Dave Sampson was busy packing for a flight from the UK to South Africa when a golf magazine landed in front of him.
A competition to design a golf hole had caught his friend’s eye, and he urged Sampson to enter and indulge in a passion that had hitherto only been a distraction from architectural work. more traditional building company that paid its bills.
As he hastily sketched out a few plans before rushing to the airport, little did he know he was laying the groundwork for a career shift that would eventually propel him to center stage at the Ryder Cup 2023.
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“I am a qualified building architect, but got into golf course design, which I always wanted to be, by winning a design competition organized by Golf World magazine in collaboration with European Golf Design” , recalls Sampson, sitting next to the Marco Simone course in Rome which he has completely redesigned and which will host the highly anticipated match play next year.
Sampson not only left his mark at the Linna Golf Resort in Finland, where his competition-winning design eventually became the 487-yard, par-5, 15th hole, but also on European Golf Design (EGD), the course design arm of the wider European touring group.
“I eventually came back to the UK and took a job as a cricket analyst for the Surrey Cricket Club as I knew it would also give me plenty of time to teach myself and learn the craft of architecture. golf,” added Sampson, who joined his current employers in 2004 as a design associate. “I had already had this introduction with EGD by spending time with them and doing some exercises with them. They were really great in helping me develop what is my passion.
Sampson has spent the past 20 years helping to design and shape remarkable courses around the world with his portfolio, including Crans Montana in Switzerland, the Evian Golf Resort in France and Royal Greens in Saudi Arabia.
“Every golf course architect has worked on projects at different stages, from design to construction, but unfortunately few of them actually end up putting the shovel in the ground,” Sampson said.
But the Marco Simone course on the outskirts of Rome was one such project.
The original course was designed by Jim Fazio and David Mezzacane before it opened for play in 1991, but a complete overhaul was a fundamental part of their bid to host the Ryder Cup.
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EGD had previously worked on redesigning the Ryder Cup layouts at Le Golf National in Paris (2010) and Celtic Manor in South Wales (2008), so the company was an obvious partner for the project.
With key support from course owner and fashion designer, Laura Biagotti, and then her daughter, Lavinia, following the death of her mother in 2017, the new course is finally taking shape.
“EGD was part of the group that put together the bid for the Italian Golf Federation, and I was given the position of lead architect,” says Sampson, after guiding European captain Luke Donald and vice-captain Edoardo Molinari on the course.
They won the right to host the 2023 Ryder Cup in 2015, rising to the challenge of bid rivals Austria, Germany and Spain, and Sampson began work on the project in 2017 assembling layouts and design.
Construction would not begin until the following year with the final nine holes redeveloped in the first phase of the project which lasted another 12 months. These holes were opened at the end of 2019 when work also began on the front nine and these were completed in early 2021 – just in time for the Italian Open last year.
However, the journey to this point has not been as smooth as the perfectly laid out greens that now adorn the course.
“Not every project is a simple process and I think it would be fair to say that this one was quite difficult,” Sampson recalls with the smile of a man clearly delighted to be out of the chaos. “We had to work in unprecedented times with the Covid pandemic which made things really difficult, especially trying to get out here – not just for us, but for the people on site who are building the golf course. .
“Then you add power pylons, gas lines and a bit of archaeology, so it would be fair to say there was a weird challenge,” added Sampson, who was forced to tweak his design in due to certain archaeological discoveries.
“We knew we couldn’t get that close to the castle, but there were two other areas on the project site, which only became apparent as we progressed with the work,” did he declare. “So we had to be a bit flexible with a few holes to avoid certain areas. You know, this is Rome and you never know what you’re going to find when you put the bucket in the ground.”
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Sampson revealed he approached the project from a different angle than his previous work due to the unique nature of the Ryder Cup.
“Normally you get a blank site and try to find the best 18 holes for that course,” he says. “Whereas with the Ryder Cup you take into account a lot of other things. You’re not just trying to find the best holes, you’re trying to find the best holes for the spectators, the best holes for the infrastructure, for hospitality, so there are a lot of other factors, so the magnitude of this work is incomparable to just about anything else.
Some 270,000 spectators attended the 2018 Ryder Cup, and similar numbers are expected again for the first edition of the event in Italy, where the hosts will be looking to bounce back from a 19-9 loss at the hands of the United States in Whistling Straits. Last year.
“One of the things that we are lucky with at the venue is over 50 meters of elevation at the venue and we have tried to maximize those opportunities, not only from a golf and game perspective but also for the viewers,” says Sampson. “I think that’s the only thing viewers will notice, those great long-distance views of the site where you can see four or five holes of golf from certain vantage points. I think that’s what will make the event special.
After last year’s Italian Open, some players expressed some concerns about certain elements of the design, but Sampson remains confident in the finished product.
“We’ve worked on a number of tournament golf courses, so we have a good understanding of what’s required and what works, what doesn’t,” he explains. “But, I dare say, you’re not going to please everyone.
“I think the people whose opinions are most valid are the captains and that’s where we’re going to be guided from now on.”
It’s unlikely that any major changes to the setup will be made by the Ryder Cup, but expect the hosts to use everything they can to try and get back to winning ways.
“As the local captain, you’re always looking for benefits for your team and for the course to suit our players better than their players,” Donald explained when asked about his thoughts on the course. “We have an idea of what Americans are good at, what we’re good at, and obviously you’re trying to shape the golf course to give us a little edge. The teams will be very similar on paper but you’re trying to get small advantages that can make the difference in the end.
It’s a layout that Sampson is clearly proud of and believes will help deliver the action that has become synonymous with the Ryder Cup.
“There are really key points on the site,” he explains. “I mentioned the elevation change we have, but what we’ve also tried to do is get a lot of risk-reward holes on the back nine where the drama really is. RyderCup.
“Coupled with that, you have great long distance views of Rome. So it is factored into these key viewpoints and factored into real match play golf holes that will have a lot of drama. So you have holes 11, 12, 16, these will be some of the real key pivot holes where there will be birdies and eagles mixed in with double bogies. I think from a viewer’s perspective, it’s going to be great to watch.
It’s a view that has recently been echoed by Rory McIlroy who is set to take on the challenge again in Europe next year.
“The front nine is like the first two chapters of a book,” commented the Northern Irishman at the last edition of the Italian Open. “It immerses you in the book a bit and kind of sets the story, but the real juicy bits come at the end. This is where you really come into it.
Rory McIlroy plays rough at DS Automobiles Italian Open 2022 at Marco Simone Golf and Country Club on September 15, 2022 in Rome, Italy
Image credit: Getty Images
Does Sampson have a favorite hole that really brought his design to life?
“I think there are some really good driving holes,” he says. “So you’ve got the 12th, which is a short par-5 where players really ask themselves how many turns do they really want to take on?
“He’s playing over a valley and it’s a pretty spectacular tee shot. I think holes 2 and 15 are very similar and if I had to choose probably one I would say probably 15, that’s good. This is a really tough par-4 played from an elevated tee to a lower landing area and then back to an elevated green.
“I think during the Ryder Cup you have a really good natural amphitheater at the back of that green. It’s a tough hole but, you know, not every hole in golf can have birdies and eagles. I think this one is where the players really learned to take a par and walk and I really, really like the way it sits in the court.
Sampson also believes that those lucky enough to attend next year’s game – in person or on TV – will be treated to something truly special.
“Le Golf National was a brilliant Ryder Cup, but this one will be different because we have this change in altitude,” he enthused. “I think that’s what viewers are really going to like about this place. It’s all pretty compact, and they’ll be able to see lots of golf holes and have multiple vantage points, which is really important for a spectator.
“In addition to that, we have holes 1, 7, 16 and 17, which are in a natural amphitheater and I think a lot of spectators will come back to them.”
As the work nears completion, how does Sampson gauge the success of a project?
“I think we’ll know if it’s a success or not in the first week of October! ” he jokes. “Like any project, at the end of the day you want to please your client, they are the ones who have entrusted you with the responsibility of creating something special. You obviously want the Ryder Cup Europe to be also satisfied with what you have done – but I suppose a victory.
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