play in early June.

Royal Porthcawl – Through the eyes of a golfer, a designer and graphic designer.

A couple weeks back, I was fortunate to get the opportunity to play Royal Porthcawl ahead of this month’s upcoming British Seniors Open. Along with my playing partners, we were also fortunate to be greeted with blazing sunshine and NO breeze! (Note – that framed sea view from the locker room is something special…..and when you see it, you know are in for something special)

The course itself is a wonderful test and was already in great shape. The warm early summer weather had already firmed up and browned off the fairways, giving it that desired ‘links’ look! There is no weak hole out there and the par 3s were all excellent, especially the short 7th – how wonderful it is to have such a short hole (120yards if that), if only it was done more often these days!

At EGD we have numerous opportunities to work closely with the European Tour, and this year, Matt has been working on the tournament plan for this year’s British Seniors Open. Having seen the plan been worked on in the office, it was very interesting to see how this would work both on the course, and from a tournament staging point of view – the most notable course change, for staging reasons, is the 18th hole playing as the 1st and the 17th as the tournament’s home hole.

Finally, our game was played on quiet Sunday afternoon in late June, the sun was shining bright and the only sounds we could hear emanated from the nearby beach. The smell was that wonderful fresh sea air smell, the views were spectacular, and we pretty much had this fantastic links all to ourselves…..I vividly recall thinking, Life is good! In a couple weeks’ time, I am sure things won’t be all that tranquil for those in contention on tournament Sunday, but the Seniors Open sure does have a wonderful host!

Are all new bunkers starting to look the ‘same’?

Has the modern in vogue bunker style of minimalist / natural / feathered / ragged bunker edges (call it what you like) become over used? These days, if you view any website or publication dedicated to golf course architecture almost every article seems to have images of this bunker style…..are bunkers becoming too similar, and can you tell the difference from one course to the next?

Don’t get me wrong, I personally love this style, but when does too much of a ‘same’ thing become bad? Will this style become ‘stale’, or is it here to stay? History proves that architecture, no matter the form, evolves, so what is next? If only we knew this answer….

Personally, I think sandy sites most definitely lend themselves more to this style, but surely not every site is blessed with these soil conditions? At EGD, we are fortunate to have numerous designers and, while the consistency of design quality is always the same, each of us has a slightly different design approach and, most importantly, we pride ourselves on designing courses appropriate for each site, each brief and each client…..none of which are the same! So, does the ‘same’ bunker style satisfy and suit each project? We don’t think so!

Below: Examples of some modern ‘natural’ bunkering styles.