x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Player still refining golf course design

Operators of the Saadiyat Beach course say they want to protect the vision famed former PGA and senior tour player has for the project.

Gary Player giving an update on the progress of the course he has designed on Saadiyat Island.
Gary Player giving an update on the progress of the course he has designed on Saadiyat Island.

ABU DHABI // With only weeks until the first blades of grass are due to appear on Saadiyat Island's new championship golfing venue, the 18-time major winner Gary Player stopped by to give his latest creation a thorough once-over. Player, who is 73 and has been dubbed Mr Fitness for his daily routine of 1,000 sit-ups, paced around the 18 sets of tees, fairways and greens that fringe the island's northern coast.

The South African drew up the original blueprints for the Saadiyat Beach Golf Course, the first ocean-side course in the Arabian Gulf, owned by the Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC). He came to make some last-minute design tweaks, ensuring that the holes will be suitable for players of all abilities. "We're at the stage now where in the next month they'll start planting the grass," Player said. "So now we have to give the final OK before we go ahead and grass it.

"I changed little things today that, had I not changed, would have taken off a point out of 10. We'll continuously come back and do these site visits." The alterations included deepening some bunkers or changing their positions, evening out the undulation of some greens and adjusting the placement of tees. "I've got to look at the course from several points of view, from the hackers' point of view, the beginner, the intermediate and from a champion," Player said. "I've got to go there and put myself in all those positions."

Only after the layout and contours of the holes are approved will the irrigation systems be installed and the grass planted. A grow-in phase is scheduled for January, ahead of the full opening in September next year. So far, five holes have been approved with several more set to get the nod after yesterday's inspection. DJ Flanders, the general manager of the TDIC-Troon Golf alliance overseeing the development of all TDIC's golfing assets, including the Gary Player and neighbouring Saadiyat Reserve course, said in many cases an architect would complete a design and then allow the operator to take over. The operator could then make alterations resulting in the original vision being lost.

He says Troon Golf tries to maintain the original concept of a course after the designer leaves, "so if he comes back 20 years later, he recognises what he did". "We're not the artists," he said. "We're the people who protect the painting." According to Player, one of the biggest challenges facing the course's progress is the removal of the soil covering the site for use on Saadiyat's other developments and its replacement with soil and sand from the seabed.

"It's not as though you're just shaping sand dunes. It's twice the amount of work." Once the Gary Player course is complete, it will be considered as a venue for the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship, a European Golf Tour event that has been held at the Abu Dhabi Golf Club. The course was designed to meet the requirements of a major tournament, including parking, elevated spectator areas and space for hospitality tents.

"It has been talked about as a good place that it could relocate to, but that's still up in the air," Mr Flanders said. Saadiyat Island is a natural land mass spanning 27 square kilometres that will be home to 160,000 people when it is completed in 2018. The Saadiyat Reserve course, which was designed by Robert Trent Jones II, will be built in an area of wetlands dominated by mangroves and tidal flats. As the tide changes during the day, large expanses of water will give way to muddy flats and exposed mangroves.

The Gary Player course, in comparison, will be notable for its vivid blend of colours. "We'll have massive white bunkers and dark green fairways and the colour of the ocean," Player said. "We're creating multiple contrasts." Although Player has designed more than 250 courses throughout the world, the Saadiyat Beach Golf Course is his first in the Gulf region. With the development of golf at such an early stage in Abu Dhabi, he said it is vital to make a bold statement.

"It's going to be some special golf course," he said. "When you go into a country and it's the birth of golf there, it's imperative that you do something of real quality. We are making a very special effort and when you see it next September, it will be an eye-opener." rditcham@thenational.ae