Sculpting Horizon Hills’ star attraction

By THE EDGE

Golf courses are akin to fine red wine — they improve with age. A great golf course flows, challenges, teases and rewards. It will not hesitate to punish too.

Ross Watson would concur. Ross Watson who? Think golf course design. Closer to home, he is behind the design of the award-winning Kota Permai Golf & Country Resort in Shah Alam, the A’ Formosa Golf Resort in Melaka, Petaling Jaya’s Tropicana Golf & Country Club and Valencia Golf Club in Selangor, to name a few.

Watson has been designing golf courses the last 25 years and he is back in Malaysia to sculpture what is one of the star attractions of Horizon Hills, a resort lifestyle development located within Nusajaya, which is the country’s latest integrated hub within the highly publicised 2,217 sq km Iskandar Development Region in Johor.

It is full steam ahead for his team and him as they work relentlessly to have the 18-hole golf course playable by April next year, as promised to the prime minister.

Gamuda Land’s managing director Chow Chee Wah says when fully developed, the course would appear as if it were carved out of a forest. The lakes and ponds, he says, have drainage and other site functions. These are strategically integrated into the layout of the course to provide challenge. Still, there are adequate bail-out areas for the average player.

What goes on behind the scenes to, for instance, put in place dog-leg fairways and bunkers? I decided to check it out.

What greets me at the unfinished Horizon Hills golf course one blistering afternoon is an undulating sea of brown, dotted with men wearing Phua Chu Kang-type of boots; these are in black though. My untrained eyes cannot make any sense of what they are labouring at except that each seems to be working independently. In reality, as I am told later, they are working very much in sync, putting together simultaneously and from all corners the pieces of a very big puzzle called the golf course.

As the Aussie designer explains, the challenge was to get the right team, one that could transfer idea to reality. Clad in long sleeves and a hat — just before entering the work site, Watson whips out his sun block and smears on the stuff to protect himself from the blazing sun — he draws my attention to mounds that seem nothing more than heaps of red soil. “A golf course is an art form. There must be a natural balance about it; the vegetation; the land form…” he offers.

Watson started his own golf course architecture business back in 1979. His earliest commissioned jobs were the Clifton Golf Course near Toowoomba and the Gold Coast Burleigh Golf Course. His design philosophy is to create unique courses using the existing environment and natural terrain to stimulate design. To him, a golf course is only deemed great if it can “sing” to him.

“Not only that, when I stand there, it has to sit properly…” he says, nodding for emphasis.
His view is that no two holes should offer a similar playing experience. Each must be remembered for its uniqueness, he says, pointing to the 200-acre championship course coming up in Horizon Hills. It is going to be big and bold yet subtle. A lot of strategic thought is required, given the terrain of the course and the wind. It is going to be more challenging than Kota Permai, a course that has received rave reviews, Watson promises.

Lest the social golfer feels intimidated, Watson gives the assurance that there will be “plenty of room” for the average golfer in Horizon Hills. “Some may wish to take the easy way to the hole. However, those who take risks and succeed will be rewarded,” he says.

In short, Watson is applying the “risk reward” design principle to the layout, which preserves the natural terrain of the land and is accompanied by lots of waterways. Do expect many “heroic” holes, featuring dramatic changes in elevation from tee to green. Watch out for Hole 17 with its green perched on an island.

The unique features of the golf course will include classical bunkering with sweeping sand faces. The valley floor follows natural waterways including ponds, stony creeks and cascading waterfalls.

Working alongside turf superintendent Mark Ecott and key shaper-cum-construction manager Gary Cox, Watson is raising a series of bunkers to give the land a charismatic profile. “I want each hole to be remembered for itself,” he says.

Watch out for its opening, along with a 150,000 sq ft clubhouse designed by Argentine Ernesto Bedmar of Singapore-based interior design firm Bedmar & Shi Designers.

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