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El Encin Q&A with Rick Baril

04 March, 2018
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Architect Rick Baril of von Hagge, Smelek and Baril answers our El Encin questions

Who was the client?

The Community of Madrid. It’s a long-term concession, presently managed by Desprosa. Thirty six holes were to be designed with the Madrid Open in mind as a spectator-style golf course. There was even early mention of this course being Spain’s venue proposal for the 2018 Ryder Cup. El Encin was in fact submitted and rejected by the European Tour in favour of Tres Cantos and a ‘to be designed golf course’ by European Golf Design.

The design competition for the El Encin golf project was intense and the proposal requirements demanding as they also included a financial component which likely and ultimately limited the number of viable contenders. We teamed with Desprosa, who also own Golf Olivar de la Hinojosa.

All proposals were submitted in August 2006 and a month later our team was selected to design and develop the project. Detailed design work and construction documents were prepared the following year. 2008 was spent working on construction entitlements. Construction started on the 18-hole South course in early 2009 and continued until October 2010. Originally, there was a requirement to build the 18-hole North course immediately following the completion of the South Course. The design work is completed but, to date, there has been no discussion about building the second 18 holes.

What was the thought process behind the large number of small bunkers on #2 and #9?

The short answer: options.

Hole #2 and #9 are the most obvious, due to the significant number of bunkers on these holes. But holes 1, 6, 10 and 14 offer a similar challenge, with fewer obstacles. The use of smaller bunkers offers more “indistinct or indeterminate” options on line of play. Hole #2 perhaps stands out different from the others as there are two distinct angles to approach the green. Based on the location of the pin, the golfer will be better favouring the right or left side of the hole. Still, on either side of the fairway, there are small bunkers to encourage a thoughtful strategic approach while playing the hole.

Why only dig irrigation lakes on the back nine?

El Encin is located in an arid region so irrigation is a must. El Encin uses treated water for the irrigation as it’s the only reliable and significant source of water available. Storage of treated water requires a reservoir with an impermeable liner – which is quite costly. In order to be budget-conscious, water requirements were studied carefully to keep the reservoir size to a minimum. In fact, there is a third lake, behind the 14th green which serves as a “working lake”.

The volume of water – and water level - fluctuates in this lake. One of its important tasks is to ensure the two lakes on the golf course remain full so it accepts water from the source and it transfers water to the golf course lakes (which are connected via a subsurface pipe) to maintain the water level.

We decided to use the two lakes for strategy on the back nine, where we felt they could provide the most drama – and, a memorable finish to the golf course. As you know, water holes can be dramatic.

Why have two different styles of bunkering (mainly "cookie-cutter" on the back nine) across the property?

The answer to this question is partially addressed in the above answer to “What was the thought process…” – the answer to the question is likely a subject for a larger discussion about bunkers; bunker shapes, scale, bunker purpose, position, etc. Still, the two different styles of bunker present two different questions for golfers:

1) The small round bunkers are not too psychologically daunting. After all, they are not so big, and should be easy to play around. They are placed to make the player think, not only about the line of play but the distance to hit the ball. Where these bunkers are used, the player is being asked to make choices, based on degrees of risk. Playing near these bunkers can be advantageous. But, there is also a measure of risk. On the holes with more small bunkers, there more options, more answers to the question, more ways to play the hole.

2) The larger freeform bunkers are more daunting – practically and psychologically. The strategy on the golf holes with these bunkers is more obvious. Instead of an abundance of strategic options the player is being asked to make a more binary choice; either take a risk (challenge a daunting bunker) or play safe.

Hopefully, the two bunker styles mean the player is required to apply different strategic approaches. The player is required to “shift gears” in the strategy applied to playing these disparate holes. Failing to do this, will cause scoring problems.

Can you say anything about the putting surfaces?

The greens were the most difficult part of the project. We wanted large undulating greens, with “target zones” within the greens. The golf course manager owns a golf course near Madrid airport and I visited it to gain an understanding of their maintenance standards.

From this visit, and some other discussions, I felt we could make interesting putting greens, which they would not need to maintain and a very low cutting height. We felt this would also provide them a measure of safety in this arid climate. In fact, we recommended they do not exceed a stimp of 10 on the greens.

I was on site for weeks at a time, working with the shaper and we worked hard to shape putting green areas, without defining the actual putting green. The idea was to shape the area and then decide the limit of the putting surface. This may seem a rudimentary point. But, in typical golf course construction, the shaper uses the drawing to “shape” the putting green and surrounds.

In this process, the shaper (as he is following the plans) works to define the putting green. What happens is the shaper provides definition to the green – like a frame. Even working with a good shaper, the greens take on a “staged” appearance. What I worked hard to accomplish, was to shape the entire green area, without defining the limit of the putting green. After the area was shaped, I marked the limit of the putting greens. Hopefully, this helped the putting surfaces to be better integrated with the surrounding forms.

This all went quite well. Unfortunately, after the shaper’s work was done, the greens were handed to the local crew, who were not diligent in saving the shapes we had created. One problem – we installed a polyethylene moisture barrier around the putting surfaces. This barrier was not very flexible and resulted in some very poor tie-ins on the perimeter of the greens.

The other significant problem was the contractor did not respect the elevations on the greens. On green #2, I spent six hours removing sand from the green with a sand-pro. The sand, which was supposed to be installed to a depth of 30cm was 80cm deep! We had similar problems on every green which was frustrating.

One final word: it should be remembered, in the context of this golf course, that everything is fabricated. The site was flat and barren, in fact, we developed a drainage channel thorough the site, to help evacuate storm water. There is a significant motorway on one side and a railway on the other side of this elongated property. Perhaps the only interesting natural attribute are the mountains to the southeast of the property, which are considered long views off-site.

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