Interview With Dirk Bouts (Nicklaus Design)

Philip Henderson (Al Zorah Golf Club General Manager), Robin Evans (Troon Vice President Construction and Agronomy), Dirk Bouts (Nicklaus Design Senior Design Associate) and Mike Knudsen (Al Zorah Project Manager Golf Course)

Situated in the UAE Emirate of Ajman, just along the coast less than 25-minutes from the Dubai International Airport, The Al Zorah golf complex sits at the heart of The Al Zorah Project, which is the master-plan of Solidere International in partnership with the Ajman Government.

The golf course has been designed by Nicklaus Design, the company of legendary 18-time Major Champion – Jack Nicklaus and includes an 18 hole championship layout. Professional Sports Group got the opportunity to sit down with Dirk Bouts, Senior Design Associate, Nicklaus Design.

Al Zorah is Ajman’s first golf course and Nicklaus Design’s first solo project in the Middle East – can you share with our readers your vision for the land you were originally tasked with creating a championship golf course on?
We were given a very nice property along the shore line of existing mangroves. The goal was to fit the golf course onto the land provided and ensuring we would make best use of the neighboring mangroves at the same time maximizing the views from the golf course and surrounding development towards the natural vegetation and playing areas.

When Al Zorah opens for play in December of this year what can members and guests expect in terms of the way the course plays?
They can expect a very enjoyable and playable golf course in a beautiful setting, taking full advantage of the surrounding naturally existing features.

The project’s focus is obviously on nature and the preservation of a natural reserve stretching across over one million square metres of mangroves – what challenges did this present and how have you worked with these constraints to create such a magnificent new course?
Actually, the setup worked very well in that it was easy to locate the golf course along the existing natural reserve without causing any disturbance and actually being able to enhance and extend it incorporating it within the golf course. We at Nicklaus Design pride ourselves on being good stewards of the land, and when people visit and play this course years and decades from now, we want them to say that that we took every step to enhance the natural environment.

The golf course is certainly very unique. If you could pick the one main element that makes Al Zorah completely different to other courses in the area, what would it be?
Al Zorah being the first golf course in this Emirate, it is difficult to compare, but hopefully we’re setting a high standard for Ajman and other golf communities in the U.A.E. It is always nice and rewarding to be able to create a core golf course and in the case of Al Zorah, being able to place it in such a special environment and even incorporate that same setting within the golf course, is always great.

Where did your inspiration for the golf course come from?
The main focus was to work with the existing elements, which are the neighboring mangroves and the views. We believe we succeeded well in using them as the inspiration for the golf course that has been created today.

People are already talking about the tidal system that will alter the complexion of the course on an hourly basis. How will this change the playability and look of the course?
It will change the look constantly and within the timespan of a round of golf, we hope the players will experience the tide coming in or going out, which is an experience on it’s own. The playability will of course change, depending whether the low native areas are flooded or not.

The developers were mindful of giving the golf course ample space, I assume that was very liberating from a design and construction standpoint?
Absolutely. A pleasant balance between golf area and development was created from the start and both now compliment each other. From a project point of view, it facilitated matters on the golf course also as we only had to focus on the actual construction of the golf course.

Could you give me a little bit about your background, where you learnt your trade, where you come from and how you ended up here at Nicklaus Design?
I’m a native from Belgium and run the European office for Nicklaus Design. I started as a trainee for Jack Nicklaus 25 years ago back in Spain. I have lived and worked all over the world and returned to Europe about 15 years ago in order to head the European Office out of which we currently have 6 golf courses under construction, located in Russia, Latvia, Denmark, 2 in Morocco and Al Zorah in Ajman of course.

Tell me a little bit about some of the challenges you face in this environment compared to that you would face in a typical US resort?
Not familiar with US Resorts as I handle the Greater European Market.

With these challenges in mind, can you give us a general idea of the design process from start to finish and whether this was a longer process than normal?
The design process at Al Zorah went very smoothly as the Client knew exactly what they wanted and the Team that was setup for the project is first class. Together with a favorable climate year round to construct the golf course, we have been able to complete the golf course on time and without any major difficulties.

Obviously Al Zorah is a Troon Golf managed venue, can you tell me a little bit about the support, help and expertise you received from their team?
Troon has been involved from the start and has been instrumental to the success of the golf course. From planning, to costing and agronomical advice, they have been very helpful and we enjoy working with them on many other projects over the world.

Can you just tell us what are your favorite holes and why?
It is always very difficult to tell which are the favorite holes, but needless to say the holes along the mangrove and where we have the tidal low areas are among them.

What’s the toughest hole on the course and why?
I would say that under normal conditions, the holes paying against the wind will be challenging.