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The Eurozone: #3 (All give, but no scalding take)

Full disclosure:  We’ve got a brand new event in Oman this week, so there is no defending champion, no relevant history, and no reason to speculate about how it might go.  Therefore, in this installment of The Eurozone, we’re going to be architecture heavy, diving into the host course, Al Mouj Golf.

I’m new to this

As a budding writer, I am incredibly fortunate to have a platform where I can opine about golf to an engaged, organic, built-in readership. The Eurozone has thus far been mostly my stream-of-consciousness musings about cobras, evolution, architecture, Iron Maiden, and golfers you’ve likely never heard of. We’re off to a roaring start, but I’m learning as I go.

This week I’ve been feeling mounting pressure. Not from the No Laying Up guys–all they’ve done is build me up, give me feedback, act as a sounding board, and show incredible flexibility as I find my footing.

Not from the readership, for whom I am very appreciative(!), whose feedback has generally been very positive and whose critiques have been fair and made in good faith.

No, the pressure is from within. I strive to write a good column that strikes the right balance between informative and entertaining, with a healthy dose of all-out brainwashing when it comes to good architecture and the greatness of the European Tour. Writing for NLU, in particular, gives me a lot of freedom to have toasty takes. It is encouraged, actually.

So what happens when, despite your best efforts, there’s no take to be had, and no relevant history or defending champion to fall back upon for source material?

I think the answer is that I should write a column about why I can’t make up my mind on what the take should be. Therapy by keyboard. Buckle up.

Shark-bait

Upon first glance, it would have been easy for me to be lazily baited into flaming the charbroiled shark course on the menu this week, as some of Norman’s offerings are well-documented train-wrecks. Talking to Tron about this fact, he made a great point: Norman’s stuff is always a mixed bag. Some of it is good. Some of it is dogshit. Most of it is something in between. All all of it is extremely cost-intensive from concept to execution. This course is no different.

The European Tour (proper) goes to the Sultanate of Oman for the first time Thursday for the 2018 NBO Oman Open. Oman has hosted a Challenge Tour (the Euro’s Web.com Tour equivalent) event for the past five years, but this year sees the event elevated to the big show.

The host course, Al Mouj Golf, opened in 2012. As oil-rich Middle Eastern countries have rapidly urbanized and modernized over the past 20 years, golf course construction oneupmanship has followed along in lockstep. Oil magnates have money to spend, and there are plenty of “name” architects more than happy to charge multi-million dollar fees to build gaudy courses devoid of strategy and soul.

A “name” architect designed Al Mouj Golf, but it thankfully does not fall into the category described above. At least, not entirely.

Notice how the shaping of the dunes behind the green subtly attempts to mimic the mountains–an imaginative concept with decent execution. Notice further how the flood lights that illuminate the par three course in the middle of the property intrusively break up an otherwise stellar view, at the expense of detaching the course from its surrounds–an unfortunate byproduct of the need for revenue creation. Photo Cred: Al Mouj Golf

Al Mouj Golf does its best to straddle several themes and styles at once: It is a course built in a desert, but it’s not a desert course. It is a course built along the ocean, but it’s not a true links. The course is framed by a majestic mountain backdrop on three sides, and the landforms try to mimic that backdrop, but the playable surfaces of holes are mostly dead flat and don’t resemble mountain golf at all.

If you had no familiarity with Al Mouj, read that last paragraph, and arrived at the conclusion that the course lacks an identity, I think that is a completely fair assessment based on the information I’ve given you so far. The course does not fit neatly into a categorical box, which makes it harder to evaluate against its peers.  Nonetheless, a closer lens reveals redeeming qualities rooted variably in highlights of width, strategic design, aesthetic splendor, and imaginative imitation of nature.

Excitement is the Enemy of Nuance

When I was finishing my research for this piece Tuesday morning, I noticed this tweet:

I thought it was sarcasm. Eddie Pepperell is never afraid to fire away with spicy takes. But then he followed it up with this:

Maybe he’s trolling and I’m now mistrusting my gut instincts, but the reviews from other players and the general public seem to be mostly quite positive, too.

There’s certainly reverence for the course, which I’m fine with at a surface level. On the other hand, you cats should stay woke about potentially over-the-line bad takes you may come across like these:

I vehemently disagree with calling this course a “links” and/or “natural” and/or “Bandon-esque,” but I can see a perfect teachable moment from up here on this high horse, so let’s keep it real and get to the brainwashing part I referenced way back at the beginning.

Naturalness:

This is what the Good Doctor had to say about the concept of Naturalness:

“The chief object of every golf architect or greenkeeper worth his salt is to imitate the beauties of nature so closely as to make his work indistinguishable from nature itself.” -Alister Mackenzie

And here’s what Crooked Honest Andy articulated about it:

The most beautiful places in the world are natural in their settings. This principle applies to golf courses as well and an architect’s toughest job is making manufactured design features appear natural and uncontrived. Many of the world’s greatest courses are the ones that fit in with their natural setting. -Andy Johnson: Routing, Variety and Naturalness

Both of the quotes above imply in their premise the baseline understanding that earth will be moved, and that most sites are not perfect. Explicitly, however the test of the architect is to blend textures, layers, elements, and flora in such a way that the course looks like it was simply discovered, rather than built.

In fairness to Norman, the site upon which he built Al Mouj was a completely featureless strip of seaside land directly under the (very) short final of screaming jet airliners landing on Runway 26R at Muscat International Airport. Flat as it may have been, the site was blessed with eye candy on four sides, both with Gulf of Oman frontage and the Al Hajar mountain range in the distance. With at least enough visual appeal to make the site salvageable for golf to be mostly played by a pay-per-views customer base (looking at you, Low Energy Pebble!), and a massive budget to boot, Norman set out to manufacture a unique track. It’s manufactured, alright.

Cookie cutter bunkers, featureless land, ugly rock pilings. Somewhere, the Faz is smiling. Photo Cred: omantourism.gov.om

Rather than harp on these things in too much detail, I’d offer the following as a brief summation of where Norman came up short:

  • Tons and tons of rock pilings, similar in size shape and color, that line over a mile of coastline, are a dead giveaway that the land had to be forcefully retained to prevent erosion and allow for the desired shaping, rather than the natural flow of the shore.  It looks completely unnatural, and the stark contrast to the lack of rocks on the inland holes produces an unpleasant dichotomy.
  • Using the dunes to attempt to mirror the mountain range in the background, an admittedly clever idea within MacKenzie’s realm of “imitating nature,” falls short of the second proposition therein–to make architect’s work indistinguishable from nature itself.  With the large and sharply undulating dunes, one would expect to find the playing surfaces to be crumpled and uneven, rather than the flat and mostly uninspired ground at Al Mouj.
  • The location itself–adorned with light poles, highways, airports, and cityscapes–feels far from the intended rough and rustic oasis the dunes sought to envelope.  More on this below.
  • Norman used both a brown sand and a stark white sand for bunkers with seemingly no rhyme or reason.  The inconsistency can be visually jarring (especially the bright white sand), when the browner sand on holes like 11 tends to jive with the desert surrounds more naturally.  Unfortunately, the brown sand makes limited appearances, while the white sand dominates.

Norman’s decision to build on this site came with the inherent and unavoidable dissociation with a truly natural site that an architect of the minimalist persuasion would have selected. He made a valiant attempt, but ultimately fell short of making the course appear to be “discovered” rather than built.

Links Classification:

“Links” is perhaps the most misapplied characterization in the entire world of golf.  In fact, to be a true “links,” several characteristics must apply: (1) rough, grassy, undulating, non-arable land next to the sea (2) comprised of a top-level of naturally sandy soil with exceptional drainage capabilities (3) growing deep-rooted, short-bladed grasses such as fescue (4) allowing for ultra-firm year-round playing conditions where the ground game is encouraged and the aerial game typically penalized.

I’d argue that Al Mouj Golf possesses exactly two sub-characteristics of a true links, but no more–“non-arable land next to the sea.”

Al Mouj Golf is too green, too flat, and too suited to an aerial attack to qualify as a links. I highly recommend this linked article if you would like to dig in further on links golf.

Bandon Comparisons:

In fairness to Mr. Josh ADHD’s point, I can understand why, from an insular aesthetics standpoint, a windswept looking course with some fluffy grasses and tall dunes could evoke a “Bandon” thought in one’s head. But Bandon’s appeal, aside from its fantastic golf holes, is its surrounds–remote, untouched, and shaped by millions of years of wind and rain rather than millions of dollars and dozens of bulldozers.

Bandon’s courses feature blowout bunkers, nary a flat lie, and a variety of elevation changes. Al Mouj Golf, by comparison, is home to cookie cutter bunkers, limited undulation, and less than 10 feet of elevation movement on the playing surfaces.

If that isn’t enough, Al Mouj’s location among the noisy bustle of a highway and a major international airport, and cramped by the metropolis of Muscat, is a far cry from the crashing waves, dizzying cliffs, and natural beauty of the Oregon coast.

Bandon’s nestles perfectly into its incredible locale and looks like it has been there forever. Photo Cred: Jennie McCafferty

Saved by Strategic Merit

Al Mouj Golf has a fair share of strategically interesting holes. For example, the fourth, a mid-length par 4, is an early round temptress. If played aggressively, an easy birdie or possible eagle awaits. If played conservatively, par is virtually guaranteed, but birdie or better may be difficult to achieve. The player knows that at this early juncture, even a disastrous bogey or double might not be the death knell with so much golf remaining in the round. I expect we’ll see an aggressive tact from much of the field all week.  Let’s take a look at the options for this hole:

The fourth is a nice short par 4, with good width and options off the tee that get riskier as the player tries to bite off more of the hole. Photo Cred: Google Earth

A – If the player chooses to play to position “A” at 225 yards from the back tee, he will likely only need to hit a 4 or 5 iron to achieve a stress-free walk, as the fairway here is over 40 yards wide. “A” leaves the longest second shot, but it will still likely be only a wedge into the green. If the pin is tucked in the back left, the angle is less favorable and the player will have to consider the bunkers front and the water long, which puts an impetus on spin and distance control.

B – Playing to position “B” allows the player to take on a little bit more risk off the tee, contending with water up the entire right side and the pseudo-principal’s nose bunkers in the fairway, but at 250 yards, it will be a controlled hybrid or driving iron for much of the field. Arguably, “B” provides the best angle to any pin, coming in from the right side and having to worry less about the greenside bunkers while having the full depth of the green as a target.

C – Position “C” demands a 275 carry with a fairway metal (or driver for shorter hitters). While the water is not in play with this choice, a miscalculation of the wind or a slight miss on contact could leave the player stuck in one of the principal’s nose bunkers, facing the dreaded 60 yard bunker shot for an approach. A good drive, however, leaves only a flip wedge to a left pin or a potential bump and run to a right pin. I suspect “C” will be a popular choice for many due to a nice balance of risk and reward.

D – The aggressive player can make a run at the green in one. Of course, this option requires a drive of approximately 320 yards to a target landing area less than 18 yards wide, with water right and the green side bunkers left.

There are several other holes that present solid strategic choices:  7, 14, 16, and 18 among them. Enough to make this course at least palatable for a wonk like me.

Simple Routing Change to Consider for 2019:

For the NBO Open, the tournament committee elected to reverse the nines from their everyday routing. Upon review, I’m not exactly sure what the rationale was for doing so.  I presume it has to do with tournament infrastructure.

It is not inherently bad to reverse the nines, but given the positioning and orientation of the holes on the land, I would have done one thing slightly differently to increase the drama and visual mystique on Sunday: make the 220 yard 11th hole play as the 17th, and adjust the routing accordingly.

The current back nine routing is highlighted in yellow, while my proposed routing is highlighted in red:

I’m not at all a proponent of forcing a routing to fit into a tidy symmetry of par holes. This is especially the case when the property’s natural landforms demonstrate that the sequencing of holes should be unorthodox if it captures the best holes available and ebbs naturally with the terrain. However, in the case of Al Mouj Golf, where there are certain areas of the course with a confluence of holes, and the tournament directors have already decided to tweak the routing by reversing the nines, it would make sense to utilize the 11th hole as the 17th, setting up a 5-4-3-4 finish with one of the best holes on the course (the tournament’s 11th) serving as the penultimate hole.

To do so would add to the variety of the back nine’s flow, as opposed to the current set up wherein the last one-shotter will be the 13th. Doing so would seemingly cause no problems with congestion of moving the players around the course, as distance between these holes is minimal and the walking paths would not require cutting across fairways.

This simple change allows the tournament to preempt its conclusion with a stunning hole, complete with an infinity-edged green overlooking the Gulf of Oman, requiring a precise long iron into a difficult green, where birdie will be well-earned.

The 11th hole, a beautiful long par 3 with more natural looking bunkers, knobs and knolls, and an infinity-edged green, calls for the type of intrepid shotmaking that should be reserved for the final hour Sunday afternoon, rather than wasted earlier in the round. Photo Cred: Al Mouj Golf

2700 words of take-smithing later, I hoped I would arrive at a round and tidy conclusion where I could either give a thumbs up or thumbs down on how this course presents itself. But it turns out that Tron was right all along about Norman’s work being a grab-bag of inspiring and uninspiring. This is, in my opinion, why courses with the Shark’s name on them rarely reach the upper echelon, and are (evidently) so hard to write about.

One thing is for sure, however. Waffling between whether I like or dislike this course has me even more excited to see TV coverage this weekend, which I am certain will be enlightening.

About the Author

Job is pronounced with a long O. Aspiring club champ and golf course architecture nerd. Living proof that breaking 80 is even harder than it looks. Usually just trying to make it to my next tee time. Lived in Jacksonville, FL before NLU made it cool. jwfickett at gmail.

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