Photograph by Kevin Murray Photography
Tim Lobb on his latest design near the great pyramids of Giza, the business and life lessons passed down by the late, great Peter Thomson and how modern golf equipment is making his work more challenging than ever before.
By Kent Gray
When you’re a part of a design firm founded by five-time Open champion Peter Thomson, it’s inevitable that your contribution to modern course architecture might take a while to be truly appreciated by the general golfing public.
Tim Lobb’s stocks are certainly on the rise after the unveiling of NEWGIZA on the outskirts of the Egyptian capital, Cairo, earlier this year. Poignantly the final project of Thomson, (Ross) Perrett & Lobb, the 18-hole layout in the shadow of the Giza pyramids, one of the Seven Great Wonders of the World, opened to widespread acclaim.
But the expertise of the Melbourne born and raised, Surrey-based architect has long been known by the biggest names in the course design and renovation game; they don’t anoint you vice-president of the European Institute of Golf Course Architects, as the 49-year-old recently was, by mistake.
Lobb’s reputation has been hard-earned, firstly with European Golf Design and then though 12 memorable years and countless projects with Thomson, Perrett & Lobb, a company wound up in 2016, roughly two years before golf lost Thomson when the Hall of Famer died in June 2018, aged 88.
Chief of LOBB + PARTNERS since 2016, Lobb says the reaction to the opening of NEWGIZA has been “incredibly flattering and comes as a huge boost”. Not that he has time to rest on those laurels; construction has just started on another Egyptian course on the shores of the Red Sea at Soma Bay in Hurgada while the historically-focused renovations of courses such as Tandridge, Burhill and Huntercombe, layouts originally designed by some of the greatest architects that ever lived, are privileged projects for Lobb.
Regnum Ankara Golf and Country Club, a new 18-holer in Turkey, is set to open next year while Lobb’s contribution to golf in the Middle East is a waiting game; masterplans for new 18, 36 and 54 hole developments in Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE – including Dubai Golf City – are on hold but only the strike of a pen from adding to his legacy.
Lobb took time out from his busy schedule to talk to Kent Gray about his changing design philosophy, lessons learned and the challenges anew for the game, and by default course designers, ahead.
How were you introduced to the game?
My father introduced me to golf as he is a keen golfer. I first played on a public course in Melbourne called East Malvern Golf Club aged 10 and later became a member at Riversdale Golf Club as a teenager. I spent many hours playing and practising there.
You play off single figures. what level did you play the game to?
The best I ever got to was a three handicap. I dreamt of playing professionally but thankfully realised pretty early that I was nowhere near good enough.
Barring your own creations, what’s the best course you’ve played?
Probably the best courses I have played are Cypress Point Club, Chicago Golf Club, Royal Melbourne (West) and Kingston Heath Golf Club. I just cannot give my all-time best but it’s maybe the first mentioned.
And the best destination for golf in the world?
I would say either the Melbourne sandbelt or the London heathlands. Both destinations have amazing golf courses very closely located together and a stone throws away from two of the best cities in the world.
What led you down the path to course architecture?
I first became interested when I was about 16 when my home club (Riversdale Golf Club) was being renovated by Peter Thomson. I took a great interest in the process and activated my dream of becoming a golf course architect.
Your career included a stint with European Golf Design. What influence did this have on your future design philosophy?
Jeremy Slessor, Managing Director of European Golf Design, offered me a position in 1998, which I was very thankful for and thrilled me immensely. The high level of detail and the exposure to large scale international golf developments was fantastic. Working with master-planners in a multi-discipline consultancy team was just what I had hoped to do and got my brain thinking big.
Is there a single course architect, past or present, who has inspired you?
For the past architects, it would be Harry Colt as I have been exposed to a lot of his very naturalistic work in the UK. Of the modern architects, it would have to be Pete Dye as he really set the tone for innovative design ideas.
You were with Ross Perrett and Peter Thomson as Thomson, Perrett & Lobb up until 2016. that must have been an amazing 12 years?
Working with Peter and Ross really was a fantastic time and we created some courses that we are proud of. NEWGIZA was the first contract we signed as TPL in 2005. The project took some time to be fully realised but the result was worth the wait. Peter, Ross and I always tried to be at The Open Championship together every year. We had two Opens at St Andrews which was very special as we would always visit Peter, Mary and the Thomson family for morning tea at their house just a few minutes walk from the 18th green. Over a morning cup of coffee, we discussed the days golf ahead and just enjoyed each others company, always with some wonderful stories from Peter.
What’s the best advice Thomson gave you?
Quite simply Peter always said ‘be yourself Tim’, which is pretty simply advice but so fundamental in business and in life.
What was he like as a designer, business partner and friend?
Peter always had a non-fussy approach to golf course design with a clear strategic message to the shots being executed. He was always very supportive of our business and was so proud to be part of a company that was pioneering golf into new territories around the world as well as working in established golfing regions. Peter, Mary and all the Thomson family were very welcoming and our families always had a wonderful time, whether it be in the UK or in Melbourne, Australia. A lot of treasured memories.
We know a fair amount about Peter Thomson but less about Ross Perrett. tell us what he brought to the table and how he has helped your career?
Ross and I first met in 2002 and prior to the forming of TPL. Ross is a fully qualified landscape architect, building architect and super talented artist. Ross has an incredible skill of interpreting personalities and welcoming their ideas and thoughts, to allow for full originality and expression. Ross and I worked very closely together for all our years together which instilled the importance of creativity within the full design process.
If you are a lover of golf and ancient history, it doesn’t get much better than newgiza does it?
NEWGIZA has been an incredibly rewarding project to work on as a designer but more so as part of the construction implementation team. Throughout the design process, we worked very hard to retain and incorporate the pre-existing limestone quarry heritage of the site in the design. The vertical quarry excavations are seen regularly throughout the golfing journey. We tried to design a course that looked very dramatic yet played very friendly for the golfers. In our view we want all the golfers to be able to get off the tee with ease so as to enjoy the fine approaches into the large and undulating greens we created.
As a designer, you must have been fascinated by the Giza pyramids?
We visited the pyramids on many occasions as they are the most amazing structures viewed up close. We were adamant that the pyramids should be part of the golfing experience and worked hard with sightlines, angles and elevations to ensure visibility of these grand structures from the golf course. In the end, we found the sweet spot from the 4th hole, which is a par 3 playing steep into the quarry base with the pyramids as their backdrop.
What can visiting golfers expect from the golf experience at NEWGIZA?
We are very pleased with the end course at NEWGIZA because we were involved from day one, literally the first stroke of the pen on paper with the client to start the masterplan. The course fits very well within the overall development and I think we achieved our goal of creating a truly Egyptian golfing experience. With the quarry site conditions, our semi-desert landscape strategy and connection with the pyramids we hope that visiting golfers will remember NEWGIZA long after they leave.
You’ve just started construction on a second course in Egypt at Soma Bay in Hurghada. What sort of layout will we eventually see there?
We are starting construction of a second course at Soma Bay in Hurgada, to sit next to the existing Gary Player layout. We plan to build a ‘resort’ style 18-hole course which will certainly promote family/ holiday golf. We plan very few bunkers – less than 10 – on the course and want to incorporate interesting ground contours with native grasses cutting into play to form the playing strategy. The Red Sea will be visible from every hole and the course will range from 4600 yards to 6600 yards and be a par 71.
It must be satisfying to be working in relatively undeveloped regions for the royal and ancient game?
Throughout my career, we have been fortunate to create golf courses in regions where golf had not existed. This pioneering work has its challenges for sure but with education and passion of the local community, great results can be achieved.
Is there a country you’d really like to leave your design imprint in?
We have been looking at some potential projects in Mauritius and that certainly is one beautiful spot. There are some exciting plans for golf in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which we would love to help evolve.
You’ve been quoted saying building a links course from scratch is on your bucket list? Is links golf your favourite form of the game?
I love all golf courses that sit softly in their own landscapes. Playing links courses can provide the most raw and sustainable golf course experiences.
The best links course you’ve played?
Tough question… I’ll go with Royal County Down.
When will we see a LOBB + PARTNERS Design in the UAE?
We would love to fully open a LOBB + PARTNERS golf course soon in the UAE. We’d also be very pleased to work with clients who like our style.
Adam Scott recently bemoaned courses that are getting longer and longer, saying they don’t faze the game’s top players. conversely, many courses have been designed for owners with ambitions to host pro events so are too tricky for the majority of weekend warriors. how do you strike a balance?
When a client says to us that they want to host a major professional tournament on their course, we sit them down first and say ‘are you sure?’
The gap between professional and amateur golf has never been so great. To strike the happy balance we ensure a variety of teeing locations which have different distances but maybe, more importantly, a diversity of play angles. Greens should be quite large to accommodate regular pin positions as well as the tight ‘Sunday’ pins.
How do you deal with criticism of your work?
Some people like coffee in the morning and other tea – everybody is different and their opinions of the subjective golf course design can be varied. We always appreciate feedback and criticism is part and parcel of our business as what we are designing have no pre-set solutions or formulas. Thankfully we don’t receive regular criticism but a thick skin sometimes is needed.
It’s hard picking favourites but if we really pressed your for your most memorable new design, what would it be?
Gosh, that is a tough one because all the projects are memorable for different reasons. Most certainly NEWGIZA is right up there because of the complexity of the design and difficulty of the build. Carya in Turkey came out really well because we laid it out in a mature pine forest. Similarly, Linna Golf in Finland, which I did with EGD was with wonderful clients set in a mature and hill pine forest – a joy to work on.
And the renovation project?
We are working on many Top 100 golf courses in the UK and pleased to be part of a movement which is looking to restore the valuable landscapes within these beautiful heathland courses of Surrey and Berkshire. Our clients include St Georges Hill G.C., Woking G.C., West Hill G.C., Worplesdon G.C., Huntercombe G.C. and The Berkshire GC. We are working hard to leave a sustainable landscape and golf course strategy for future golfers.
Where do you see golf course architecture going in the foreseeable future, especially with no end in sight for the advance of ball and club technology?
The future surely must be driven by sustainability, whether it be environmental, economic or to maintain sustainable participation levels. As golf course architects we have a strong role in shaping the future with innovative, creative and interesting golf facilities for experienced golfers as well as total novices. The ball is going way too far and having a negative impact on tournament play but I don’t think it is having a major effect to the regular golfer.
If you were the boss of global golf for a day, what would your first directive be?
Speed up the game of golf. It is S-L-O-W-L-Y killing the game.
In a perfect world, would you prefer to design a course harmonising with the natural surrounds or work with a blank canvas like many of the desert courses here in the UAE where shifting sand isn’t such a big deal?
A site with a natural flair for a potential golf course is, of course, a joy to work with, though creating golf features with machinery and creativity is also enjoyable. To make flat ground interesting and unforgettable as a golf course is quite a challenge and a source of achievement as well.
How has your design philosophy changed from when you started in the profession?
I first started in the golf design world in 1995 with Australian Ted Parslow. In the early days, we didn’t think so much about the number of bunkers or maintenance impacts of our designs. Certainly, now I would say that we are designing far less bunkers than we used to and thinking about other golf features like run-off zones around greens and interesting ground contours to deflect or gather golf shots. Of course, sustainability has also become more of a driving force in the design process now.
What would your elevator pitch be to a prospective client looking to build a course, say in the UAE?
We love to work with passionate owners to deliver outcomes which explore all design scenarios and innovate the game of golf even further.
Golfers are pretty fanatic characters. are you always thinking about course design?
When I play golf I try and switch off from design and enjoy the game. At home, I try not to think about golf design.
What do you do for fun after hours?
I enjoy running and going to the gym, though I really do need to lose some weight. As a family, we enjoy travelling and regularly go to Asia and Australia to see our families and friends. Cooking and enjoying a glass or two are also passions and best enjoyed with friends.
What’s the best experience – golf-related or otherwise – that has been a direct result of your work?
Watching professional golfers play a tournament on one of your courses is pretty interesting to watch and sometimes puzzling on how they approach the course – very rarely going for a risky shot. Anonymously sitting in a locker room or clubhouse of a course you’ve designed listening to people talk about the course is also really interesting and always a learning curve.