Date: November 16, 2017
Author: Roy Fleming

Key to unlocking Marsh’s masterpiece

Graham Marsh, who designed the Twin Creeks layout, explains what it will take to win.

In this in-depth interview, Marsh describes the tricks to playing his masterpiece in Western Sydney, the right approach, the danger areas and what it will take to win.

When you were first given the commission to build Twin Creeks, you’d just completed an acclaimed course build at Sutton Bay. What was your first impression of the land you had available for Twin Creeks?

Interestingly enough, that was the largest single piece of land closest to the Sydney CBD that was available for development. I forget the exact acreage, but it was very large. There was no other piece of land available to be able to build homes, a resort and a golf course. So, it made it very, very exciting.

Plus, at the time there was still much talk about the airport moving out there, and it now has of course been announced that a new airport will be built out there. I knew it would be in a pretty prominent position in Penrith. The other thing was really exciting was that it wasn’t going to be your typical real estate golf course with houses crowded on top of one another. The smallest house block is a quarter acre, and many of them are a full acre, and some of them are up to eight or nine acres.

It was an exciting project on a beautiful piece of land.

What was your initial impression of the land quality and your thoughts on what you could build?

It was farming land and the client was particularly keen on building a quality golf course, and he knew to attract people there, to attract home buyers, he would have to do something special.
One early issue of the brief was that he wanted good visibility of the golf course from the road, people driving by. He wanted them to understand that there was a golf course and be attracted into the property.

You will see that holes like eight and nine have a visual presence from the road. But the biggest drawback from the site is that you have power lines running through it. They run through the back nine. One of the tricks was to try and disguise those power lines as best we could.

Overall, we’ve done pretty well with that. We used bunkers and created visuals on the golf holes to take the player’s attention away from the power lines. And we never hear any complaints about them (power lines).

A review of the course says, “Graham Marsh doesn’t build 18 great finishing holes because there’s no need to grab players by the throat for the entire round”. Is that description accurate to your vision?

I’ve always believed that golf is an experience. Not many people in the world have the luxury or opportunity to play golf for a living. So, when you build golf courses you have to be cognisant of the fact that you are building a golf course for the general golfer.

The average handicap is still above 15, you must have juniors, you must have women playing the golf course. What I’m passionate about is that of all the golf courses I’ve been involved in, people play golf on them. Introducing people to the game and playing the game, growing the game, that’s what I’m most proud of.

We can all design the hardest golf course in the world, or the easiest golf course, but what we want is people playing golf.

I don’t try to make one great hole on a golf course, people decide for themselves which is the signature hole. I want people to have fun when they’re playing, to enjoy the challenge, and to come back again which is the only way a golf course can survive in the modern world.

The feedback from the golfers is that the Twin Creeks course is tight, that bigger hitters don’t have the same advantage they do elsewhere. Is that a happy coincidence, or something you planned when designing Twin Creeks?

I didn’t specifically plan that. There were several factors that determined how we built it. One of the main factors was a lack of water supply. The supply was gathered from run-off further upstream, which we had we had to trap with small lakes which you’ll see on 16, 17, 18 and across on 11.

That determined the size of fairways we could water, to give the players room to play golf but at the same time not waste water because it was such a valuable commodity at that stage. It’s eased since then, I suspect there’s a lot more water available now.

Up until August 2016, you still held the unofficial course record, a net six-under 66.

I think I shot that on opening day (2006), when I played with the then-President of the NSW Golf Association. I remember it well, I was joking about it with one of my guys in the office the other day. That was fun, but to be honest I would think I wouldn’t have been playing off the very back tees. I don’t think it’s such a great feat because I didn’t play the course at full length.

What tips would you offer players taking on the course this week?

One of the key issues this week for players is going to be driving the ball into position. You have to get the ball into the right position on the par fives. But we have a couple of well-guarded par fives. Nine is one, with plenty of bunkers. And on the other side, 11 is a hole reachable in two but you’ve got to get your ball in position and take your chances.

There’s also a couple of excellent par fours. Eight is a strong par four, and on the front side a danger hole could be four. There’s a creek running across and most players who try to take that creek on, there’s a very narrow gap there and it’s a hole you have to pay attention to.

On the backside, 16 has water on the right. You have to be very careful of that. If you slip up with the driver on this course you will almost certainly make a bogey. That’s why driving is the key this week.

After that it’s just patience with the short game. There’s a lot of pins that can be tucked away on those greens. They can be hidden.

A lot of people go back and revisit their childhood homes when they are adults. Do golf course designers have the same sentimental connection to their courses?

Absolutely I do. It’s the only way you can continue to evolve as a designer. What happened in the game 35 years ago, and how you felt about the game then is not the same now. Subtle differences have occurred.

You can build courses now that are so tight the average player can’t play it. That is the worst possible thing you can do. People enjoy the openness of a golf course, the freedom, the ability to make mistakes and still recover.

I go back to all my golf courses as much as possible and look at them and try to evaluate each hole again. I block my game out of it and be independent in my thinking. I have to think like an 18 handicapper, a 27 handicapper or like a woman playing off 36. If I’m not thinking like that I can’t design a course they can play. I like playing golf with people of varying handicaps because that’s the best feedback I can ever get.

You never walk away from a golf course after it has been opened and think ‘This is the best golf course I’ve ever built’. You always walk away thinking I could’ve done better here and there. There’s no such thing as the perfect golf course.

What makes you proud about Twin Creeks?

I had great hopes for that course. I thought it would be an important golf course in Sydney. I rate Twin Creeks, I really rate it up there with some of the best we have in Sydney. In time it will continue to earn a high reputation. I have a great hope for Twin Creeks that in time it will establish itself as one of the premier golf courses, if it hasn’t already.

Last question, you won more than 60 tournaments as a player, and now almost 60 course builds. Which brings the most satisfaction?

I’ve had the opportunity to play in many countries and I had a pretty good winning percentage from where I came from, starting (professionally) at the age of 25. Winning the US senior open was a huge bonus because I never won a major on the regular tour.

If I had to pick courses, I’d say one of my favourites is Sutton Bay in South Dakota (US) because it’s such a unique project. It was built on land that had to be worked and it’s such a spectacular course now.

As architects you have to grow the game. It’s not about you, it’s about giving clients the opportunity to take their golf course and use it for whatever purposes they have. Some use it to sell real estate, some want a championship course, others want to put as many people around the course and club as possible.

The most important thing is listening to the client, understanding the brief and trying to give them the product they are happy with. I think I’ve done that in many of our golf courses and that’s what makes me very proud.