Pacific Coast Design (PCD), world renowned golf course architects from Australia spearheaded by Phil Ryan and Paul Reeves. Veterans of the industry and the most notable golf course architects in India, PCD has built over 15 golf courses across India over the past two decades. One of their most iconic works is the Oxford Golf & Country Club which converted a rough hilly terrain to an award winning championship golf course and one of India’s best. Golf Digest India caught up with PCD at the recently concluded India Golf Expo 2016 in Gurgaon.
When did PCD first start work in India?
Phil: In 1993, Pacific Coast Design got its first project in India. We started designing the Eagleton Golf Resort (Eagleton Golf Village at the time) in Bengaluru. At around the same time we also got the contract to upgrade the Pune Club Golf Course which was essentially a sand scraped golf course without any grass. These got us off the ground in India and incidentally we are now doing the second round of renovation at the Pune Club course. Keep in mind that at the time, Pune Club was all constructed by hand with a very limited budget and it was all just rock. We had to dig drainage trenches by hand while removing rock, so what we achieved in those days was good but now with technology upgrades and more access to better quality equipment we take a great interest in going back and enhancing the course to suit modern times. We have been able to do a good job there with a limited INR 5 crore budget, a challenge but something we take great pride in. We knew that the base of the greens were good, so we just had to take off the top and the root mat and reshape the greens a bit and now we have a whole new golf course. We have completed 9-holes which will open for play in 2-3 months and the remaining nine will be complete and ready for play by the end of 2016.
We also just completed the renovation of the Delhi Golf Club’s Peacock 9 course which has been open for play after the Indian Open and all the members seem to love it.
What do you envisage as the future for golf projects in India?
When we first got into India there were a number of courses that wanted upgradation. We did the J.C.Wadiyar Golf Course in Mysore, then the Bangalore Golf Club as well. The redevelopment projects were great but there was also tremendous potential for further development. We had a real visionary in Ashok Kumar who got Eagleton up and running. He didn’t necessary have the finances to do it but went ahead with it none the less. He created that sort of culture of looking at residences and golf differently. Now, while we will have a number of bigger golf courses being built, a large number of smaller courses are springing up across the country. That trend of more community golf is going to be the way of the future and also help grow the game.
Paul: One thing I have learned in my 9 years working in India is that you can’t really make any predictions! I agree with Phil that the smaller courses are attractive and they offer other benefits such as residential developments so they will definitely grow. However, there will always be enough visionaries who will want to build larger courses of international standards. Take Blue Ridge Golf Course in Pune for example, it is India’s first community golf project and a shining example of what developers should benchmark against. It is a very efficient use of land and very marketable because almost every apartment has a view of the golf course. We also just built a community golf course at the Uplands project in Ahmedabad. In Kolkata we are working on a 9-hole executive course which is community oriented which is in the middle of the old Batanagar factory on the river. At the same time we are also working on a full 18-hole championship course in Sri City, Chennai – work will commence after the monsoons but it’s all been designed and ready to implement. So, there are still people who have different visions for golf courses. I also think in India we haven’t totally taken to the resort model which we have seen in other parts of the world, so someone along the way might work out a viable business model for it.
What constraints have you faced while working in India?
Paul: Land is definitely a constraint for developers especially with the premium it demands. So asking a developer to set aside a large tract of land to develop a golf course is certainly a challenge but at the same time developers have to set aside green spaces. In doing so if that green space becomes sustainable and revenue generating then it helps to maintain that land and attracts more people.
Phil: As Paul said, sustainability is the key word. A course can have fabulous bunkers and water bodies and lush fairways but if it isn’t financially sustainable then you will see a large number of these projects getting abandoned, which we have seen in the recent past. A project has to be looked at in a sustainable manner right from land allocation, resource allocations and reusing resources and taking it all the way to completion and finally operating it. That’s actually the key area that we work with our clients on. Not as much on how a bunker or green is going to look etc. that’s a given. From day 1 we have to ensure the viability and sustainability of the project.
We have spent a lot of time working this out. Take for example the grass. All the grass that we use on our golf courses now is sourced from India. We are the only ones who have collected numerous samples of grass and put them into testing to identify the best mix to use for the Indian climatic conditions. Where a course that uses imported grass has to water everyday, our Indian grasses only need to be watered once a week. All this helps sustainability and viability.
Paul: We have also spent a lot of time and effort in training the course superintendents and greenskeeping staff. The idea is not charge for this sort of training, we do it more to raise the skill level here which helps everyone grow and maintain better golf courses. This is a social responsibility that we as an organization have undertaken just as the game has given so much to us. We use Skype and Facetime a lot with our clients and also the staff to keep the training on. The idea is to get them to work through their processes on identifying issues and together we work out a solution. Less dependency on external experts if the skillsets exist in house!
How do you see the community golf model being sustainable?
Phil: The idea is similar to how residents in a community pay to use the club gym, swimming pool, tennis courts etc. So now they will have a golf course for which they can pay a nominal fee and play. If a resident just wants to walk along the course or enjoy sitting on the grass with the kids in the evening, they can do that and watch golfers play. This will reduce the barrier to entry for newcomers and demystify the game for them. It always ensures adequate revenue for the developer to maintain the green space.
Paul: This makes golf a part of someone’s lifestyle. They don’t necessarily have to play the game but will be close to it and that in itself helps grow the sport and reduce the stigma associated with understanding the game. This happens a lot in the west or even Australia, where there are numerous residential golf communities but maybe only about 30% of the residents actually play golf. They are in it for the green space and the quality of life. A golf course doesn’t need to be long to be good, you can build a smaller course but still provide the same challenge and entertainment for golfers of all skill levels.
Key areas to be address for further development in India?
Paul: I think it’s pretty bullet proof now with the skill levels that exist and the quality of equipment on hand. Technical expertise in areas of irrigation etc. is phenomenal and at par with international standards.I suppose the only thing we are really grappling with is some of the chemicals that need to be imported but other than that it is pretty water tight in India now.
Phil: The whole expat aura is gone now, all skills and requirements are here in India. From a macro level, we still have issues with developers who want to factor in golf into their projects but not knowing the kind of resources and requirements it warrants. Some developers are trying to build golf courses where they shouldn’t and they are being allowed to do so, but that will come back to haunt them sooner or later, just as we have seen in China. Like we mentioned earlier, getting people to think in a sustainable manner both environmentally and financially is paramount right now. I believe that through more educational seminars and with events like the India Golf Expo, these can be addressed and India is poised to grow.