At the Heart of Kanantik
A Casey O’Callaghan Championship Golf Course
Legend has it that the game of golf as we know it today started in Scotland on sheep grazed heather links where shepherds passed their time hitting stones with crooked walking sticks into gopher holes. The rolling tufted grasses upon hill and dale, reeded pond, stony brook, briars, tree ridge and coastal sands were all native hazards presented by nature. The first course was land that eventually became managed as the Old Course at St Andrews in Scotland. The character of which remains derived from its history and natural charm and challenge.
“The Almighty Man Himself had golf in His heart when He made this place.”
- Thomas Mitchell Morris
The Pioneer of Golf Course Architecture, referring to the natural condition of the site that would become Machrihanish Dunes built in 1879, and now considered to be one of the defining links courses of Scotland. Morris designed 23 natural holes, defined as those which fit so well into the natural landscape prior to construction that only minimal effort was required to ready them for play in terms of grading and shaping work.
Golf in its primal form was a metaphor for man navigating the perils of nature. The commonality of these storied and ancient courses – as well as later editions to the game like Pebble Beach, Spyglass and others – were their ability to appreciate and retain the character and quality of the land, wild and raw. It’s what makes great courses immediately recognizable not only as a place but attracts us to them as a destination. Thereby, the quality and character of the hectares designated to be a golf course must speak to our innate sense of natural beauty and the challenges a native environment contextually would create and present. To do otherwise is an unfair proposition to both the land and the game.
Golf is a sport played upon a living entity. To recognize the quality of the land systems and services as a value component to the game, is the ecological land ethic at its heart. There’s a rare opportunity at Kanantik Belize to design and build a golf course in an era when the sport is re-finding its roots though dedicated best practice science and practices, such as Audubon International for Golf program. Globally, courses are spending energy and resources to re-engineer decades of “nature under totalitarian rule”, in favor of more sustainable, cost-efficient and more enjoyable playing conditions. Like so many other examples of our ethic as a development, we at Kanantik are pursuing the creation of a course as an opportunity to plan once, spend once and do it right (sustainably) the first time.
The Win-Win Sustainability Movement in Course Design
The recent trend of “minimalistic courses” has refreshed the greatest of outdoor games, reconnecting player with true nature, a sense of place and harken back to the heritage of Scottish links courses on which the modern game originated. So rather than deranging and stressing natural resources to support a golf course, pressure is applied on the developer to find the right piece of natural ground, that has the character and qualities suitable for a course. When the right land is located:
“Little earthmoving leads to fewer construction costs (and debt passed on to golfers), less disruption of the environment, and a “natural” look as the subtleties of the landscape are highlighted. However, the end result of many of these projects has been nothing short of environmental success stories.”
- Dr. Ben McGraw, SUNY Simple & Sustainable:
The Fascinating Shift of Golf Course Construction –June 2014
Beginning a Journey to the Links at Kanantik
The Cessna Caravan did its standard whirling pirouette at the end of Kanantik airstrip one fine sunny day in the Fall of 2014. As the prop fell silent, and the ladder dropped, off stepped the man of the hour, renowned golf course designer Casey O’Callaghan. With the enthusiasm of two kids, he and I jumped into a Range Rover and began our first boots-on-the-ground expedition of the 2,000 acre chunk of paradise that looked most favorable according to the Lidar and orthographic data on which the course had been penciled.
I must admit it was quite novel to survey the land alongside a golf course designer. Interesting was his interest in the existing inventories of grasses, sands, trees and water, and how these could be worked around, instead of plowed through. Standing on the proposed 16th fairway, Casey finally began nodding his head. Looking afar and contemplating with hands on hips, before him was the sea of savanna grass, clusters of Caribbean Pines and pocks of Palmetto clusters all rolling gently into winding walls of thick green jungle in the middle-ground. The distance dominated by the imposing Maya Mountain Range. After taking it all in for a moment, he remarked,
“There are other golf course developers who spend millions to create the features Kanantik Golf Course has naturally. All we have to do is work around them and this will be world class golf.”
- Casey O'Callaghan
> Play Casey's Video
Success. Like a modern day forest shaman, Casey had just confirmed what we’d all hoped - we had found the piece of land that wanted to be a golf course. A less visionary Developer would have taken the conventional route and chosen a marginal, inappropriate piece of land and with dozers and fertilizer tortured both the land and the background natural resources to install a course on top of an unwilling ecology. After completion and the developer long gone, the cost of the lost resource services is paid in utilities, inputs, management and green fees to maintain a piece of land that is literally on perpetual life support. But the times are changing, and while courses worldwide are spending twice to remodel courses to be more sustainable, we at Kanantik will create an ecological and efficient cost-to-build-and-operate course that will endure and entice golfers with the beauties of Belize.
Since that fine day until the end of 2015, it’s been quite the masters class in all the disciplines that must be assembled in order to design a first rate golf course abroad. Many of the goods and services that golf course designers and contractors take for granted in the U.S. marketplace, must be sourced and accounted for in tropical Belize. It’s great to be first at anything, but there’s quite a bit of team building and trailblazing required to design and budget a first of its kind championship golf course in Belize.
Overlay on these challenges a special Environmental Compliance Plan issued specifically for the course by the Belize Government and Casey and I truly had our respective hands full. In 2015 Casey coordinated three major charets, one in Belize, one in George Mock’s hometown of Houston Texas where we met with engineers; and the grand finale’ – a design and budget summit in December at Irvine California.
One of the larger aspects of team building was the process of finding the contractor who could: 1) work well in companion with our GM George Mock and land planner Bob McMahon; 2) and was able to execute Casey O’Callaghan’s vision for the course. The entire development team was impressed by Casey’s recommendation of Mark Malanado who had significant experience delivering top notch golf courses internationally, including Mexico. The first step was to introduce Mark to the parcel he would be in charge of transforming.
“After walking all 18 holes, I was surprised as to how great a site it is to construct a golf course. The property’s ability to go from savanna to jungle and back again, along with its streams and near by mountains, gives you the feeling of being alone with nature.” Mark said of his initial impressions.
About building courses overseas, Mark says: Its always been a wonderful experience and a great personal challenge, (the challenges for which are) the International constraints for access to golf course building materials and experienced golf course construction personnel willing to live abroad.
Mark reports his peers in the industry are surprised and excited at the news of a course being built in Belize, “It's the first champ course in the country of Belize and I feel lucky enough to be involved in its construction."
Looking ahead toward Permitting and Beyond
By the close of 2015 we achieved our goal of completing the design and construction package specifications, budget and expression our environmental compliance plan in accord with the National Environmental Assessment Committee’s terms of reference. Next comes the work of navigating the various ministries in order to achieve the permitting required to begin the works.
Meanwhile, George Mock is scoping and bidding out the clearing and shaping work with local large earth work vendors. The exercise was head up by George and Mark and was a learning experience that included practice clearing two fairways. Since most earthwork companies in Belize are used to making things flat (roads and farms), it was a departure of their standard costing estimates to create something decidedly and engineered to specifically be not flat. It was a great tech transfer exercise that George will undoubtedly be reporting on in the near future.