Robert Trent Jones Junior will do most of the talking. He is in California, we are in Greece. There's an 11-hour time difference, 10pm for him, 9am for us, but that doesn't matter. On the video-screen he is a 65-year old of animated, eager-eyed flesh and blood, talking about his latest design, the par-71, 5,760-metre Bay Course overlooking Navarino Bay on the far southwest fringes of the Peloponnese. This is Greece's seventh course, and his 270th.
The Peloponnese are not the islands they sound but the substantial underbelly of Greece, connected to the mainland only by the narrow isthmus of Corinth, and aforementioned Navarino Bay, which ought to be better known in English school books, one of the bays of a glorious coastland you might compare with southwest Ireland. Still with a bit of rain. Only warmer.
“This is very special project,” Trent Jones begins. Well, all RTJ’s projects are special, but this one has a double thrust. It is part of a unique €1.3 billion development in one of the great homes of Greek culture. Set on an olive-studded hill not far away, Nestor’s Palace of 4000 BC was fabled for the king’s hospitality and wisdom, his bath an extraordinary visual relic, one of the local studies, the use of syllables in language, one more reason why the struggle for Greece’s economic survival goes on.
Nestor’s modern-day successor, Vassilis Constantakopoulos, was a local boy who made good as a shipping billionaire. Not much change there you may say, but, in the spirit of the great philanthropists, in the last 20 years he has used armies of local people to refigure land, divert rivers, and build on a massive scale to set up an eco-driven super resort giving permanent employment to more than 2000. The 5-star Romanos and Westin Hotels, opened in 2010, are at its core. But there is more to come, not least a third course with the likes of Gary Player and Pete Dye in mind.
Sadly, Vassilis passed away at 76 in February 2011, his dream incomplete, but his son, Achilles (would you believe?), is determined to stay on message, and who better than a Trent Jones as wise man in support. “I knew Vassilis well,” he says. “We have a long family history related to the Greeks. I attended the Olympics in Athens as his guest. In fact my grandfather actually ran in the first Olympics in Athens, so that’s how close things are. My grandmother’s name was Iona, and that is from the Ionian Sea, which is what you see here.
Navarino Bay is an extraordinary seaside site that Captain Vassilis introduced me to, and any designer would kill to work on it.”
Bernhard Langer’s Dunes Course, a short walk from the hotels, opened in the autumn of 2010, has bedded down well, especially the grassy hummocks and swales of the opening nine. For the moment, the Bay, which opened to the public in December, is the prime interest. Over the video link, Trent Jones says: “I’m going to describe the course that I designed, not the way it’s playing now.
For 18 months, while the clubhouse is built, the 1st and 14th holes are transposed, but the rhythm will be set by what I did. For that, you start at thefirst playing straight at the bay, and in sequence from there. Immediately you are drawn into the feel of the place and the nature of the holes. The land is so generous in its change of elevation.
“You don’t have to overdress the beautiful lady and there are not too many bunkers. Forty is enough. They’re different shapes for strategic reasons, the gift of land and sea being as it is. We moved in 1500 indigenous olive trees as an additional hazard, but this is a very natural form of golf art. The fairways are wide, some of them double, as you’ll notice at 18, also 12 and 13. The course is very hard and fast, allowing links-like shots to and around the greens. The aprons are cut tight so, if you mis-hit, your shot can fall far away from the green and you’ll need a bump-and-run or Texas-wedge to get yourself back. That’s the way with links.
“We’ve six par-threes, but one will be a par-four when a land dispute is resolved. The short holes are all very different, downhill on some, uphill on 17, long and short, mostly different directions of the compass rose, so different wind come at you from various angles. The 14th is the one artificial water hole. We’ve restrained ourselves from adding water where the site doesn’t need it. Nos 2 and 17 have giant water holes, meaning the bay itself.
“True, I like to think of my courses in terms of music. Here it’s Debussy. Think of La Mer. Sometimes rough and tumbling, sometimes calm and moonlit. Beauty and the beast. It’s an extraordinary place. With these warm summers and mild winters, just the place for North Europeans.”
Well, we are a group of a dozen mixed French, Italian, German, Austrian and English testing it out. From the Aegean Airways flights into Athens, it takes our minibus four hours to reach the resort, the motorway giving out close to a signpost pointing to Mount Olympus (Rio in 2016 will be staging golf), and the winding roads from there not dissimilar to the Algarve BC (BeforeCotton).
GolfBreaks, Planet and other British operators have better flight options into Kalamata, a substantial airport just 50 kilometres from the resort.
English is widely taught in schools here, so the Westin has no language problems among pleasant staff who neither presume nor patronise. The Romanos hotel majors on exclusivity – its low-rise stone villas with individual pools and easy access to a beautiful sandy area of the beach, two mansions within it catering for a Beckham clientele. The Westin, side by side, is busy under the chandeliers of its stone and marble entrance hall. Buggies will whisk you off to the Dunes golf clubhouse, its Flame restaurant a nightly hotspot, while children will be happy all day with innovative play areas.
The Bay Course is a 10-minute commute south round the bay in the direction of the hillside town of Pylos, its Acropolis, or fortress, overlooking the islet bearing memorial to British sailors who perished in the fight for Greece’s independence, back in 1828. Admiral Codrington’s unlikely fleet of English, French and Russian vessels secured Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire with the overthrow of a much larger Turkish and Egyptian armada. The course’s great feature, RTJ’s efforts notwithstanding, are the views across the mighty, semi-enclosed bay.
Our first hole is indeed the intended 14th across an irrigation pond (irritation might be a better word, given the circumstances) with the course director wagging his finger at any encroachment of the young grass shoots bordering the paths. Our buggies have automatic brakes, quite sinister compared with the usual. Our hire clubs are shiny TaylorMades. Four flights of tees make it possible to choose the test that best suits your game, perfect for families. And so you are in to the master’s mind, his course not fond of doglegs, accurate diagonal shots necessary, overall the sense of a rising shell. At its heel, the two closest holes to the bay have the sea on the right.
Typically, the par-four 4th and parthree 5th enjoy jigsaw shaped bunkers which can actually save you from the water. Neat. Then into the rising and falling interior, the sculptural trunks of the olive trees among the most memorable feature. A canyon hole at the back, the 488-metre 10th, reminds you of the essential arithmetic – five threes, five fives, eight fours. Don’t be put off by the fact that the course is still very much in its infancy. It plays beautifully, and those views more than make up for the inconvenience of playing six short holes until the part-submerged ecofriendly clubhouse – complete with turf & shrub rooftop housing a tiger-tee for the 1st – is complete.
Still, the Greeks have a word for it. Go!