When I visit a golf project for the first time, I am always subconsciously thinking: ‘What is the story here’? Before I went to Velaa Private Island, I will admit to being slightly concerned about finding a story that matches GCA’s priorities. Although we travel the world in search of interesting new golf developments, we are, when all is said and done, a magazine about golf design. Pure destination stories, no matter how remarkable the location, aren’t really our bag.
Which is why, when I was asked to visit Velaa to see the golf facility on the island, designed and built by José María Olazábal’s design practice, I was a little wary. Not of the trip itself, even though the journey there, for a very short visit, was long and arduous. But what story was I likely to be able to tell about a small practice facility located on a tiny coral island, itself less than 100 acres in size, only 500 yards from end to end and with a high point only a couple of feet above sea level?
Let’s get the destination story dealt with first. Velaa’s developer, Jiri Smejc, is one of the Czech Republic’s most successful businessmen, who made his reputation and his fortune as the owner of a TV station in his home country. He sold that in 2004, and formed an alliance with PPF Group, owned by Petr Kellner, the country’s richest man. They jointly own Home Credit, a major provider of quick loans, based in Russia but now rapidly expanding across the world.
Smejc, apparently fond of the Maldives for some years, came up with the idea of owning his own island in the archipelago a few years ago. He leased the hundred acres known as Fushivelaavaru, part of the Noonu Atoll in the northern part of the archipelago, from the Maldivian government, and set about creating his dream. The well-known Czech architect Petr Kolar was responsible for the overall design, which now encompasses around fifty villas as well as a small number of larger residences, one of which is located out in the lagoon, only accessible by boat.
The investment in Velaa is in the region of US$200 million, and it shows. It’s not flashy, well apart perhaps from the four storey tower that houses one of the island’s restaurants and its wine cellar, the private mini-submarine that guests can use for viewing sea life on the reef, and the frankly bizarre snow room in the spa complex. The latter is truly remarkable: forming a real snowball when the temperature outside is over 30oC, then going out and throwing it into the azure blue warm water of the Indian Ocean is a surreal experience indeed.
So, on to the golf. Given that, as mentioned above, the whole island is only around 100 acres, smaller than the average 18 hole golf course, it must have been abundantly clear to the developer and those around him that no ordinary golf facility could be built there. Smejc though, himself a keen golfer, was keen to have the game as part of the amenities for his island, and so persisted. There are, in fact, no regulation sized golf courses in the whole of the Maldives, though other resorts offer short courses. There was and is a plan – which frankly sounds even more bizarre than the Velaa snow room – to build a full size eighteen hole course that would float on artificial islands, but so far, nothing beyond plans has materialised. But the very private and exclusive nature of Velaa provided a solution in the end.
The Olazábal team, Rudolf Jurcik, Matthias Nemes and golf architect Toni Ortner, figured out that any golf facility they built on Velaa would only ever have a tiny number of players using it at any one time. This, they realised, allowed it to be multifunctional in a way that a traditional golf course is not; in other words, for a particular piece of ground to serve multiple purposes during the course of a ‘round’.
What they built, on a plot of land only 1.2 hectares (less than three acres) in size, was a combination of a range, a short game practice area, a nine hole par three course and a freeform ‘golf zone’. The plot is around 220 yards long and 70 across at its widest, and so, though it is fenced off, longer hitters should probably leave their drivers in the bag. But it’s hard to imagine any other golf shot that could not be played out there.
There is a small office and teaching building at one end of the site, from which director of golf Chris Snape (who frankly, after a couple of years on the island, is more tanned than any Englishman has the right to be) gives lessons to guests and manages the facility. In front of that building sit the range tees, and around the site are located six greens, seven bunkers and nine tees. A suggested routing of nine holes is provided, but the real joy of a facility like Velaa is just going out, hitting shots and making up challenges, either for yourself, or better still for playing partners. I could see the kind of high-rollers who visit a place like Velaa making some substantial wagers out there.
The construction, though inevitably challenging on a tiny tropical island that is basically coral rock under a small amount of topsoil, has been very well handled – despite the only earthmoving equipment available being a small excavator and a single sand pro. Material for shaping the contours of the surface and ensuring effective drainage (extremely important in the tropics, where powerful rainstorms hit with monotonous regularity at certain times of year) came from the dredging of the island’s harbour. Profile Products’ Porous Ceramic was added to the topsoil to build the greens.
Even grassing the course was not straightforward; naturally the climate of the Maldives called for warm season grasses, which are normally propagated using sprigs, but import restrictions in the country meant that getting a large amount of vegetative material to site would have proved formidably difficult. Again, the team solved the problem; Atlas Turf’s seeded paspalum Pure Dynasty, a brand new product, was used to grass the facility, the first planting of a seeded strain of seashore paspalum anywhere in the world.
So that is Velaa. Now back to the beginning and my story. It would be very easy to dismiss Velaa as a one-off, a rich man’s project to make other rich people happy. The island focuses on privacy, and the golf facility is a part of that; generally one will have it to oneself. But, while wandering around hitting shots, it occurred to me that the model is one that, with some alterations, could be deployed in any number of much more public locations.
The story of golf design over the past twenty years – since Coore & Crenshaw built Sand Hills, in fact – has been about visionary developers hiring architects with a taste for the classical to build wonderful courses on pristine sites in usually remote locations (because the only pristine sites left are generally remote). Wonderful though these courses are, and influential though they have been, they attract a select audience of hardcore golfers. The destination retreat – even the successful public ones like Bandon or Barnbougle – has no role to play in the most crucial battle in golf, the recruitment and training of a new generation of players.
The kind of facility the Olazábal team have built at Velaa, though, could do. It is tiny, and thus could be fitted into any number of urban locations where a small amount of space is available. It is far more fun than a normal range, and crucially it offers the opportunity for users actually to play golf against others.
Of course, one could not replicate Velaa in its entirety in an urban location. No ordinary commercial operation could hope to prosper if it was only available for exclusive use by one group. So, for obvious safety reasons, the model would have to be modified, perhaps by increasing the size and creating a booking system that enables clients to reserve a certain part of the facility and blocks it off for others. But that, surely, is not beyond the wit of man to do.
This article first appeared in issue 47 of Golf Course Architecture