Tête-à-tête with Ernie Els

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Former World No.1, Ernie Els is one of the most prolific winners of his generation. With over 70 professional career victories, including four Major Championships, two World Golf Championships and a record seven World Matchplay titles he was inducted in the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2011. Golf Digest India caught up with Ernie to learn more about his passion to design breathtaking courses and penchant for exploring the wonderful and fascinating world of wine.

When did you first start thinking about designing golf courses and how long after that did you actually start designing your first course?

The Els Club Teluk Datai, Malaysia on the
Island of Langkawi. Voted 2014 Best New Golf Course in the World at World Golf Awards

I remember it being on my mind right at the start of my pro career. It’s one of those common topics you chat about sometimes with other players as you compete on all the beautiful courses that we’re fortunate enough to play. But as it happened, the opportunity didn’t come along until just after I’d won my second US Open in 1997, when we worked on a new course in Mary-land in the US called Whiskey Creek. Soon after that we joined forces with Nicklaus Design, which was a wonderful initiation into golf course design, just to be able to work with a legend such as Mr Nicklaus.

All along, though, we had it in mind to set up our own standalone design business and we finally realised that dream in 2000. Now, here we are with a collection of award-winning courses open for play around the world and at least as many again in various stages of planning and construction. It’s exciting times for us. This is something I have a real passion for and I can see myself designing golf courses for the rest of my life.”

Sunset over the Els Design- Albany Resort Golf Course, Bahamas

What is your overall design philosophy?

I don’t believe that applying a signature design right across the board is something that can ever work. Golf course design – or should I say good golf course design – is way more complex than that. For me, the first time you set foot on a property is a special moment and that’s when all the influences come to bear. As a designer you straight away start mentally bringing those all together to create an overall picture. Every project is unique in that way, but I’m always looking to create something inspiring, something cohesive, something memorable, something that suits its environment. I also take inspiration from elements of some of my favourite golf courses around the world, old and new.

So as I said, every project is different. But still there are certain specific principles that I would say are integral to the Ernie Els Design philosophy:

–              Sound strategic shot values and hazard placement. You can’t ignore the fundamentals; that’s the hook on which you hang the whole design.

–              A golf course should look comfortable in its surroundings and give the appearance that it be-longs in its natural environment.

–              As golf course designers we have a duty to balance the needs of our client with the needs of the environment…and be respectful of both. There will always be solutions that work for both sides and I think our expertise in that area is one of the reasons we’ve been awarded projects in environmentally sensitive areas such as Langkawi in Malaysia and at the upcoming project in Croatia on the stunning Adriatic coastline.

–              A golf course should test the best, but also be playable for golfers of all standards.

The Gunung Matchincang mountain forms the backdrop
to Hole #13 at The Els club Teluk Datai, Malaysia

All in all, I’ve found golf course design to be an amazing process and the interesting thing is, your design instinct never totally switches off. It’s on all the time! I might be playing a tournament some-where and see a little feature, maybe the shape or the relationship of a bunker within a greens’ complex, and think to myself ‘hey, that would work at a particular site’. It’s an incredibly inspiring and rewarding business.”

The Els Club Teluk Datai won the best new course in 2014 and was recently included on Golf Digest’s Top-100 Courses in the World list. Ernie Els has also just won Designer of the Year at the World Golf Awards. What was it about the course that you feel was the most outstanding feature or factor in the award?

Thanks. That was a great honour for us. The landscape that we had to work with for The Els Club Teluk Datai is blessed with outstanding natural beauty – honestly it’s one of the most breathtaking settings that I have ever seen on my golfing travels. We knew that in our design we had to make the most of that and ensure that visitors would be blown away by the golf course and also the views, which they have been!

Interestingly, one standout design feature is we don’t have any bunkers on the golf course. Part of the logic behind that was the tropical rainforest climate would make maintenance of bunkers a huge challenge, but also we felt that the rainforest in itself created its own challenges and a beauty that we didn’t want to detract from in any way. Going ‘bunkerless’ is a neat solution, strategically, practically and aesthetically.

Looking back, it was a really fantastic project to be involved with from start to finish. We were blessed to work with some wonderful people – the guys that worked the golf course, Troon Golf, all our friends in Malaysia and at Themed Attractions Resorts & Hotels – and together we’ve delivered a truly spectacular product. We had the official opening in 2014, in the presence of Her Majesty The Queen of Malaysia and actually we played nine holes together, which was a great honour. I can’t wait to get back there.

In India, with land being such a precious commodity, most developers can only build 9 hole courses – what’s your view on that?

I say great! If you look at golf course design as an art form, which I believe you should, then you have to work with the canvas you’re given. I’ve seen some stunning 9-hole courses with innovative design touches, sound strategic values and good hazard placement. Almost all of the significant things you look for in an 18-hole course can be achieved in a 9-hole course, but still it’s more of a challenge. That’s where the designer really earns his return on investment; he’s got to be very creative and clever with space.

What other formats of golf could you recommend for Indian real estate developers?

Actually, I was going to respond in your last question by mentioning the Els Performance Golf Academy & Short Course, which is relevant here too. We just launched our first facility on the outskirts of Hanoi in Vietnam on a 30-acre purpose built site. That’s a great solution if, as you say, land is such a precious commodity. You can have an academy and a short course; with its clever use of land that’s attractive for many developers in areas where land cost or getting large pieces of land that a traditional 18-hole requires is not possible, particularly near city centres.

We’ve had discussions within our team and we believe that the growth of golf estates and resorts will only really be possible in the suburb environs of India’s biggest cities. We are consider-ing a few master planned communities for The Els Club Estates premier lifestyle living and championship length golf courses. As your readers probably know, we are very fortunate to have worked with some of the world’s best quality developers and look to the same criteria when evaluating opportunities in India. Water and resource usage is obviously a key element as well and we are very mindful of that, particularly where infrastructure is challenged or over-stretched. I always keep a close eye on making sure we develop and design for the area, developer and what the piece of land provides. It would be irresponsible for us to design something non-sustainable.

Does your company do redesign or refurbishment of older courses?

Absolutely. Wentworth’s iconic West Course is our most high profile renovation and modernisation project. The Els Club Teluk Datai was also a renovation of an existing layout, albeit on a much more dramatic scale than Wentworth. We also have other renovation projects on our books. We see this as an exciting growth area for our business.

How can a developer best recoup his investment in a marquee brand name like yours or Nicklaus, etc?

That’s one of the areas where we feel Ernie Els Design has a significant edge over many of its competitors. There’s more to a successful development than simply the golf course. You need added brand value and we can bring that in several key areas. With the developments we have done so far with the likes of Four Seasons in Mauritius or Hyatt in South Africa and others- we have enhanced property sales, investment, hotel occupancy and values on par or better than others; but it comes down to execution and quality and we enjoy working with the best in the business.  We’ve got the Els Club Estates, Founders Membership programs with The Els Clubs, the Els Performance Golf Academy, The Big Easy Winebar & Grill, Ernie Els Wines and Ernie Els Clothing Collection.

 Our partners see the value in Els Design as a brand, setting the standards for golf in the regions we’re building in and using our brand as a tool to help drive tourism to the region. That is our experience at The Els Club in Malaysia, where the media attention surrounding the opening and the awards generated a big spike in business and interest. And this year our Els Club Malaysia business model will further expand, with the opening of two sensational new properties in the southern state of Johor, with the 27-hole Els Club Desaru Coast and the 18-hole Els Club Desaru Valley. This is just the beginning of what we believe will complete an unrivalled golfing proposition for our Founder Members and clients in South East Asia.”

 

Do you get involved in the clubhouse design and what are one or two key points in club-house design that can help maximize revenues?

I have a solid hospitality team that assists clients on nearly all facets of their development for our premier Els Club Estate developments, from area planning, master-planning, and programming on the clubhouse. While the outside of the buildings may all look different around the world, what is important is to have the same DNA inside; with great interior design, amenity package and planning. We would always want to share our expertise and give input into that side of things. We have a lot of knowledge to share and wouldn’t want our development part-ners making the typical mistakes.

For instance, in our experience, there was a tendency in the last decade to think bigger is better on clubhouse sizes; that clearly is not the case. As an owner, you need to look at revenue-generating space versus back-of-house and service areas. If there is a hotel within the environs, we need to understand what back-of-house services can be shared to find operational synergies. I want our clubs to feel comfortable and high quality. I really dislike soulless rooms that have no ‘life’ inside.  Often when the public and members spaces are too large or don’t flow right from an operational point of view, you end up with many dead areas. I feel it’s time for clubhouses to now evolve and be designed to service the next generation, which often times means 3-generation families sharing the same memberships – after all, we want our Els Clubs to be a happy, fun and busy place. Golf is tough enough!

Anyway, one quite recent initiative is locating a Big Easy Winebar & Grill in the clubhouse and that’s worked extremely well, for instance at The Els Club Dubai, with it winning best Food & Beverage outlet at the 2015 Middle East Golf Awards. We’re introducing another Big Easy Winebar & Grill at The Els Club Malaysia later this year and would recommend this as a posi-tive initiative for any of our partners.

And as I said before, we can offer other significant Els brand synergies in other areas, such as clothing in the Pro Shop, specifically our range of golfing apparel from the Ernie Els Collection, and of course our entire wine portfolio can be made available throughout the clubhouse and its various bars and restaurants. All of these things not only generate revenue but they also add something to the overall customer experience, that vibe someone gets when they spend a day at a golf club. It’s hard to put a price on that.”

How closely does your company supervise the actual construction? Do you look for a PMC (Project Management) partner preferably especially in new markets?

This is so important, as sub-standard construction or poor supervision can really cause long-term cost and reputational damage for the developer and for us. So we help our clients every step of the way through the process, from helping select the right construction team, while ensuring we work with local labour whenever we can. Obviously there are specialised areas to build a golf course, with shaping, irrigation and agronomy being really key.

We have one of the industry-leading construction specifications and all our plan documentation is incredibly detailed. We also provide a full-time onsite Design Coordinator who basically lives near the site and ensures that my design intents and the nuances of what I want are implemented. It is a huge benefit having one of our guys on site, as it saves the developer time and money, as decisions can be taken quickly. My right-hand man, Greg Letsche, also is on site every 6-8 weeks or so during construction.”

Do you always travel to all your design sites or is there an extra fee for that?

I’m hands on throughout the design process; it’s just the way I like to do business, any business. So yes, I get personally involved in site visits. That would be agreed and accounted for in the initial design fees. I cannot put my name on something I have not been a part of – and, to be honest, it provides the developer huge value beyond just the design. You cannot discount the increased visibility, media value and greater market confidence of having regular personal visits.

What criteria do you typically look for when agreeing to take on a project proposed by a developer?

Quality is what it’s all about for us. That’s been our way ever since we started the business 16 years ago; we want to partner with the best and create the best. I think our portfolio of courses reflects that commitment.

Anything in the pipeline for India?

We’ve been involved in some exciting conversations with potential partners and we can definitely see some real potential in the country. Obviously the recognition myself and our firm have achieved over the past few years, with ‘Golf Designer of the Year’, ‘World’s Best New Golf Course’ and The Els Club Teluk Datai being the first course in our design portfolio to feature on Golf Digest’s prestigious top-100 list, is big for us. It means we are attracting interest from a new wave of developers that see the inclusion of not only our work, but brand as bringing immense value. That’s valid not just in India, but obviously all around the world.

How has the wine business been for you in India?

It is obviously an attractive market due to the size of population and growth of popularity of wine. The import duty on foreign wines is quite high, but we have a balanced and diverse port-folio of wines now and I think looking ahead that’s going to make a difference especially in such markets. I know the guys are actively seeking out opportunities and from my own experiences during various trips to India that there is definitely a keen interest due to the quality of our product.

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