Thomas has designs on China
By SPENCER ROBINSON
HIS profile may not be quite at the level of Jack Nicklaus or Gary Player, but, like his famed contemporaries, big Dave Thomas is stamping his indelible mark on China's landscape.
The golfing exploits of American Nicklaus and South African Player are well documented and their names well known throughout the world. Thomas, in contrast, is, by his own admission, little known beyond Europe.
Nevertheless, during the 1960s when professional golf in Europe was considerably less strong than it is today, Thomas was a star in his own right. Twice he was runner-up in the British Open and on four occasions he was a member of the Great Britain and Ireland Ryder Cup team.
And over the past 30 years, Thomas, who has made his base in the Costa del Sol, has built a reputation as one of Europe's brightest and most sought-after golf course architects.
He has designed 56 courses and his creations have staged a combined total of more than 50 tournaments. Although he has been involved in six projects in Japan, Thomas, now aged 59, has not found it easy to break into the booming and lucrative Southeast Asian market.
''In terms of the marketing concepts of many clubs in Southeast Asia, I am not a big enough name to interest developers,'' confessed the Englishman, during a recent stopover in Hong Kong.
The philosophy of the majority of Asian golf course developers is that if you don't have a big-name star as the designer it is far more difficult to sell memberships.
''I don't think that's right, but, of course, I understand it,'' said Thomas. ''People seem to be afraid that if you don't have a big name involved in the project it will fail.'' That mentality has only served to reinforce Thomas' determination to disprove the theory.
Thomas is currently putting the finishing touches to the 18-hole layout at the Guangzhou Lu Hu Golf and Country Club, which in terms of location has almost unparalleled appeal.
A half-hour drive from Bai Yun Airport and 20 minutes from Guangzhou Railway Station, the club is situated adjacent to Lu Hu Lake in the heart of Guangzhou City.
''It's like constructing a course in the middle of London's Hyde Park,'' said Thomas, who was making his 12th trip to the site. A minimum of five more are planned prior to the scheduled opening. Ordinarily, Nicklaus and Player will visit their courses perhaps once during construction and again upon opening.
According to Thomas, the Guangzhou course, which is scheduled to open for play next year, will be notable not only for its unique location in the middle of the city, but also for its contrasting nines (the front side is basically flat while the back side is hilly) and memorable holes.
Thomas predicts that none will be more memorable than the third which will measure 280 metres and will be the shortest of the 10 par-fours. It will, says Thomas, bear comparison with one of the most famous holes in golf - the 10th of the Brabazon Course at The Belfry, site of the Ryder Cup matches in 1985, 1989 and 1993.
Because of the worldwide publicity attracted by the Ryder Cup - golf's premier team tournament, held every two years between Europe and the United States - The Belfry is Thomas' best known piece of work.
There, the 10th is a par-four of 267 yards that has been the scene of drama upon drama - particularly in the four-ball matchplay format where often one member of each team attempts to drive on to the green over water.
The third at Lu Hu Park will offer similar possibilities and will be the course's signature hole. A slight left-to-right dog-leg, trees have been planted on the right corner with water behind.
Said Thomas: ''From the tee it will look like the green is actually in the water. If you're Seve or Ernie Els you'll be able to fade your drive around the trees into the green . . . but for most people laying up will be the better option.'' Water will come into play on six of the holes, while deep bunkers will also be a feature, as was dictated by the terrain. ''The course will be well defined. There will be humps and hollows on the fairways which will make it English in character,'' said Thomas.
Building his first course in China has been filled with frustrations, red tape and delays for Thomas. Permission had to be sought to move 10,000 graves, while 10,000 trees were felled on the premise that three new trees would be planted for every one that was taken down.
For all the problems, though, Thomas is convinced the final product will stand out as one of his most memorable designs . . . and give him a belated foothold into the Southeast Asian market.
Spencer Robinson is Managing Editor of Asian Golfer