We speak to Colin Montgomerie's right-hand man about designing golf courses in the Middle East and sporting excellence in Bahrain
It’s easy to get blasé about the process of designing a world-class golf course in the Middle East. The breathtaking array of verdant layouts that have sprouted up across the region in the past decade or so are testament both to the insatiable global appetite of the sport and to the immense capabilities of modern-day engineering. Nevertheless there’s so many of them now that even the most conscientious observer could be forgiven for forgetting that the featureless desert and summer conditions, more akin to a furnace than a habitable country, still remain the ultimate logistical challenge for a course designer.
Perhaps that’s the reason why Robin Hiseman sounds as made-up as he does about the work he’s done to make the new Royal Golf Club at Riffa Views one of the premier tests in the region. The chief architect on the championship course, Hiseman has overcome myriad hurdles and shed rivers of sweat to create a layout that is causing excited palpitations among the island’s golfing cabal. The course, which was designed in close collaboration with Scottish legend Colin ‘Monty’ Montgomerie, is Hiseman’s first in the Middle East. His enthusiasm for the project is so palpable that you can’t help but feel that the pioneer spirit that has transformed the region into a golfer’s paradise has produced another jewel to add to an already glittering portfolio.
Can you tell us about the overall design concept for the course? The course is going to have what we think is an authentic links feel. It is largely exposed to the wind, with plenty of opportunities to run the ball onto the greens. The fairways and greens are quite undulating, so the ball is going to move about once it lands. This is not going to be a golfing ‘darts’ course. The players are going to have to read the slopes and try to utilise them to their advantage.
Are you confident that the course will hold its own against some of the tough competition in the Middle East and the Gulf region in general? Yes, we’ve got a very strong course, though we don’t necessarily view the other courses as competition as such. It’s good for the region to be building up a strong portfolio of courses and we’re proud to be part of this surge in growth.
What steps have you taken to ensure that the course is as enjoyable for high handicappers to play as it is for better golfers? We’ve got lots of tees to choose from that not only reduce the length, but vary and ease the angle of play for the weaker golfer and the fairways are generally very wide indeed. Unless you drop your ball into the lakes on the last four holes then there is a fair chance that the handicap golfer can finish with the ball they started with. The golfer has to be smart though and not take on more than they are capable of. Play from the wrong tees for your ability and you are likely to become a casualty.
How much of an input did Monty have on the final design? Monty has been involved at all stages of the design, from sitting around his kitchen table while we devised the concept, through to making a series of construction site visits. At one point we were concerned that the long par four, fourth hole was going to be too difficult, until Monty borrowed a set of clubs from the pro shop and smashed a drive and 3-wood into a strong headwind to the middle of the green. Maybe we shouldn’t have been surprised that one of the best golfers ever could do that, but it satisfied us that we had got the balance right.
Yours will be the only grass course in Bahrain for the time being. Do you expect to be the standard-bearer for other courses that will be built in its wake? In Bahrain, certainly. How much notice Dubai and the other proposed UAE courses take of Riffa Views is arguable, but I think that once word gets out, they might decide to hop on a plane to take a look.
Are there any holes that you are particularly excited about? Lots. On the front nine the fifth is pretty special, as it is a classic risk and reward par four, with an optional tee shot over a deep wadi which reduces considerably the length of approach shot. Skip the challenge on the drive and you face a tough approach shot over the wadi. On the back nine there are a trio of holes at 12 through 14 that I’m particularly proud of because they were created from absolutely nothing, just dead flat, featureless desert. The 12th is a very short, pretty par three to a green set among dunes, whilst 13 and 14 are consecutive par fives, laid back to back and sharing one enormous grassed playing area.
Is the course good enough to attract high-profile tournaments to Bahrain? I think so. It is certainly long enough and challenging enough. It’s for others to decide if it suits their purposes to bring a tour event to Bahrain.
Can you tell us about some of the logistic challenges involved in designing and constructing a course in the desert? The greatest challenge has been building the course simultaneously to the entire Riffa Views residential development. There are contractors running about all over the place digging pipelines, laying roads and putting up buildings. All of them want access to their plots, which often brings them into conflict with the golf course contractor, BGDNASS, who is trying to protect its boundary and get the course in shape. Ironically, one of the main logistic challenges with the design of the course was the lack of sand! The existing site was more dust than sand and was unsuitable for establishing grass. We have had to dredge marine sand for the fairways and truck in sandfrom Saudi Arabia for the greens.
Import restrictions means that the greens sand is delivered in 1m3 bags, which certainly adds up to a significant number of trucks. Water is always a big issue with desert courses, but we were fortunate to have the existi