More than anything else, golf course architects are artists, imaginative and inventive people able to turn raw and rugged land into layouts that delight the soul and rouse the mind. And they use rather clunky tools like bulldozers and backhoes to do so. But at their core, those people are also adventurers, and their work these days takes them to the corners of the earth. Part of that is due to the recent trend of building courses in remote settings, and the realization that so long as the layouts are brilliantly conceived and constructed (Nebraska’s Sand Hills and Oregon’s Bandon Dunes, to name but two), people will go to them no matter how long and arduous the treks may be. And with the market for new-course development in the States dried up to the point that only a handful of tracks open in America each year, more and more designers have been taking jobs in outposts. Turkey and China, for example. Fiji and South Africa, too. Along the way, the architects have become modern-day Burtons and Spekes. Instead of trudging through the wilds of East Africa in search of the source of the Nile, they are leading expeditions to other far-flung spots, producing in the process some of the finest courses the game has known and spreading the gospel of golf all around the world as they also enjoy close encounters of the most interesting and unique kinds.
It is not always an easy task, especially on those gigs that take them to the most out-of-the-way places. In addition to the usual hassles of tractors breaking down and workers showing up with crashing hangovers, there are face-offs with deadly poisonous snakes and run-ins with nearly naked aborigines armed with bows and arrows. Often times, the terrain on which they are toiling can be traversed in the early stages of the project only by using game trails formed by the mammals that long have occupied them – or by making new ones with machetes. Ask any architect about life on the road – some of them are gone from home as many as 300 days a year – and they will recall the strange foods they have eaten, the ramshackle shacks they have slept in, the weeks they have had to make due without plumbing, running water or air conditioning and the bug bites that at times have caused their faces to redden and swell. They rue the canceled flights, lost bags and missed air connections. And as much as they pine for the loved ones they leave behind for weeks and months at a time, they sometimes struggle to adjust from being on the road with their crews to being back with their families.
“…There are face-offs with deadly poisonous snakes and run-ins with nearly naked aborigines armed with bows and arrows.”
“I am not sure most golfers understand what kind of pioneers course architects have become or appreciate the life so many have to lead in their work,” says designer Rees Jones, whose father, Robert Trent Jones Sr., was in the 1950s and ’60s one of the first architects to work extensively overseas – and who has logged more than his share of frequent-flier miles in his own work. “Many times, they get to places before there is even a proper airport or hotel. And forget about Internet or cell service.”
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Adds fellow architect Steve Smyers: “We’re vagabonds, and in addition to designing and building courses, we also have to learn or at the very least understand the local languages and customs as well as the work ethics and habits of the people we employ and the overall situation in the countries in which we are working.”
But Jones and others are also quick to describe the things they like about their peripatetic lives, and there are plenty of them. Such as getting to experience and learn about exotic cultures and becoming parts of local communities after spending weeks and in many cases months toiling there. Or providing a living and teaching new life skills to local laborers who had neither before. And in the end, there is the satisfaction of working in golf and creating golf courses that provide places for both foreigners and locals to play as it also helps further the game by introducing it to other peoples and lands.
Of Sheep and Snakes
“There is only one way to build a golf course properly, and that is to be there,” says Benjamin Warren, a 37-year-old native of North Berwick, Scotland, who has worked with Tom Doak on the Grand Saint-Emilionnais Golf Club near Bordeaux, France, and with Gil Hanse on the Olympic Golf Course in Rio de Janeiro, and now is leading a revamping of the Green Course at the Royal Dar Es Salam Golf Club in Rabat, Morocco, with fellow designer James Duncan. “So, we have to travel a lot, and while the core product is essentially the same, the job itself is wildly different each time. Sure, it can certainly be difficult, but the work is always interesting, as are the experiences we have on and off the site.”
Experience is an apt word choice, and Warren will never forget the one he had a few days after traveling to Morocco to begin a restoration with Duncan on the highly rated Red Course at the Royal Dar Es Salam. “I arrived with a very open mind and was as much looking forward to learning about Moroccan culture as I was the job,” he recalls. “That’s why I booked a place to stay initially in a traditional Moroccan home, called a riad, in the old part of the city. It was a beautiful spot, and it put me right in the middle of Moroccan life. I loved being woken each day at 4 a.m. with the call to prayer, and I really enjoyed just walking around the streets of the medina and taking in the sights and smells. But then came the Festival of the Sacrifice, otherwise known as Eid-al Adha.”
Eid-al Adha is a Muslim holiday and one of the most important in that religion, its roots going back to Abraham, who is a revered figure in Islam, Christianity and Judaism. As the story goes, God asked Abraham to sacrifice his only son (Isaac to Christians and Jews, and Ishmael to Muslims) as a way of proving his devotion. And he was willing to do so before God told Abraham to kill a sheep in Ishmael’s stead.
Muslims have celebrated that change of heart on the part of the Almighty for centuries, and Warren heard about the festival shortly after he arrived in Rabat. “My co-workers at the golf course told me it was like Christmas for Christians, with families getting up early in the morning for breakfast together, after which the men go to the mosque,” he says. “And when they return from prayers, each family sacrifices an animal. But only after the King has sacrificed his.”
Usually, it’s sheep, though some families will kill a cow, goat or camel. In many cases, the people take care of their own sacrifice, but some will bring in professional butchers to handle the task. So important is the ritual that poorer families have been known to borrow money to buy an animal, and once it is slaughtered, the skin is saved and eventually tanned, and the meat processed.