Ron Fream on Tunisian Golf

03 March 2010 Respond to this article

Ron Fream on Tunisian Golf

An exclusive Ron Fream quote, sent to us from his home in Malaysia, on his pioneering work in Tunisia.

I first visited El Kantaoui in 1973 when the area was no more than salt marsh and sand with ancient olive trees inland. My Golfplan group was directly involved in most of the courses in Tunisia until the past five years or so and I’ve visited the country over 50 times.

Early on, our firm was known as Harris, Thomson, Wolveridge, Fream and Storm; comprising Commander John Harris, Peter Thomson and Michael Wolveridge (friends of John but primarily active in Asia at that time), Terry Storm(one of the original partners in Golfplan from 1972) and myself.

John Harris was asked to come to Tunisia to plan the El Kantaui development but he asked me to go in his place. I was young, eager and willing to go to places before the likes of mosquito control or air conditioning were in place and Tunisia was a new challenge for me.

I made site visits, directed and inspected construction, advised on maintenance, toured and evaluated other sites. Golfplan took over full control of Tunisian golf development within a few years when John died and Thomson, Wolveridge and Fream split up around 1978-79.

I helped select the Citrus site (for the La Foret and Les Oliviers courses), Yasmine across the auto route from Citrus, Flamingo Monastir and Tabarka. I also visited Tozeur and Nefta, evaluating possible sites in the Sahara desert, fifteen years before the government helped with the Oasis Tozeur project.

Our Golfplan team in California created design and working drawings and I viewed and evaluated sites along the North African coast from Libya to Algeria in the mid-1980s. Tabarka was one such site, and golf at the historic Phoenician port – close to the Algerian border – could and should have been marketed as a true Mediterranean copy of Cypress Point.

Unfortunately, due to a lack of understanding and appreciation of the environmental and geographical location of this great golfing ground, the Tunisian government missed the opportunity to create what could have been a golfing paradise. What we have – even today – is a modestly-maintained, sand duned, pine forested cliff top beauty in repose.

There’s room for four or five courses near the existing course and they would all rival Cypress or Spyglass Hill. Incredibly, the locals just don’t get it. There’s an airport nearby that’s hardly used due to lack of demand. In summer, the adjacent 2,500 hotel rooms are filled with economy class beach seekers but the resort hotels mostly close from October to May – just the time that the European golfer would enjoy the mild weather; like Scotland without the cold!

Citrus has 36 holes plus a 9-hole teaching and practice course. Chris Pitman, who worked with me for many years, did some rework years after Golfplan’s original design was implemented. Some club managers also carried out some remodelling of a form on a beautiful site, not far from many hotels.

Yasmine, over the autoroute from Citrus, was leased from the government to a Turkish hotel operator and that firm later leased the Flamingo course in Monastir. Both were bled dry of turf quality due to heavy play as hotel guests were given free golf as part of inexpensive package holiday deals.

El Kantaoui grew slowly from 18 to 27 then 36 holes. Early on, I kept telling the owners, a joint Kuwait and Tunisian operation, to get more land. When I visited, in 1973, the masterplan called for only 18 holes. I had to fight to even get some water front property for golf. Golfplan eventually added the second 18 holes in two phases over six years during the 1990s.

Tozeur is a difficult, dramatic and unique site, originally owned by the same people at Tabarka. Unfortunately, they were unable to see the marketing potential of playing a beautiful seaside and an historic desert course in one trip. Summer golf is too hot here as temperatures are normally over 40 degrees centigrade so golf is marketed for the October to May season, highlighting good food, nice people, fine local wines and amazing history.

Overall, the standard of maintenance on many of the courses has never met average to good European levels. At times this has been due to heavy in season play – 300 rounds a day per 18 holes – which the courses cannot stand. Management does not know what modern maintenance standards are.

The Ministry for Tourism lacks understanding of the golf market and it doesn’t help that no one in a position of authority plays the game. I have tried to suggest more golf at Citrus and Tabarka. Another nine at Monastir could fit. Remodeling and modernizing are required. I have told the Ministry people to visit Belek in Turkey where, in 15 years, that area has expanded to having more tourist golf than Tunisia; by 40% in 2009.

With a such a long association with Tunisia, I would like to see more golf – by Golfplan and others – to create much needed jobs but the powers that be dither. The President has had a big house/palace built on a ridge overlooking the El Kantauoi course. Maybe if he took up golf things would change.