The unthinkable has occurred: a regulation, 18-hole golf course was built using only artificial turf! The course has not a blade of grass to be torn from the ground and tossed in the air. The man who designed this golf course for an Australian billionaire is Duncan Nemat. We chatted via Skype in the following golf conversation.
Golf Conversations: This is a first for me: I’ve never spoken to anyone in Tasmania. When I was growing up, there was a Looney Tunes cartoon that featured a character called the “Tasmanian Devil.”
Duncan Nemat: We saw the same cartoon in New Zealand where I grew up. The Tasmanian Devil is an endangered species now.
GC: Speaking of endangered species, let’s turn our attention to golf. I read about your groundbreaking work in golf course design. No pun intended.
DN: Yes, I’ve gotten quite a bit of publicity since that article appeared in Maori Golf Chronicle.
GC: Could you summarize that article for my readers?
DN: Certainly. Golf courses, as you know, have become far too dear to build and maintain. And that’s driving up green fees and making the game unaffordable for the average player. We’ve come up with a way to reduce those costs by approximately 75%.
GC: How? By not building the golf course?
DN: Actually, it’s quite simple. Instead of planting grass, you use artificial turf.
GC: You’re kidding me.
DN: No, mate. I’m quite serious. In fact, we’ve opened the world’s first 18-hole, 6,500 meter golf course that doesn’t have a blade of natural grass. The tees, the fairways, the rough … all of it is covered with artificial turf.
GC: Unbelievable. Where is this course?
DN: It’s located on the north coast of Tasmania, approximately 30 km. from Burnie.
GC: And the name of the course?
DN: Digby Cliffs. It’s named after the owner’s bull mastiff, Digby. The dog is interred on the 16th fairway, overlooking the Bass Strait. There’s a plaque there with a small sculpture of Digby. It’s already become a tradition for players to give Digby a little pat on the head as they walk by with their trolleys.
GC: I love the dog story but let’s get back to the artificial turf. I still can’t believe this! How did this all come about?
DN: Mr. Trevor Rhys-Wellingham owns Digby Cliffs. He’s an expatriate Brit who moved to Australia in 1962 to seek his fortune. He devised a method for mining uranium that was more efficient and productive than the then-traditional methods. Your government became his best customer, as it required massive amounts of uranium for its nuclear weapons programs.
GC: To paraphrase Sonny Corleone from The Godfather: “There’s a lot of money in that radioactive powder, Pop.”
DN: Mr. Rhys-Wellingham parlayed his success in mining to equally rewarding careers in finance, media holdings, ranching, and real estate development.
GC: Sounds just like my career path!
So how did the golf course come about?
DN: Mr. Rhys-Wellingham’s office contacted me two years ago. I was living in New Zealand at the time. They sent his private jet for me and I met him in his office in Sydney. He told me he had some exquisite coastal property in Tasmania that would be perfect for a golf course. But there was a catch.
GC: And that was?
DN: Mr. Rhys-Wellingham has become quite environmentally-conscious in his later years. He wanted to create a sustainable golf course that would have minimal impact upon the land. Thus, no fertilizers, no irrigation, no power equipment, etc. It was his vision to create a golf course without natural grass … and to use artificial turf instead.
GC: Quite a bold experiment. My first impression is that no golfer will want to spend money to play on artificial turf. The beauty of the game is being in nature. Grass is nature; artificial turf ain’t nature.
DN: I don’t mean to make Mr. Rhys-Wellingham sound insensitive to that concern, but his reasoning was this: As a billionaire several times over, the golf course’s profitability wasn’t important to him. It was his goal to see if the project could be completed with the artificial turf … and if so, would it attract golfers to travel to a remote part of Tasmania? Mike Keiser’s success with Bandon Dunes – “if you build it, they will come” – also played a part in Mr. Rhys-Wellingham’s decision-making process.
GC: So he flew you over to meet him in Sydney. What was your reaction when he broached the idea of using artificial turf?
DN: Honestly? I thought the man was off his rocker!
GC: Uh, yeah.
Why did he choose you to design the course? No disrespect, but a billionaire could have commissioned any of the “big-name” golf course architects.
DN: Believe me, I wasn’t the first designer he approached. He did contact the “big names” and they all turned him down. Nicklaus, Fazio, Jones, Coore & Crenshaw … they all said “thanks but no thanks.” Bob Cupp politely demurred and recommended they contact a fellow in the States who writes a golf course architecture blog called “The Bunker Bloviator.”
GC: I’m familiar with that blog. That guy does bloviate!
DN: Mr. Rhys-Wellingham then decided to seek out a local architect. I had graduated from the Auckland Turf Design Institute in 2008 and received my first commission in 2010. It was a 9-hole course outside of Perth, Marsupial Meadows. The course received good reviews and Mr. Rhys-Wellingham contacted me on the strength of those reviews.
GC: Getting back to your reaction … when Mr. Rhys-Wellingham said he wanted to build a course with artificial turf …
DN: I was speechless. But when he explained his reasons for wanting to do this – profits be damned – I couldn’t help but think this would be a revolutionary concept. And perhaps it would help to grow the game by making it more affordable.
GC: That’s certainly revolutionary: a golf course where it’s “Mats Only” all the time!
How is the artificial “rough” different from the artificial fairway turf?
DN: Making the rough higher would not make it more difficult to hit the ball. In fact, it would make it slightly easier to get a good strike on the ball. So we needed to come up with a penal consequence for hitting it into the rough.
DN: This sounds worse than it actually is: there’s a small electric current that runs under the rough. When your club strikes the turf, the charge is conducted up through the club head into your hands.
GC: This is crazy!!!
DN: The charge isn’t dangerous or painful. Just the tiniest of “zaps” to remind you to keep it in “the short grass.”
GC: I don’t care how tiny the “zap” is, nobody is going to travel around the world to remote Tasmania to play golf on artificial turf … with the real possibility of receiving an electric shock several times in a round!
DN: Actually, the course has been doing a fairly brisk business since it opened two months ago. It appears that the “shocking rough” dovetails nicely with the masochistic streak that lurks in many golfers.
GC: I guess this is the kind of “outside the box” thinking golf needs to survive. It’s not my cup of tea but who am I to judge? Duncan: nice Skyping with you. Good luck with Digby Cliffs.
DN: Thank you.
NOTE: In the four years that GolfConversations.com has been published, I have always posted an “April Fool’s Day” interview. Unfortunately, I was unable to provide such a post on April 1st as I was having my irons bent 6 degrees flat that day. So please accept and enjoy the faux “Duncan Nemat” interview above with my belated wishes for a Happy April Fool’s Day.