Royal Colombo Golf Club

View : Hole by Hole Improvements

The Royal Colombo Golf Club is an old and historic golf course. It is the second royal golf club built outside of the UK. Given its importance and historical significance in the world of golf, any upgrading should consider this important fact.

Over the years different committees have “upgraded” the course to a point that the original character and playability had been lost. Additionally, technology and the game of golf have grown and the membership has aged, so all of these factors must be considered in the upgraded plan. Unlike other golf courses in South Asia, where drainage problems are severe, RCGC has minimal drainage problems. Therefore, drainage is not the most important factor in the renovation plan.

The purpose of the master renovation plan is to provide the club with a complete renovation which will take RCGC to international standards and allow the management to maintain the course in top condition. However, should the funds be unavailable, individual projects can be done based on the clubs priorities and budget.

The report looks at and makes recommendations for the following areas of the golf course:

1.    Golf Hole Routing
2.    Green Complexes
3.    Tee Complexes
4.    Fairway Bunkering
5.    Fairways/ Drainage
6.    Irrigation
7.    Water Bodies
8.    Landscape
9.    Club House Area

Hole by hole recommendations are also outlined in the renovation plan to provide us with a more detailed solution to each area and allow us to phase the work accordingly.

We have provided three different options on how to proceed with the works. The preferred option will result in the best value for money and place our golf course amongst the best in Asia. It would mean closing several holes at a time and rebuilding the course in its entirety. If this is not possible, two other options are available.

The master renovation plan was submitted by Neil Haworth, Chairman of Nelson and Haworth Golf Course Architects.

Golf Hole Routing
One of the biggest disappointments upon arriving at the club was learning that the green in front of the clubhouse was not the 18th or 9th green. As the 8th green, the golf course loses its connection with the clubhouse and the terrace. Therefore, N&H has proposed a relatively simple rerouting of the course to make the current 8th green the new 18th green. In addition, you will have the opportunity to close the 9th Hole and extend the parking area.

The rerouting of the golf course entails the following:
1.    Extending the existing tees on Hole 18 and playing the hole up to the existing 8 green.
2.    Building a new 8th green short left of the existing green near the large rain trees close to 9 tee. An additional back tee will be built to minimize any loss in yardage.
3.    Building a new par 3 Hole from 6 green to the existing chipping green. This hole can used to close Hole 9. However, if the proposed crossover required is a problem, then you can keep the Hole 9 and eliminate this hole once the reconstruction is complete.
4.    Tee 1 and the putting green can be shifted away from the clubhouse providing more room for this crowded area.

The rest of the course remains as is except for repositioning of some tees and the new green location for Hole 12.

Greens Complexes
The 18 green complexes were rebuilt ten years ago. As observed on the site visit, the grass conditions are unacceptable due to poor maintenance over the years and intense traffic. The design of the putting surfaces has many highs and large lows and without a very good irrigation system, it is very difficult to maintain. The highs will always be dry (and brown) and the lows wet (and green). The design style is also very modern and there is not much variety or character that would give each individual hole its own identity.

N&H would therefore recommend rebuilding all the green complexes to:
1.    Build to USGA standards to allow for better putting conditions and better maintenance practices.
2.    Add character to each hole and bring back the traditional “push up style” of greens.
3.    Add a state-of-the-art irrigation system to improve the grass quality.
4.    Replace the existing grass with newer paspalum grass which is better at tolerating the difficult growing conditions in tropical climates.

Tee Complexes
Typically the tee complexes are small and many have been built with concrete walls around them. In many cases there is very little difference in distance between the various tee boxes and they are all too small and poorly aligned.

N&H would recommend rebuilding all tee complexes to:

1.    Make the teeing surfaces bigger and to improve conditions and reduce wear on the grass.
2.    Remove all concrete or other containment structures that make the maintenance of the tee surroundings difficult.
3.    Add tees and shift tees to improve playability; lengthen the course and improve any safety problems.
4.    Design and build “square tees” which are more traditional.

Fairway Bunkering
Typically there is a lack of fairway bunkering throughout the golf course. Bunkering is not typically used to penalize golfers but more to define the holes, add character and contrast so each hole is memorable and also add strategy and risk reward for playability. Typical examples would include bunkering on the outside of a dogleg to visually turn the hole, bunkers cut into slopes to make the hole more dramatic and offsetting bunkers in the fairway and green to reward golfers who take on the challenge to play as close as possible to the bunkers. Additionally bunkers can be used for safety reasons and also to catch balls from rolling into trouble areas.

The renovation plan outlines the bunkering strategy for each hole, and N&H recommends the following bunkering concepts:

1.    Bunker style should be traditional and look natural.
2.    Bunkering should only be used to enhance the hole and not penalize the beginner or average golfer.
3.    Bunkers should be constructed with proper drainage and sand (not white as it is of our character).

Fairways/ Drainage
In general, the fairways follow the natural contours of the site so not much contouring or shaping is required and except for a couple of areas the drainage is quite adequate. However, the fairways are bumpy which produces uneven lies and difficulty maintaining a closely mown turf grass.

 Therefore, N&H recommends the following:
1.    Raise poorly drained areas (right side of Hole 5 landing area, left side of 15 fairway and any other areas which do not drain well).
2.    Add catch basins and subsurface drainage pipe where necessary to help take water off the fairways and into the water bodies.
3.    “Round up” the existing turf and till the top 6 inches and then smooth before replanting.
4.    Replace the grass with a paspalum grass that does extremely well in tropical climates.

The irrigation system is critical to maintaining a good quality turf, whether it is on the greens, tees or fairways. The current system is very basic and is a liability to the club to maintain good turfgrass conditions. A lot of the problems with the current greens are because of a poorly designed and installed irrigation system.

However, before spending money on an irrigation system you will also need a good source of water. Currently your source is barely sufficient to irrigate greens and if you decide to also irrigate fairways you will need more water and increased storage in the lakes. It is also understood that the existing wells are collapsing and may not work for much longer.

Therefore, N&H would recommend the following:
1.    Improve the water source by investigating and building deep wells that can replenish underground water into the ponds. You will need upwards of 3000cum per day to irrigate greens, tees and fairways.
2.    Install and automatic system throughout the golf course with individual head control on the greens. Quick couplers should also be installed throughout to allow for hand watering.

Water Bodies
There are several water bodies found throughout the golf course that are used for drainage purposes, irrigation water, and also to make the golf course more difficult. The ponds are making the golf course more difficult for the less skilled golfer as they usually require “forced carriers” over them (that means that the golfer does not have the option to play around them). Typically N&H favours water hazards that are strategic, not penal as in your case. The ponds are also very shallow and small with minimal water storage capacity.

N&H would recommend the following:
1.    Dig the ponds deeper (minimum 2.5 metres deep and make them larger to provide additional storage for your irrigation system, which will be critical if you install a full system that irrigates the fairways as well as greens and tees. The final size of the lakes will be determined by the amount of water supplied by the deep wells.
2.    Close areas of the pond to allow golfers the option to play around the water, not force them to hit over.
3.    Clean up the edges so they are easily maintained and look neat and tidy.
4.    Enlarge ponds where there are drainage problems such as 5 landing areas, 15 left side and 17 between the green and the lake.

RCGC has many great trees throughout the golf course including maybe one of the greatest trees on any golf course in the world, the big RAIN TREE next to the first green. However, as is the case with so many old courses, different committees have planted more trees over the years; some benefit the course and some detract from the golf course. So the landscape concept needs to enhance the great trees and the golf course and remove trees that detract from the natural beauty of the landscape.

N&H recommends the below concepts to improve the landscape of the golf course:

1.    Remove all Casuarinas. They are unnatural, messy and in most cases hide beautiful trees behind them.
2.    Remove trees that create shade problems and trim and remove branches where they create problems for maintenance. Special attention must be given to the trimming and cutting of unwanted trees on Holes 4, 5, 12, 15 as well as those surrounding and within view of the clubhouse.
3.    Transplant all palm trees from the golf course to the entry road and clubhouse areas.
4.    Remove all small and insignificant trees and bushes.
5.    Remove trees that block views of the large rain trees. These great trees will now become features of the golf course.
6.    Create “special” landscape zones in key areas on the course, tee 3/ railway crossing, tees 2, 5, 8, intersection, first tee/ starter area, halfway house, and around the clubhouse. These areas would have more colourful plantings of bushes, flowers and groundcovers.
7.    Where straight line plantings occur, remove one or two of the trees so as to reduce the unnatural straight line affect (except around the perimeter of the site).
8.    Open up and simplify the view from the clubhouse to create a sense of grandeur and importance for the club similar to other great courses such as Augusta National, Oakmont and San Francisco GC.

Clubhouse Area
I must admit that I was truly looking forward to visiting RCGC and enjoying all the history and tradition that a Royal Club has to offer. However, while there is obviously a tremendous club atmosphere, I was truly disappointed with the clubhouse style after looking at old pictures of the club. While the purpose of this report is to consider the upgrading of the golf course, I would seriously recommend that this or a future committee to look at ways to rebuild portions of the clubhouse to get back the original design and style of the original building, without losing the functions that the bigger facility offers the membership.

The clubhouse landscape is also quite poor and a more colourful; format planting should be considered both at the main entrance and around the terrace and first tee areas.

One advantage of the proposed rerouting to make the existing green 8 the new green 18 and the elimination of the 9th hole is that there will be more room around the clubhouse. The existing 18th green area can be chipping or putting green and the first tee can be shifted away from the clubhouse. In addition, the existing 9 tee area and halfway house can be turned into additional parking.

- Neil Haworth


Renovation Options
There are three broad options that the club can follow to improve the golf course depending on budget and membership approval.

Option 1- A new RCGC!
Scope of work-
Redo the golf course completely, implementing all of the recommendations.
Interruption of play-
Golfers would play an 18 Hole loop with some temporary Holes for two years.
Time Frame-
2 years

Option 2- A maintainable and good golf course
Scope of work-
Fairways remain untouched but all green complexes and tee complexes are rebuilt, fairway bunkers are added. Some lake rebuilding is done that does not change the golf course or interfere with the play. Irrigation would be added to the greens and tees online.
Interruption of play-
18 Holes remain open with temporary greens on 3 Holes at a time.
Time Frame:
3 years (assuming rebuilding 3 Holes per dry season/ 6 Holes per year)

Option 3- Improvements for the membership

Scope of work-
No rebuilding of greens (except green 3), only bunker work, rebuilding of tee complexes and irrigation for greens and tees.
Interruption to play-
Minimal- no holes closed
Time frame-
5-10 years depending on budget

N&H would recommend the club pursue the possibility of raising the funds necessary to proceed with Option 1. If done properly, the renovations will raise the standards (and fees) for the club and would position RCGC amongst the best courses in Asia. While raising the funds and selling the idea to the membership for approval, N&H would recommend prioritising the works to ensure money spent is not lost. Therefore over the next year or so I would recommend doing the following works:

1.    Upgrading the water supply and investigating deeps wells as a source of irrigation water.
2.    Preparing a detailed survey of the golf course.
3.    Removal of unwanted trees such as the Casuarinas, Palm trees and small trees/ bushes.
4.    Establishing a paspalum nursery.
5.    Improving the landscape around the clubhouse.

Royal Colombo Golf Club has great potential to become a premier golf course in the region and a must-play for golfers in Asia. As in any renovation programme the membership must be considered first. I believe the recommended changes will improve the playability for the higher handicappers and ageing membership as well as adding challenge for the better golfers. It also addresses technical issues that will allow you to maintain the golf course in top condition for better enjoyment for your members and guests.