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Introduction to Ellerstina Golf by Matthew Dusenberry

09 November, 2017

Introduction to Ellerstina Golf by Matthew Dusenberry

I was referred to a potential client in Pilar, Argentina that owns and operates a large polo estate named Ellerstina. Ellerstina was formed by the Pieres family in Argentina and wealthy Australian Kerry Packer. The Pieres family are famous in Polo internationally and the three sons are all top ranked players in the world. There is also a sister property to Ellerstina in Australia named Ellerston. The Australian property is also a large polo estate with a private/personal 18-hole golf course designed by Greg Norman in the 1990s and commissioned by Kerry Packer. His son, James Packer, now owns and operates Ellerston and is a partner in Ellerstina with the Pieres family.

The Pieres family and James Packer are avid golfers and sought a private/personal golf experience on their Argentina estate. They designated two of their nine polo fields as property for a private golf course. The two polo fields along with a grazing paddock occupy approximately 32 acres – clearly not enough for a typical regulation golf course. The owners and their friends would play the golf personally. There are no retail or commercial considerations by the client. It is purely for their own personal fun and enjoyment.

When I was introduced to the project, there was another preliminary design being considered by the Pieres family from a local Argentine architect. It was a nine-hole course comprised of mostly par 3’s and several “replica” holes. I was asked to evaluate their current plan and present any alternatives that might work for their property. My focus was on providing an alternative concept that I had in mind for many years and just needed to find the right property and client.

Site Characteristics

The property is nearly flat, which is a characteristic of the Buenos Aires delta region and of existing polo fields. It is surrounded by a double alee of mature London Plane trees on the North, East, and South. One of the four main stables and polo clubhouses is directly west of the site. The site parameters are linear and geometric which clearly set the four strong boundaries creating a defined “room” or “corridor” effect on the golf course area. These boundaries provided just enough vertical definition on a very flat site to provide a much needed and desirable sense of enclosure.

Design Concept / Inspiration

I had in mind a strong concept for the project before we gave our initial design concept presentation to the client, but we started by taking a look at other private/personal estate golf course concepts and evaluating their pros and cons. I looked at traditional 18-hole layouts, 9 holes layouts, 3-hole layouts, par 3 courses, etc. They had the same characteristic “traditional” golf concept. The holes were structured and put in front of players by the architect. The owners were then limited to playing these structured holes. I put myself in the owner’s position and asked “why would I want to be limited to the same structured golf holes day after day?” As the owner, if revenue was not a consideration, I would want to create my own golf experience within an open golf framework and draw from design characteristics of my favorite golf courses. For this property, the Old Course at St. Andrews came to mind consistently. That provided the platform and inspiration to create a unique design concept for Ellerstina.

Unique Design Concept – Open Format Golf Experience

Variety and fun are keys to any great course design. These attributes keep players interested and wanting to come back out to play the course again and again. This design concept provides the greatest amount of variety and fun by allowing players to create their own golf experience and it is only limited by imagination.

The concept for the course is to provide an “open format” golf experience rather than a single structured 18-hole golf course that is played day after day. The “open format” is the ultimate in private golf. You can play nearly any direction to any green/hole location. Golfers have an almost infinite variety of holes to play in any manner they see fit.

Players are not shackled to the traditional 18 hole golf course. It is our intention that this is a match play experience and less about keeping score for 18 holes. However, when a structured 18 holes of golf with a par and course rating are desired… that format is also available. Of course there are many options for the structured 18-hole course layout as well. These options keep play fun and interesting. The “open format” golf course allows the best of both worlds, fun open format golf and structured 18 hole stroke play.

Ellerstina utilizes the concept and principles outlined above on a smaller scale. The course occupies only 32 acres of property. Which is more efficient and lower cost for the client in both construction and maintenance.

Execution of the Concept

The ‘Map of Ellerstina’ below illustrates the as-built layout and features.

You can also get a quick overview of the property and feel for the experience by watching the video via the following link:

Ground Contour / Fairway

The first challenge was to create interesting ground contours and features for the golf course on a flat site. However, this limitation does allow for open sight lines in all directions with few obstructions. So the intent was to create low profile hollows and rolls that result in ground contours similar to seaside links golf but still allows for 360-degree views and play.

Almost the entire property is mown as fairway. This has two desirable results. First, it keeps the golf course truly open format, and second it allows players to find their own way from the teeing area to the selected hole location. This open format concept provides maximum width. Width allows for added strategy and fun.

Turf Conditions / Agronomy

The turf conditions are firm and fast which also encourages creative shot-making. Argentina does not have affordable access to the latest slow-release fertilizers and turfgrass chemicals. This allows the golf course to be maintained at a lower cost with fewer inputs. The normal maintenance crew at Ellerstina is three. One manager (non-professional) and two labor. The entire project is then overseen/consulted by an American educated Argentine agronomist. This agronomist will oversee 10-20 golf courses – an efficient and cost effective approach.

The turfgrass for the golf course is harvested from the other polo fields on the property. It is believed to be a variation of 328 Bermuda. The greens are an A1/A4 bentgrass mix. Polo field conditions at Ellerstina are managed to a high standard which makes for an easier transition to maintain a golf course. For example, polo grounds turf is maintained at just over ½” – similar to normal golf course fairway mowing heights. The polo fields are also regularly top-dressed with sand for better footing by the horses. These maintenance practices are easily translated and beneficial to the golf experience. The grown-in was completed in summer 2015 with the client and agronomist reporting excellent playing conditions going into this summer (November – March).

Greens & Tees

The layout has nine total greens with seven greens “double” in size around the perimeter. The property limits and shape indicated this layout and suggested nine greens as the best solution. This was not intentional or formulaic, rather, the layout indicated nine green sites. This concept would work adequately with fewer greens or more greens if the property size and shape allowed. The intention for the green locations were two fold. First, pushing the majority of the greens to the perimeter and corners allowed for maximum distance for par 4 and par 5 holes. Second, by including two greens in the interior of the property we ensured that players could maneuver from green to green playing a “short course” if desired. These interior greens also added playing options for some of the longer holes. The interior greens are lower in profile to avoid significant obstruction of views to the corner greens.

As noted, the corner greens are generally double in size with two pin locations at all times. The approaches are a mix of open areas and guarded bunker fronts. The open format of the fairways allow for players to find some very different lines of play and extreme angles into the pin placements. I felt strongly that the contours of the greens should be bold and encourage a variety of approach shots and short game options. The green contours are a fun mix of bold movement and quieter more pinnable areas. The large green sizes assist in making this concept feasible. There is a fine line between variety and enjoyment/playability in design of bold putting surfaces. Since the same players will experience these greens day after day, the variety and challenge is even more important. Again, the Old Course gave inspiration to many of the putting surfaces.

As seen on the map, the greens along the edges are generally set back from the surrounding tree line. This was necessary to avoid shade issues on the greens but this also allowed for some flatter tee pads to be placed in the surrounds “behind” the greens. These tee surrounds are placed at an elevation just below the profile of the green to avoid a flat line behind each green. Of course there are no formal teeing grounds. Players can tee up at any flatter area mown as fairway and select the next hole to play.

Hazard Placement

The primary hazard utilized are bunkers. Placement is a very difficult task when considering that there are many lines of play on the golf course. The corner greens are a bit more straightforward. We know play will approach the green from two maybe three sides of the green. We can then consider placement, sight lines, approach grades, etc. These are more predictable.

The hazard placement in the fairway areas are more difficult. The goal was to keep the bunkers relevant by placing many in the “center” of the golf course requiring players to navigate their way around and over them. The next significant challenge was visibility. The grading was performed in a manner to try and make the hazards visible from several directions, but ultimately it was conceded that some hazards would be blind from certain angles. We felt it was acceptable due to the private nature of the course and the repeat play. The players would create a memory bank from their experiences and learn hazard locations and areas to be avoided.

There was also restraint on the number of bunker hazards. We felt it was far more fun to give players room to play and navigate the property. Ground contours were utilized as an alternative to sand bunkers. They were shaped to provide a variety of stances and lies for the players. The more open concept fits better with the challenging design of the approaches and greens.

Structured Card of the Course

The course map illustrates the nearly limitless number of holes. Certainly there are many par 3 holes, many par 4 holes, and par 5 holes from 500 yards up to 600 yards are possible when playing corner to corner (north/south). The client asked us early in the design process to create a “card of the course” for a suggested 18-hole routing. Initially I was against providing this structured card of the course option. I felt it was contrary to the open format concept. However, after discussions with the client I realized that providing the structured course option as a supplement to the open format had even more appeal. It provides the best of both worlds. The ultimate fun match play golf course with the option to have several stroke play golf courses if desired.

Matthew Dusenberry – Principal
Dusenberry Golf Course Design, LLC

Course photos courtesy of David Davis. Read more about Ellerstina Golf


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