Light and Shade – Trees on the Golf Course

One of the perks of this job is being able to return to a golf course we’ve designed and see how it has grown and matured over the years. I recently had the pleasure of returning to Woburn Golf Club to look at the Marquess Course which we designed in 1998. Opened on 4th June 2000, The Marquess made an immediate impact on the golfing world by hosting the 2001 and 2002 British Masters and receiving rave reviews from the tournament professionals. Since then the course has gained a reputation as one of the top 18 hole tracks in England.

Returning to The Marquess for the first time in three or four years I was struck immediately by the fine condition of the course. The greens in particular have really come on and despite it being only mid-April the putting surfaces were firm, fast and true. The fairways were also in great shape and the winter had seen a programme of restoration on the bunkers. I have no doubt that, come the 10th anniversary celebrations in June, The Marquess will be in its finest condition yet.

An important part of the golf course maintenance programme on The Marquess is the tree management programme. Like Woburn’s other courses, The Dukes and The Duchess, The Marquess is laid out within mature woodland of pine, oak and sweet chestnut, with every hole lined by tall trees. While the trees add so much to the setting and strategy of the course, they do require a specialised management regime both to maintain the health of the woodland and also the condition of the turf, so there is a continual process of felling and removal of dead or diseased trees, planting of new trees and general tree surgery.

However, while at Woburn the need to carefully manage trees seems obvious almost all other golf courses would benefit from having a similar tree management programme. Many courses start out with relatively few trees, but over the years begin to plant trees usually for aesthetic reasons as part of a beautification process, but sometimes for practical reasons to screen or protect certain areas. Often it is ornamental trees or exotics which are planted rather than native species, and sometimes there is little thought given to the impact of tree planting on the golf course in the long term. A golf course can very easily become overplanted with consequent negative impacts on turf, playability, strategy and views.

Not long ago I visited a golf course where the committee wanted to re-bunker the golf course as the original bunkers were “out of play”. Well they were right, most of the bunkering was out of play because it was hidden in the trees. About 20 years previously the club had instigated a tree planting programme of which they were clearly very proud. To give them their due they had used native species, but they appeared to have forgotten what the impact would be when the trees grew. Consequently the bunkers which had previously been on the side of the fairways were now surrounded by trees, the fairways were all about fifteen metres wide and the quality of the turf on the fairways was getting progressively worse as the light became more restricted and the tree roots sucked the moisture out of the soil. What the course actually needed was a policy of tree removal but it appeared that every tree on the course was now sacred! So the club went on with their re-bunkering plans and consigned themselves to poorer turf quality, higher maintenance costs and reduced playability.

Nearly all courses with trees would benefit from having a proper review of their planted areas to assess the following criteria;

1 – The health and life expectancy of each tree, including any potential safety issues.
2 – The potential size and form of each tree.
3 – The suitability of tree species.
4 – The impact on turf health, including an analysis of shade at different times of the day and year, the effects on air circulation and root system types.
5 – The impact on golf course playability and strategy.
6 – The impact on golf traffic and wear.
7 – The impact on aesthetics of the golf course and also the broader landscape.
8 – The impact on views, both within and outside the course.

Obviously, the most direct impact of trees is on the condition of the course. Grass needs sun, air and moisture and if trees block any or all of these elements then turf is really going to struggle to stay healthy. And the problem will only get worse where grass is closely mown and gets more wear, such as on greens. However, while most people are aware of these problems, and indeed are familiar with them in their own gardens, it often seems that golf committees are slow to understand the impacts on their course.

A good tree management programme will identify trees which are to be cleared as part of a selective thinning operation. Often removing a number of trees improves the growing conditions for those which remain while alleviating shade and air circulation problems at the same time. But it’s not all about tree removal. The programme should also give advice on the locations and varieties of any new planting, taking into account the impact on turf quality and strategy, as well as the need to replace individual specimen trees.

As at Woburn, trees on a golf course can provide a majestic backdrop. They have many environmental benefits, they help to divide playing areas and provide definition and, if properly planned, play an important role in the enhancement of both the golf course and local landscape. Ultimately however, trees and tree planting need to be managed so that they don’t inhibit the growth of the healthy turf on which the game is played and relies, especially at a time when sustainability is such an important part of the future of golf.

The signature 7th hole on The Marquess Course at Woburn Golf & Country Club

Bentley, Bugatti, Braid or Bust!

Some excitement for the car enthusiasts amongst us on Friday as a fleet of vintage cars passed by the office. Over 50 pre 1941 sports cars including Bentleys, Lagondas, Bugattis, Aston Martins, Jaguars and Mercedes trailed past on the first stage of the Flying Scotsman Endurance Rally 2010. Starting from just down the road at the famous Brooklands race track, home of the world’s oldest motor-racing circuit, the cars spent the weekend racing along remote country roads on a three-day charge to Scotland, stopping for time trials along a route which took in Henley on Thames, Stowe, Rutland, the Humber Bridge and the Yorkshire Moors.

Interestingly not only was the start of the race very familiar to us. The finish line was at Marriott Dalmahoy Hotel & Country Club near Edinburgh where we carried out major renovation work to the James Braid designed East Course in 2005 in order to develop and enhance the reputation of Dalmahoy as a popular golfing destination and to create a golf course that will once again be able to host international golf tournaments.

Winners of the Flying Scotsman 2010 were a Vauxhall 30/98 in the pre-1925 class and a Bentley Derby 4¼ in the pre-1941 class.

Vauxhall 30/98

Looking forward to 2010

In our last blog we all looked back at our personal highlights of 2009. But for the first blog of the New Year, and as the snow piles up outside, I thought I’d sit back with a warming ‘Chocolat chaud’ and look forward to what 2010 has in store.

And for myself it looks like another busy year with three new courses up and running by the autumn. The first, Rowallan Castle Golf Course in Scotland, had a soft opening last year but should be fully operational this summer. It’s a Colin Montgomerie signature course which winds its way through a historic landscape and past two castles. There are some great views to, across the Clyde estuary to Arran.

Moving to Southern Europe, The Dunes Course at Navarino Dunes Resort in Greece will open for play this spring. Designed in association with Bernhard Langer the golf course is part of a major new, beachside luxury hotel resort in Messinia in the southwest Peloponnese. It is a particularly exciting project as it represents the first of a number of high-end developments in the region which will open under the Costa Navarino umbrella.

The third course I’ll be looking forward to seeing being played this year is the Colin Montgomerie Course at The Dutch, in Holland. 11 holes were completed last year and were growing in strongly by the end of the season. In the spring we’ll be putting the finishing touches to the remaining holes with a view to playing some golf in the late autumn.

And talking of the autumn. October 1st will see the first shots struck in anger at the 2010 Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor Resort, the biennial match between the top golfers in Europe and the US. This will be the 38th time the matches have been played but, excitingly for us, the 1st time on a golf course created by European Golf Design. The event marks 10 years of work for us and we’ll be looking forward to it with a mixture of excitement and trepidation! You never know we might even get a European victory. Now there’s something to warm the cockles of your heart on a cold day in January!

Celtic Manor – Year To Go

Invited by Celtic Manor to attend the Year To Go celebrations at the resort on Monday. The two Ryder Cup captains, Colin Montgomerie and Corey Pavin, played an exhibiton match on The Twenty Ten Course with Radio and TV presenter Chris Evans and Welsh opera singer Bryn Terfel. Played on a beautiful sunny day over 9 of the new holes designed by European Golf Design the match ended on the 18th green with an honourable half. Afterwards at the Gala Dinner the guests were treated to a question and answer session with the captains and entertainment from Bryn Trefel, and singer John Owen James as well as MC Chris Evans.

Thoughts on the day;

1 – The Captains – Both came across impressively during the day. Admittedly it was all pretty light hearted stuff but their mutual respect and competitiveness was  clearly evident.

2 – Chris Evans – Don’t take on Chris Evans in a game of golf , You’ll be beaten. A 15 handicapper going on 5.  Oh, and a superb MC.

3 – That Bryn can sing….Wow. Never been particularly interested in that style of singing before but to hear it live is a real experience.

4 – John Owen Jones… a star in the making. Thought he was the resident comedian…and then he sang! Great performer.

5 – Rhodri Morgan, The First Minister for Wales – A politician and a born entertainer. I laughed ‘till I cried!

6 – Gareth Edwards – You can only admire his passion and pride for Wales hosting the Ryder Cup, and on The Twenty Ten Course where he is Honorary Captain.

7 – The Ryder Cup – It’s difficult for anyone to understand the sheer scale of organization that’s required to host the Ryder Cup and you have to admire those responsible for its coordination.

8 – The Celtic Manor Resort – There’s no denying it will be a superb host for both teams.

9 – Sir Terry Mathews – a man who, if he’s told “it can’t be done”, proves it can!

10 – Sun block – Who’d have thought I would regret not bringing the factor 20 to Wales – in October!

The Sun is Shining at Rowallan Castle

Just back from Rowallan Castle in Scotland where we are putting the finishing touches to a Colin Montgomerie golf course. The weather was glorious and when the sun is shining there will be no better place for a round of golf. The setting is wonderful – the course plays around two of the finest castles in Scotland (the ‘old’ castle built in the 13th century and the ‘new’ in the 19th). There are streams and stone bridges and superb views to the Firth of Clyde and Arran.

Every hole has its own distinct character but I think, as a group, the par 3’s particularly stand out. Having said that my personal favorites are probably the two short par 4’s, the 7th and the 12th. Both are between 280m and 320m but getting a birdie on either will be a real achievement and pars will probably be few and far between!

The course will be open for limited play later this month.

  • The 3rd hole at Rowallan
  • The 9th hole at Rowallan
  • The 18th hole at Rowallan

On Site and On Course

Sometimes you’re in the office for days – and sometimes you’re not. Variety is the spice of life!

Monday 1st June
9.00 – Sunningdale. On holiday last week so I spend an hour in the office checking emails and then it’s off to the airport to catch a flight to Amsterdam. ‘The Dutch’ is a course we’re building with Colin Montgomerie near Gorinchem. 6 or 7 holes have been shaped and hopefully I can approve some areas for drainage and irrigation.

14.00 – Holland. Arrive Amsterdam, hire car and drive south. It’s a public holiday today so for once the traffic in Holland is fine.

15.00  Arrive at The Dutch. Only the shapers working today and we spend several hours walking the course and discussing the style of the shaping which is going to be something quite different. We all agree that there will be nothing in Holland like this!

Tuesday 2nd June
7.30 – Back on site working with the shapers and putting our thoughts into practice. The guys are working really well together so I leave them to it and meet with the Contractor and Project Manager. We discuss the programme of works and try to come up with some solutions to one or two problems which have arisen.  The site is below sea level and has its own particular challenges.

12.00 – I check tee sizes and inspect drainage and irrigation installation then head to the 9th green which has now been roughly shaped. It’s not bad but something isn’t quite working. I ask the machine operator to dig out a huge chunk on the right side. He looks at me as if I’ve gone mad but plunges the bucket into the subgrade. It certainly doesn’t look plain now!

16.00 – Another meeting where we discuss the work that has been approved and what will be done before my visit next week. 5 mins before I’m due to leave our irrigation designer turns up. He’s had a nightmare drive from Amsterdam. He wishes me the best of luck as I head off for the airport. I make it, just!

Wednesday 3rd June
9.00 – Sunningdale. Two hours in the office and then it’s off to the Twenty-Ten Course at Celtic Manor Resort for the Wales Open which starts tomorrow. I’m looking forward to seeing how the players handle the course this year prior to next year’s Ryder Cup on the same course.

13.30 – Wales. Meet up at the 18th green with a BBC crew to film a piece for their Raise Your Game programme, which is aimed at inspiring and motivating people from all walks of life. We discuss why I became a golf course architect and what it takes to become one. Afterwards I talk to Jim Mckenzie, Director of Golf at Celtic Manor Resort and David Garland, Director of Tour Operations at the European Tour. We discuss the set up of the golf course and particularly the work that has been done on the course since last year’s Wales Open. Jim has been working on firming up the greens and we have added one fairway bunker on the 4th and a new back tee on the 14th. Apart from that the only changes have been to the fairway outlines and David already has some thoughts about making another tweak to the mowing line on the 16th hole. I’ll go out tomorrow and see how the players tackle it.

15.30 – Meet up with another film crew from European Tour Productions who are filming a promotional piece to be shown next year before the Ryder Cup. We talk a little about how the course was built and I point out the work we did on the 18th hole. I agree to meet them again tomorrow so they can film more with the crowds on the course.

17.00 – I speak to a couple of the pros and also to some of the participants in the pro-am. Everyone is very positive and comment on the improved condition of the course now that it has had an extra year to mature. The only minor issue is the thickness of the rough which is a bit inconsistent, mainly because of the warm dry spell we have had in the weeks leading up to the tournament. I see a couple of old friends in Wayne Sheffield and Jason O’Malley from Wisley GC and Woburn G&CC respectively. They have just played in the pro-am together. Wayne has played well and knocked it round in about 75, a fantastic score. I tell him I obviously need to make it more difficult. No one else seems to agree!

19.00 – It’s a beautiful evening so I go out on the course and take some photos.

Thursday 4th June
10.00 – I’ve driven to Marriott St Pierre near Chepstow, a few miles down the road from Celtic Manor. We’ve been carrying out an extensive upgrade to both the courses here over the last two years and I want to check the two newest greens which opened for play on Monday. They look in fine condition but I make some suggestions regarding the edging of the bunkers to Stewart Wood the Golf Course Manager. We also discuss the last phase of the work, programmed to start in the autumn.

13.00 – Back at Celtic Manor I meet up with Jonathan Smith of Golf Environment Organisation. The GEO is a non-profit organisation working to maximise the social, environmental and economic benefits of golf and they are currently working on the 2010 Ryder Cup Environmental Action Plan. We discuss how this is going and also about GEO’s involvement with two of our other projects. 

15.00 – More filming with European Tour Productions then I can finally watch some golf. I meet up with my colleague Matt Sturt and we follow Colin Montgomerie as he plays the last 6 holes. It’s been another beautiful day. Let’s hope it stays like this for the weekend.

Friday 5th June
12.30 It was a late night! I spend a couple of hours catching up with emails and sending reports and then see a little bit of golf before having lunch with Russell Phillips from CMR. Many of the people who were involved in the construction and engineering of the golf course are also on the table. We reminisce about the project and some of its peculiar difficulties but there is an underlying sense of pride about our involvement and what has been achieved. Gareth Edwards is another of our guests and he and Thomas Bjorn do an excellent question and answer session.

19.00 It’s just starting to rain! One last word with Chris Sentence at the Twenty-Ten clubhouse who, with all the team there, make’s everyone feel so much at home and then it’s back to the hotel. I’ve been invited to have dinner with the members of the Twenty-Ten Course. It’s a great evening hosted by Sir Terry Mathews. Corey Pavin, US Ryder Cup team captain, is also in attendance. Sir Terry’s enthusiasm for the Ryder Cup and the Twenty-Ten Course is clear for all to see and he is obviously held in much affection by the membership.

Saturday 6th June
06.00 A few hours sleep broken only by the noise of heavy rain thundering against my window. 35mm of rain fell in just three hours, the course is flooded and it is still raining. Another 15mm falls and play is inevitably delayed but it is a testament to the new drainage system and the hard work of Jim McKenzie and his greenstaff that only an hour after the rain stops play is underway and virtually all the rounds are completed. A tough test but one that needed to be seen to be passed. 

So that’s it for this week. Three hours in the office over the last 14 days. I need to get behind the desk next week – or maybe not!

  • Shaping on the 2nd hole at The Dutch
  • Crowds around the 18th hole on The TwentyTen Course at Celtic Manor.

Elie – Where it all Started for Braid

With his fantastic victory at Royal Birkdale Padraig Harrington became the first European golfer since James Braid in 1906 to successfully defend the Open Championship. Braid of course won the Championship 5 times in all and went on to become a prolific golf course designer.

A Scot, Braid learnt his golf over the links at the Golf House Club, Elie, a wonderful seaside course of great charm and character and the setting last week for a golf match between representatives of EGD and PGA Management.

Flying the flag for EGD were Ross and Rob, while Keith Haslam and Jonathan Pendry stepped up to the plate for PGAM. Elie has no par 5’s and only two par 3’s but probably has as good a variety of par 4’s as you are likely to see on any course. It demands good positioning from the tee and a fine short game to make a score. From the 12th the course steps up a gear with several holes well over 400 yards and long straight hitting is needed to reach the greens when the wind is from the east.

It may not be the most difficult golf course in the world but it is challenging enough for most, the setting is glorious, the greens are testing but fair and the course rewards good shot making. All in all, just what you want for holiday golf and a reaffirmation that modern day designers don’t need to resort to over complication and trickery. Golf is, after all, meant to be enjoyable.

2008 Wales Open

Wednesday 28th May

To Celtic Manor Resort (CMR) and the official opening of the Twenty Ten Course prior to the Wales Open. Chairman of CMR Sir Terry Mathews, First Minister for Wales the Rt Hon Rhodri Morgan and European Tour Chief Executive George O’Grady perform the opening functions although ominously their words are almost drowned out by the sound of torrential rain falling on the roof of the media centre. Later I take time to talk to Tournament Director Mike Stewart about the course set up. The course is playing long and Mike thinks we’ll move some of the tees forward which is fine by me. The course has been designed to have this kind of flexibility. The view from the players seems pretty encouraging from the limited play they’ve been able to have so far. After a month’s rainfall in the past four days, go to bed praying that the drainage system works!

Thursday 29th May

Fantastic – the rain has stopped. Less fantastic – we are delayed because of fog! The drainage has worked though and soon the players are out and I spend the morning watching how various holes play. Glad to see that many of them are going for the green on the par 5 18th with their second shot, despite the carry over water in front of the green. In the afternoon I spend some time with Russell Phillips of CMR, John Jermine, Chairman of Ryder Cup Wales and a film crew from BBC Wales. We walk several holes and discuss various aspects of the designs for the course, particularly the spectator viewing areas and the work that was carried out to protect and enhance natural habitats as well as the archaeological heritage of the site. Take the opportunity to speak to some of the players after they come off the golf course. All the players I managed to catch up with following their rounds are very positive about the golf course, despite the soft conditions. To bed with the sound of rain beating against the window again.

Friday 30th May

Thank goodness – it’s dry. I go down to the practice area to see how the spatial relationships work between the practice greens, the driving range and player and spectator movement. From there, the players have a very short walk to the 1st tee. Come the Ryder Cup most of the practice area will be used for the tented village. An additional practice ground is being constructed on the other side of the river to be connected by a bridge. Wander into the media centre to see some of the journalists. They’ve got a great location right next to the 18th green, as have many of the hospitality units on the other side of the fairway on the specially constructed platforms which create a natural amphitheatre. We watch as Danny Willetts, playing his first professional tournament, plays his second shot. He needs to make an eagle to make the cut and goes for the green. He only just makes the carry but the soft ground conditions just stop his ball from rolling all the way back into the water. His chip is well struck, climbs the steep slope, runs across the green and into the hole. Never looked like missing. Danny will be back for the weekend. I’m off home.