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The thinking behind the "perfect" test of women's golf
January 6, 2011

South African golf designer Phil Jacobs was tasked with creating the best golf course in Singapore when he began redesigning Tanah Merah’s Garden Course in 2004. Since the two-year project was completed, the venue for the HSBC Women’s Champions had proved to be far much more: it’s being talked of as one of the great courses in female tournament golf. Tim Maitland reports

Japan’s Ai Miyazato wore the mantle of world number one when she described the HSBC Women’s Champions venue as “the perfect venue to decide who is going to be world number one”. Tanah Merah’s Garden Course, nestled on an unpromising tract of reclaimed land by Singapore’s Changi Airport, hasn’t quite done that... but it has come close.

Ai Miyazato - winner of the HSBC Women's Champions 2010
Jiyai Shin - winner of the HSBC Women's Champions 2009
Lorena Ochoa - winner of the HSBC Women's Champions 2008
Test of the best: The three editions of the HSBC Women's Champions have been won by one of the exclusive club of five women golfers to be ranked number one in the world; Lorena Ochoa in 2008, Jiyai Shin in 2009, Ai Miyazato in 2010.
Photos: Getty Images

Three tournaments, three winners – Lorena Ochoa, Jiyai Shin and Ai Miyazato – each at the top of their game; each of them belong to that exclusive club of women who have been rated as the best female golfer on earth.

Perhaps that explains why the Japanese superstar uttered the following words: “It’s a very special golf course.”

It would be easy to think that all of the top tournaments are played on ‘special’ courses, but, as HSBC Head of Sponsorship Giles Morgan explains, some just seem to have an almost mystical quality that brings an event to life.

“It something almost intangible, something more than just being a great test of golf, but it makes a huge difference,” he says.

“You can put all the elements of an event together to the highest international standards, but it is only when the course has that ‘it’ factor that the tension and excitement really builds and it feeds through the players to the spectators and back; that’s when you get a great tournament!”

Few would argue that the three editions of the HSBC Women’s Champions so far haven’t been great; they’ve been won by three great players each producing great performances. So what is about Tanah Merah that persuades the world’s best to get the best out of their game?

Well, when you really, really get under the skin of the Garden Course and start to understand the thinking behind his design, what the 56-year-old Jacobs does with his layout is reach into the head of the golfer, deep into the head, close to the very essence of the psyche... and messes with it!

Almost no matter how well one knows the course, there are few if any tees that you can step onto and grab a club without thinking. Each shot you face gives options and each choice you make has ramifications; it starts with the first hole where the more dangerous line down the right with the big stick tempts you with the reward of being able to attack the pin, while the safer shot for the longer hitters is to lay up on the left, but leave yourself a tougher second shot across the angle of the green.

Australian-based South African Course Designer Phil Jacobs
Australian-based South African Phil Jacobs back at the Tanah Merah Garden Course he redesigned. Photo: Brian Ho/thegaleria

“I don’t like to see a golf hole where people hit three wood off the tee all the time or a one iron. I think there’s something missing; something missing in the design. You’ve got to challenge all clubs in the bag and particularly the driver. I don’t like a hole where the majority of the golfers say ‘I’m not going to hit a driver here’. You’ve got to say, use the driver and you’ll have a substantial advantage over the rest of the field. Yes, you can hit a three or five wood, but then you’re going to be struggling,” says Jacobs who regularly visits his creation in Singapore from his base in Perth, Western Australia.

Lorena Ochoa on the 14th tee
Jacob's 14th still causes the world's best, such as Lorena Ochoa and caddie David Brooker (shown here in 2008) to stop and think. It's designed to reward only one type of shot.
Photo: Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images

Then there’s the 14th hole, where Jacobs doesn’t just test the ability of the golfer but their concept of what a par three hole actually is. Even entering the fourth year of the event, you will still find players at the 2011 HSBC Women’s Champions who deep down believe that if you hit a shot the right distance at the pin you should get close. Jacobs didn’t design it that way. The green is made so you can’t get close by going direct at the pin when it’s positioned on the right; it’s intended to reward the player who can hit and fade and use the slope at the front to take you towards (but not close) to the flag.

“Ultimately it comes down to the green. If you’ve got greens that are flat and it doesn’t really matter where you are on the green, then the whole decision-making process becomes simpler. When you have these greens like number 14, you’ve got to hit a particular shot in there. If you combine that sort of green with a par four, then your tee shot takes that into account. These greens are generally like that; they’ve got different pin positions and some places it’s better to miss it in one area. You’ve got to constantly have that question in a player’s mind: ‘if I’m going to miss it, where should I miss it?’” Jacobs reveals.

The second green at Tanah Merah's Garden Course
"Ultimately it comes down to the green!" Jacobs' philosophy is to make the putting surfaces tricky enough that you have to be thinking about them when you stand on each tee. Photo: Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images

Then, if he isn’t probing the thought processes of the LPGA’s stars, Jacobs is testing their talents to breaking point with some of the longer par fours like the sixth and twelfth, which almost demand not two good shots but often four just to break even.

Yani Tseng at the 6th
Jacob's philosophy on long par fours is "Make it longer! Make it tougher!" as Yani Tseng found out on the sixth hole last year. Photo: Andy Lyons/Getty Images

“I believe in the philosophy if you’ve got a long par four... make it longer! Make it tougher! Don’t have a bunch of par fours that are between 350 and 420 metres. I’d rather have a couple of par fours that are almost 460 metres, over 500 yards for the men, make them really tough, with tough greens! Break the rules!” he says.

Then, just as you begin to think that the designer is making it tough along he comes carrying streamers and balloons at holes like the short par four which plays as the 16th for the tournament, which is flat-out fun!

“Yes, for sure, but there’s a hole where you’re testing the golfer’s self-discipline,” Jacobs explains, popping the party mood slightly.

“Some of the golfers will say ‘Whoa! If I hit an exceptional shot I can maybe get there’. But if she leaves it in the wrong positions – either front left or front right – she’s got a very tough chip! Whereas if she lays up in the right position she’s got a 100-yard shot in and she can as easily make a birdie. But we’re tempting her, tempting her… because it’s such fun to hit it on the green! There are two fun holes: the third, a peninsular green, that’s a fun hole; the short par four is a fun hole. And you’ve got everything in between” he explains.

Juli Inkster at Tanah Merah's short par 4 16th
Legend Juli Inkster gets driver out and gets into the party mood on the short par four 16th, but Jacobs' "fun" hole is also there to test a golfer's self-discipline.
Photo: Andrew Redington/Getty Images

In reality, what Jacobs wanted from the pan-flat piece of reclaimed land he was asked to reinvent was to challenge, not torture, some of the greatest golfing talents out there. The results over the past three years prove he found that balance, bringing the best out of the best golfers, challenge them to the utmost and deciding which of them was the best without the prejudice of favouring the long hitters.

“It’s a fine line. You’ve got to give the golfers some space sometimes and some holes where they can say ‘I can attack’; you’ve got to have those holes. We do have some of those holes, depending on where the wind is. They have two par fives generally down wind, they’ve got a short par four and a short par three, in fact the par three, if it’s into the wind, they can attack it more. Then they’ve got some really difficult par fours and if they make par there they’re going to feel good. Good golfers like a course like this because the fly-by-night [player] is not going to get lucky. Here, it’s a constant asking of ‘what are you capable of?’”

HSBC Head of Sponsorship Giles Morgan
HSBC's Giles Morgan says Tanah Merah has the vital 'it' factor.
Photo: Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images

The greatest compliment one can pay the course is to repeat the Ochoa-Shin-Miyazato roll of honour.

“HSBC have consistently managed to bring in the best golfers and give them, our guests and the spectators the best experience possible, but it’s the quality of the course that has consistently created great tournaments and great champions,” says Giles Morgan.

2011 is likely to be exactly the same, because the one attribute the winner will have is this: they’re going to have to be good, damned good.

“...and not only technically!” Jacobs adds. “You’ve got to have a strong mind! You need to know when to attack and when you have to stick to your game plan and have that self discipline.”


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