x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

A masterful approach to game of golf course design

Gary Player, dubbed the greatest golfer of all time, designs some of the best courses on earth. Here, in an exclusive interview with The National, he reveals the secrets of success in the boardroom and on the Lynx.

The Saadiyat Golf course in Abu Dhabi is one of the most beautiful golf courses in the UAE. Delores Johnson / The National
The Saadiyat Golf course in Abu Dhabi is one of the most beautiful golf courses in the UAE. Delores Johnson / The National

Building world-class 18-hole venues is big business across the world as more cities and countries vie to attract amateurs and professionals alike. But one former champion leads the field.

Before the US Masters golf tournament at Augusta gets into full swing, most people are tipping a resurgent Tiger Woods as the man to beat, including the former multiple champion Gary Player, dubbed one of the greatest golfers of all time.

But, for Player, sitting on his laurels has never been of interest. The South African designs some of the most amazing courses on Earth, including the one at Abu Dhabi's Saadiyat Beach Golf Club.

Here, in an exclusive interview with The National, he reveals the secrets of his success in business and on the fairway.

What was the transition like from being one of the greatest golfer's of all time - full-time - to becoming a leading business executive with such a broad and successful portfolio? How did you deal with it?

Golf is actually quite good at preparing you for a successful business career. There are a great deal of qualities that translate well from the golf course to the office. A sense of determination, strategic planning, patience, organisation, an insistence on superior quality, ability to maintain confidence and learning to deal with pressure are keys to succeeding on and off the course. A golf tournament is not won by just one hole or one shot but by play over 72 holes. This is important to remember in business, just like in golf. Maintaining a superior quality service or product and quickly bouncing back from any letdowns is what will allow you to build a successful business or career and that is what I have tried to do over the years.

Have you always wanted to design your own golf courses, even as a player?

As a farmer, I've always had an interest in the land, so yes, my interest in design dates back to my competitive playing career. Also, my brother Ian, who is a renowned conservationist, long ago instilled in me a deep interest in the environment and that translates directly into my design philosophy.

What is the most challenging environment to design a golf course in?

A non-ocean, flat site that doesn't have any real attributes. In that case, everything has to be created and one has to be careful that it does not look or feel contrived.

What is the most challenging element of golf course design and construction, across the board?

I would say the transition from design to construction is very challenging and also very important. Our team has to be intimately familiar with the land during the design process, so that we maximise the potential of the site early on and minimise changes in the field during construction. Major changes in the field cost our clients money, so careful and detailed design is important.

Of the courses your company has designed, which is your favourite?

I've been asked that many times and it is like asking which of my six children is my favourite. There are so many that I am incredibly proud of, and I honestly can't narrow it to one. Certainly, in the UAE I think that Saadiyat Beach is going to be very, very special as it fully matures.

Have you ever been asked to design a course in circumstances so unusual or difficult that you had to refuse? If so what were the circumstances?

We have definitely turned down design jobs over the years and it is usually because the site is not conducive to a quality golf course … either not enough land or the topography is too steep or the client's objectives for the site don't allow for a quality end product.

Which areas of the world are still ripe for development in terms of golf course construction? In other words, where is the next hot destination?

We are busy in China and India, of course, and are still expecting significant growth in both countries, although some obstacles still exist. I actually see near-term and significant activity in many countries throughout Africa. We are already working in places like Morocco, Gabon, Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa, for example. Certain countries is Latin America are also exciting.

Is there a current trend in terms of golf course design? What do people want to play these days and what do you think they will want to play tomorrow?

Thankfully, we are seeing more environmental sensitivity being incorporated by most design firms. From a player perspective, I strongly feel that people want to enjoy the game, so playable courses rather than overly difficult designs is a trend that will be adopted by successful architects. Brown is the new green and less is often more.

What happens to old golf courses when they fall out of favour? Can they be redeveloped or turned over to a different use? Is this something you have considered commercially?

We have renovated and repositioned several golf courses over the years. Typically, a golf course needs some sort of "face lift" after about 20 years … to keep pace with new agronomic practices and also equipment technology. With the downturn in the economy in North America, we will see much more renovation work there than new course development. And even golf courses in residential communities that are just converted into parks.

What is the greatest golf course on the planet? To make it easier to answer, if you could play just one course for the rest of your life which would it be and why?

Augusta National or my personal course on my stud farm in South Africa. Augusta National is the obvious answer, it is an amazing course that holds such history and the conditioning is unmatched around the world. Not all courses are destined to be like Augusta National, however. I have built an environmentally friendly, water-saving course on my stud farm in South Africa's Great Karoo that plays to the arid conditions of the Karoo. Gary Player Design focuses strongly on creating courses that enhance the natural characteristics of the surroundings, so my course in the Karoo is a bit of a sustainability experiment (gone well) for future course designs.

Who do you fancy in the US Masters this year?

Most people will not argue with Tiger Woods as the overwhelming favourite to win the Masters. Tiger is off to a great start this year with tons of momentum going into this year's tournament. Plus, he is a phenomenal putter and to win at Augusta you have to putt well. Other favourites include Phil Mickleson and Rory McIlroy but I like the chances of Louis Oostuizen, Lee Westwood and Adam Scott. I would love to see Sergio Garcia win but I personally feel that Tiger is due to have a great year.

I have been golfing for two and a half years now and am an addict. Trouble is, I rarely bring my full game. If I drive well I have no second shot. If I have a good drive and fairway iron, I have no chip. What hope do I have?

Perhaps you should take two weeks off and then quit! No seriously, the key is to relax, keep your expectations in line and enjoy the game. It is hard to play if you put too much pressure on yourself, which could be one of your challenges. Remember, the harder you practice, the luckier you get.