Dave Thomas left the tumult of English weather behind and, basking in Marbella sunshine, he discussed his past and future in the golf world.
MARBELLA, SPAIN - This year's Ryder Cup will be played on a course designed by Dave Thomas. 'The Belfry' is the 2002 venue and it happens also to be his favourite course. It has taken a quarter of a century for the club to gain his unqualified approval.
"There are other courses that are more exciting, but 25 years on, it looks completely different. There is a cumulative satisfaction of having designed all three courses and being able to go back and remodel them. Technically, The Belfry is impeccable and as it gets older, it gets better. It is the best venue in the UK for events and we'll see that when the Ryder Cup is played there."
Thomas has designed nearly a hundred courses. Once he decided to pursue golf architecture, he devoted himself to it with the same unswerving dedication that characterised him as a golfer - a golfer with sufficient talent to have won several Opens and to have gained a place on three Ryder Cup Teams. How did it all begin? Unsurprisingly, golf ran in the family.
"My father played very good amateur golf with a 2 handicap and I simply followed in his footsteps, first caddying and then becoming a junior member of the golf club Newcastle on Tyne. By the time I was 15, I had won the club championship and I knew that I didn't really want to do anything else but play golf. I left school at 15 and became an assistant locally. In those days, potential PGA members had to serve an apprenticeship for three years. I was with one of the old school, Harry Fernie, at the Northumberland Golf Club."
Thomas was in good company. The Fernie family comprised a golfing dynasty that had been going strong since the 1800s when Harry's father, Willie, had won the Open.
Rewarding his mentor by winning one Open after another, Thomas was victorious in three of them. By the late '60s, he had been playing championship golf for more than a dozen years and was beginning to experience one of the downsides to the sport: swing-related afflictions. "I was thinking about alternatives to playing. I didn't particularly want to be a teacher, so when a friend asked me if I'd ever thought about golf design, I made a few enquiries."
After meeting Bernard von Linberger, designer of one of the Costa del Sol's oldest golf clubs, Thomas spent the next three years looking over his shoulder. "To see how it was done, we did an awful lot of feasibility studies, which didn't really come to anything, but from my point of view, they were very good for experience. Designing isn't art, of course, it's technical drawing, and you don't have to be a surveyor to be able to do that aspect of the work either."
"It wasn't very long before I recognised that this is what I'd like to do. I played my last Open in '72; by that time I felt that I had enough design work and I've concentrated on it ever since. I've never tried at any time to combine playing with designing. A lot of people do but I felt that clients appreciated the fact that I was there. I got a reputation for being on the job. At that time I was working with Peter Allis. He was trying to break into the television media so he wasn't as interested in the golfing side as I was. He was a very good promoter and fitted in well in that respect. We worked together in that way for around 15 years."
A recession caused them some practical problems and they decided to follow their own careers. They parted amicably. "It gave me my independence and the ability to build my own company the way it is now." His son Paul Thomas, a former European Tour Professional, is Managing Director. The two work together on projects in the UK, continental Europe and the Far East. Given that the senior designer has worked all over the world, where does he see predominant golf expansion in the near future?
"I have high expectations of golf in Spain. It's the tip of the iceberg here. I went to Palm Springs in the '60s and there were 12 courses. Now there are 72. I went to Florida in the '70s and in the whole of Florida there might have been 150; now there are 1,250. In Spain right now there are 40 courses on the Costa del Sol and a total of 340 in Spain. I would see that going to a thousand plus in a short space of time. The Spaniards are not afraid of building and somehow, the demand eventually takes up the supply. Also, Spain is a little bit like the United States in that all of the major cities are in their own separate areas and therefore have their own sports facilities. In the UK, one city blends into another."
The Thomas team is certainly making a notable contribution to Spain's growth with more than half a dozen projected courses in progress. At present, they are ready to start three courses in the Murcia area and another in nearby Alicante.
"In March, we start the National Golf Club in Madrid for the Federation (Spanish Federation of Golf). Eventually, all of the Federation events will be held in Madrid. In the meantime, the challenge is to transform some 150 hectares of initially unprepossessing land into a championship venue. It can be done, at the end of the day with sufficient trees to separate the fairways."
Insofar as trees are concerned, the designer is prepared. He owns a 35 hectare nursery filled with more than 150,000 lush palms and 250 varieties of trees, so when there's a paucity of greenery, he knows how to make up the deficit. Thomas makes the point that a designer today is apt to be given the worst piece of land for a golf course, whereas a hundred years ago, the opposite was true.
Other Spanish ventures include an exciting project close to the village of Benahavis and less than a half-hour drive from Marbella. The new Marbella Club Resort is an exciting project set in one of Andalucia's most attractive areas near a village long recognised for its beautiful surroundings. Thomas says, "They're not ready to go public but we're already designing the second course. The idea is to make the first course private for residents and the new course on the river into the 'pay as you play' course." Both the hotel and the second 18-holes are expected to be open by April 2004.
Golfers keen on European property investment with a foot in two countries will be interested in Thomas's Almeda de Oro, just 500 metres across the Spanish border into Portugal. A marina, hotel and residences will be built around the course.
Is there any style of course he hasn't yet designed but would like to? "A links course. I'm close to it. I've got a site in Wales that is on a strip of beach - it's nearly a links course. It has been military land for years and is only being released now."
One thing is clear. Thomas has not only been basking in Marbella's sunshine, but merely taking a break for a little interview. As he said when asked about his favourite course, "The next one."
February 13, 2002
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