I’m pleased that LINKS Magazine has given me the opportunity in this column to talk about golf course architecture and the lifestyle side of the game, which are big parts of my professional life now. Design is a big passion of mine—as it is for everyone else at Ernie Els Design—so I’m looking forward to sharing some of my thoughts with you.
Traveling as much as I do, playing and designing golf courses all over the world, one of the fundamental changes I’ve seen these past two decades is the growth in popularity and participation in emerging markets. I’m talking about destinations that 20 years ago were barely known for golf.
My experience at Ernie Els Design is a fair reflection of what is happening in the golf business as a whole. We’re busy in locations like the United Arab Emirates, China, Bahrain, Mauritius and the Cape Verde Islands.
The area that is emerging fastest is the Gulf region—United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. The Gulf obviously possesses vast energy resources, but perhaps more importantly, leaders of these countries recognize the importance of diversification. The region has the world’s most creative and iconic real estate developments, which have helped push golf to the forefront.
Dubai alone provides us with an example of the possibilities. Just 40 years ago it was little more than a fishing village surrounded by sand. Now it has skyscrapers as far as the eye can see. I’ve been going there for 15 years, and the changes I have seen in that short period are incredible.
Trust me, this is only the beginning. This area is determined to compete with established golf destinations such as Spain, Portugal, Scotland and Ireland. There’s no doubt in my mind they’ll succeed in whatever they set out to achieve. It really is that kind of place.
Having the necessary vision is obviously important, but execution presents the greatest hurdle. As we discovered while building the Dunes at Victory Heights in Dubai, constructing a golf course in the desert is not without its unique challenges. Working with dirt is easy; shaping sand in the exposed desert is another thing. You can put it in a certain place one day—and overnight the wind shifts it elsewhere.
I’ve made six or seven site visits, and my senior design associate, Greg Letsche, and I determined from the start to embrace the environment and incorporate natural dunes and native plant material into the design—to work with Mother Nature instead of against her, so to speak. This philosophy gives the course one of its strengths: We were able to blend “out of play” areas with the residences to create an almost seamless look.
There is a genuine sense that you are playing in the desert, as opposed to an artificial oasis. We created feed-in areas to the greens, almost like Australia’s Royal Melbourne, one of my favorite courses. Alister MacKenzie was one of my early design influences, as were Harry Colt and modern architects like Jack Nicklaus and Pete Dye. Ultimately, though, you develop your own style. In this business, you have to look forward, not always to the past.
I want my courses to be challenging enough for the pros, but one of my philosophies is that you have to give members and guests a chance to get the ball in play. I’ve played in too many pro-ams where guys have lost six balls on the front nine. We believe you can make a course challenging for the best players, but at the same time memorable and enjoyable for everyone else.
At the Dunes there will be little to no rough, aside from some containment areas, so the ball will run. This way, you can make up your own mind as to which shot to play as opposed to the course dictating a specific style. I feel this sort of creativity makes for the most enjoyable golf, no matter where you are in the world.