Golfplan designed M3M golf course first to deploy synthetic turf
DELHI — There’s a trope that applies broadly to golf course architects and photography. The pictures that often depict them in brochures (and on websites) all too often feature a central figure, the course designer himself, standing somewhere out on a raw piece of land. Acolytes surround him and someone in this retinue is invariably holding a set of plans. But the architect is not looking at those plans. Indeed, he is looking out of frame and pointing assuredly at something in the distance. This is the architect “in action”, communicating his “vision” for the golf hole he is creating.
These images smack of stagecraft, which is often exactly what they are. Neither the architect nor the people in these shots, for example, wear hats to protect them from the sun. Their clothing is usually spotless, untouched by soil or perspiration.
Kevin Ramsey knows the genre. He has participated in some of these made-for-brochure photo shoots, he tells me, and just then he stops walking and laughs out loud. We are approaching the 9th green at the M3M Club, his new project set to open here, just north of Delhi airport. Ramsey, a partner in the internationally renowned course design firm, Golfplan, is wearing a billed cap to protect him from the powerful Haryana sun. He is not holding any plans. There is no retinue (just me), and his clothes are permeated with sweat and grime.
“This is real life,” he says. “There is a good bit of glamour to this job, but only when the course is open.”
Ramsey, a native Californian and an elite golfer during his university days, stops on the 9th green to examine a seam in the turf. Yes, a seam. When it opens this fall, M3M will not only be India’s newest golf property; it will also be the first to deploy synthetic turf. The 9-hole par-3 layout at M3M, in addition to its 9-hole putting course and driving range, are entirely “grassed” with a lush, green product produced by FieldTurf, a U.S.-based company that supplies product to sports facilities all over the world.
“We went synthetic here for a lot of reasons,” says Ramsey, who looks up at one of M3M’s two 35-storey towers just as the late-afternoon sun ducks behind it. “That’s one reason right there: The shade created by these high-rises would have made it quite difficult to grow and maintain healthy turf here, no matter what varietal was chosen.
“But mainly, it’s for the residents. This FieldTurf will always look good. There will be no dormancy, no off-color in the off-season. The trees will lose their leaves but residents will always look down from the 33rd floor and see this beautiful, lush-green view — 100 percent of the time.”
Synthetic golf turf isn’t just new to India. It’s pretty darned new to the entirety of golf worldwide. Nine short holes were laid out on synthetic turf a few years ago, inside a range at a club in Hong Kong, but it has never been attempted on this scale. Ramsey and his firm, Santa Rosa, California-based Golfplan are pioneers in this regard. But they’re well accustomed to that mantle.
For the past 40 years, in countries new to the game of golf, Golfplan has often been the first to arrive and the last to leave. All told, the firm has created more than 217 courses in 32 different countries (if we count renovations, it’s 75 countries). Forget the big names we might associate with winning golf tournaments: No course design firm is so widely traveled, productive and experienced as Golfplan. In many of these locations — Tunisia, Bali, Myanmar, Uganda, Mongolia, Nepal — Golfplan created the very first modern golf course, or the first public course. In America, where Golfplan has long been based (just north of San Francisco), the firm has been called the Johnny Appleseed of Golf. “In Asia,” says David Dale, Ramsey’s partner in Golfplan, “we’ll settle for Siddhartha.”
This sort of sustained productivity in the face of otherwise flagging development climates is one reason GolfInc. magazine recently named Dale and Ramsey among the Top 10 Most Powerful People in Asian Golf — the only course designers on a list dominated by developers, management company executives and tech gurus. Rankings and tournaments surely played a role here; Golf Travel magazine’s newly minted Asian Top 100 features no less than 8 courses designed or renovated by Golfplan. But upon examination, the firm’s stature and four decades of staying power is more complicated, influential and enduring.
That influence is certainly the case here in India, where much golf has been proposed but precious little has actually been created. Where it has come to fruition, Golfplan is in large part responsible: Ramsey opened Zion Hills GC in Bangalore back in 2012. Two years later, he christened Edgewater GC at Aavisa, near Chennai, and today, to go along with M3M, his firm is in the midst of planning/developing additional projects in Bangalore and Goa.
“Dave Dale and I are definitely drawn to projects and countries where golf remains relatively new,” says Ramsey, who arrived in Delhi for this M3M site visit, in February, after meetings in Turkey and the former Soviet Republic of Georgia. In Turkey, Golfplan will design the country’s very first municipal course, at Samsun on the Black Sea. In Georgia, Ramsey will design the country’s very first golf course, full stop.
“And there is certainly some truth to the idea that Golfplan is super experienced at bringing golf to fruition in countries that have never entertained golf development before,” Ramsey explains. “But we’re also quite busy and have been for years in places like South Korea, Thailand, The Philippines and Singapore. These weren’t necessarily ‘mature’ markets when we started working there 30 years ago, but they are now. And we’ve been around long enough to have designed what are today the very best courses in those countries.”
Ramsey cited two examples of this dynamic. His stunning work at Anvaya Cove Golf & Sports Club near Subic Bay in The Philippines was recently named the Best New Course in Asia for 2015, according to Asian Golf Monthly magazine. For the same developers, he built the first truly public course in Greater Manila, SouthLinks GC, which debuted in 2016.
In South Korea, Golfplan designed the country’s very first public course, Dragon Valley, in the mid-1980s. The firm has since designed and built 20 more courses, most of them private, including The Club at Nine Bridges, ranked #45 in the world according to GOLF Magazine and host to October’s CJ Cup, the very first U.S. PGA Tour event to be played in Korea.
“India is somewhere on that continuum of development sophistication,” Ramsey said. “Golf has been introduced here and people are warming to its charms. But it’s still seen mainly as a way to charge a bit more for associated real estate. That’s what’s happening here at M3M, and that’s okay. The more projects in the ground and playable, the more Indians will experience and learn to love the game.
“The temptation is to compare the Indian and Chinese golf course development markets. But I have to say, having worked extensively in both locales, I don’t see too many similarities. And that’s a good thing! Because China has totally banned development for the time being — and closed down a couple hundred existing courses. The truth is, every market is so different. Experience in other developing markets is an asset, but you have to be able to continually apply that experience in new and different ways.”
Ramsey said that what strikes him, when comparing India with the Chinese market, or any other golf markets, are the differences in motivation.
“In China, golf development was all about land speculation. The government still owns the land and makes it available via long-term 60- to 80-year leases. Developers are able to acquire land in huge swaths — often thousands of acres. Course development and associated real estate development are just two ways of putting that land to use, for profit.
“Indian developers are far more cautious and conservative in their approach, mainly because land acquisition is so much more expensive and time-consuming here. In most cases, the government in India doesn’t own or have control of the land in question, nor does it have the power to move people off that land. Accordingly, course developers must slowly negotiate with dozens of private owners to piece together a parcel big enough to accommodate golf. As soon as others find out a developer is accumulating land, the price goes up, of course. This breeds caution. The demonetization effort has not helped; it really hammered the Indian real estate market generally, but that’s coming back. Still, I have never seen a speculative land deal in India, and I’m not holding my breath.
Ramsey is matter of fact about the obstacles still facing the growth of golf in India — even though one of them, perhaps the most daunting one, has been well and duly dispatched at his M3M project.
“Water is the elephant in every room associated with course development here, but, of course, these 9 holes don’t require a drop,” he says, noting that the FieldTurf doesn’t require fertilizer or pesticides either. “Everywhere else, water affects everything we do in India, from the grass choice to the entire project scope. Everything from the sale of infrastructure to the number of real estate units to course irrigation is affected — and it’s as much a political matter as it is a practical development matter. This is something hardly unique to Indian development, and it’s one reason people come to Golfplan — we know how to make things work within those sorts of restrictive bureaucratic environments.”
Ramsey says that with larger Indian developments, Golfplan has insisted upon inclusion of water treatment facilities that can recharge the irrigation lakes at no deficit to the community at large. “It’s not uncommon for us to build a closed system where we create our own lakes and all the water used on site is drained/channeled back to those lakes — because retention capability is vital during the dry season,” he explains.
“The other thing standing in the way of India building more courses, something that would create more native players and more demand, is a myth amongst developers here that championship golf courses — i.e., 7,000-yard layouts — can be built on 100 to 120 acres of property. Let me say this as clearly as I can: They cannot!”
Again, one can understand the motivating desire behind this belief: Developers want to believe it, because dropping a property’s footprint from 200 to 125 acres would eliminate millions of rupee and years of negotiations and delay.
But this matter, in reality, is fairly non-negotiable, Ramsey says.
“International-standard courses cannot be safely designed on 110 acres. Other types of facilities can. Par-3 courses with a full-on practice facility, like M3M, are an example. But here’s something else we learned early on and have been counseling developers about for decades: It’s bad business to low-ball the available land.Overly cramped golf/real estate products don’t impress or attract customers, meaning club members and home-buyers.”
The seam on no. 9 at M3M, a gorgeous par-3 to a raised green guarded by a series of fronting bunkers, has been knitted together just fine apparently. Ramsey checks another on the far side of the putting surface and looks back down the fairway to the tee. He nods his head in approval. The architect has developed what appears to be a grudging respect for the synthetic surface he has put to work here.
“I’ve hit off the stuff. I’ve played shots into these greens — it performs like real turf and it looks great,” he says. “The greens were designed just like they would on championship course, a bit smaller maybe — because these are all par-3s. But the green contour is real.
“It’s really a garden we’ve created here amid the high rises. You saw the creek and waterfall we created on the putting course — that’s a very attractive water feature. It’s just like any other design work, where you’re combining the strategies of playing the game with optimal aesthetics. The target market here is the accomplished golfer who buys a unit here because there’s this beautiful amenity just out the front door. Maybe he’s the father of the family who plays most of his golf down the road at DLF. But maybe he gets his sons and daughters interested in the game right here. That would be perfect.”