Ronald Fream, the American architect who designed Saujana Golf & Country Club’s two courses returned recently to have a look at the upgraded Palm layout that will host the Maybank Championship from Feb 9 to 12.
Fream was roped in as a consultant for the Palm as the club undertook the upgrading of the two courses in 2009, an exercise costing RM50mil. Australian golf architect Ted Parslow was given the task of redesigning the Bunga Raya course.
Fream, the 74-year-old founder of California-based design firm, Golfplan has since disposed of his interests in the company and now lives in Johor Baru.
To date he has designed nine layouts in Malaysia, beginning with Awana Genting in 1981.
Besides Saujana he has also designed Darul Ehsan, Bangi, Bukit Unggul, Damai Laut, Karambunai, Taman Impian Emas and Emerald golf courses.
After its completion in 1986 Saujana became a popular venue for top-flight tournaments, including nine Malaysian Opens from 1988-2009 and the World Amateur Golf Team Championships in 2002.
Fream got a second crack at putting things in order with the Cobra (Palm) course as both courses began to feel the age with the onset of greens creep and hazards becoming less of a factor due to advances in club technology.
“Several years ago, I was asked to help prepare a concept plan and working on drawings to renew, upgrade, improve and modernise the Palm 18.
“Times have changed. Some 60,000 rounds of golf a year have left a mark. “Green Creep’, the very slow but constant change in green size, bunker sizes, tee shape, fairway outlines, over the years had made changes that affected tee shots, bunker play and putting conditions.
“Saujana chairman Tan Sri Razali Abdul Rahman understood the need for an upgrade but he had fond memories of how the Palm played in the 1980s and ‘90s.
“Our task was to upgrade, improve seed bed conditions, to re-position greens more to early 1980s size and feel was part of the remodelling challenge.
“How to gain some additional length in view of the current much longer tee shots was a challenge since the adjacent land which had not been sold had gained huge added market value.
“It is a new, longer course, with more challenges, tighter bunkering, more contours within putting surfaces and an improved irrigation system has given the Palm a new face and feeling.
“A serious effort was made. There were guidelines, design goals set by the club and the budget was limited.
“There was not much space to (totally) lengthen the course. Property boundaries were tight. The adjacent open land was too valuable to put into golf to add some metres to some holes.
“The new Cobra has added some length. Bunker positions have been lengthened and shifted to cope with modern equipment. The green surfaces are more contoured now."
He said the redesign tried to put a serious challenge in front of the pro players.
Fream remains a sceptic on how tournaments are being set up these days to promote low scoring.
“The PGAs are setting up courses now so the players can score low regardless of the course. Hitting far below par is not a good sign, especially for a top class golf course. It is marketing to viewers who only relate to low scores, not really good play,” he said.
“For a long time par was the goal, the winning score if below par was exceptional. Today if half the field scores below par, the winner would be 18 or 20-under.
“I would hope for a winning score of 8, 9 or maybe 10-under, by a credible player,” he added.
According to Parslow the Bunga Raya layout, which was done in phases, was fully completed and ready for play in late 2012.
“The new layout is in a more confined area, as is the situation with many courses in these days – gien the ever increasing land values and the challenge from tee to green is now provided by strategically located bunkers, deep hollows and water hazards.
“The large undulating greens reflect somewhat the style of the earlier greens,” he said.
When asked how the Bunga Raya compared in relation to the Palm, he said: “Both are long and challenging as befit their long-term reputations.
“The Palm Course retains much more of its original ‘feel’ than Bunga Raya due to its retention of most of the original landform.
“Bunga Raya probably provides more options for the average thinking player to avoid disaster than it did originally or in comparison to the Palm.
“I believe they are equally challenging to the tournament professional and would hope to see that opinion proven or otherwise sometime soon with the playing of a major tournament on Bunga Raya.”
Since last year Saujana has activated a turf maintenance programme to make the Palm’s greens and grounds ready for its first international tournament in seven years.
“At the moment we have a two-step objective for the greens," said Mohd Razip Dahalan, the club’s course superintendent.
“Firstly to build up the strength of the grass and to ensure the turf fully covers the green.
“Secondly to raise the greens speed. We are in the last stage of the maintenance programme, so the emphasis will be on the speed.
“Currently with a cutting height of 3.5mm the speed is around 9 on the Stimpmeter. By the time the tournament (Maybank Championship) comes around we should be able to have an average of 10, and hopefully 10.5.”
With regard to the growing of the rough, he added, “We will maintain it at 50mm on the advice of European Tour. Seven days before the tournament they will decide whether that will suffice or not.”
Razip noted that there were 70 bunkers on the course with holes 8 and 9 having the most.
“These holes have some of the biggest bunkers that can trap many shots.”
Razip also explained why the greens might not be so easy to read unlike the previous Bermuda Tifdwarf species.
“We chose Tifeagle because as an ultra-dwarf grass the grain ends to be uniform unlike in the past.
“It is not easy to read because of the smaller leaf blade.
“It’s not easy for the pros to see when the ball will turn because of this. Furthermore, when the green is dry the leaf blade will stand up while when it is soggy it goes down so the grain can change.”
Razip has long experience in turf matters with 24 years of industry experience behind.
He started out as an assistant course superintendent at Royal Selangor Golf Club in 1992.