Golfplan’s Ugandan 18 debuts along headwaters of The Nile
Lake Victoria Serena Golf Resort & Spa, now a fully fledged, 18-hole design from the hand of Golfplan’s Kevin Ramsey, celebrated its official grand opening 6-8 October by hosting the inaugural Serena Johnnie Walker Open, an event claimed Ugandan professional Phillip Kasozi who carded a 54-hole total of 222 over the 7,262-yard, par-72 course.
Kasozi’s victory (and a 200-member pro-am staged the next day) capped a development process some 10 years in the making. This slow road has nevertheless produced the finest course in the diversifying tourist region of East Africa.
“The first nine at Lake Victoria took 7 years start-to-finish; the last nine took just 2,” said course architect Ramsey, a partner with Santa Rosa, Calif.-based Golfplan (www.golfplan.com). “In new golf markets like this one, flexible timelines are the way to go. It serves no one to artificially advance a project according to arbitrary schedules. It’s better to get things exactly right.”
Kasozi was certainly impressed. He called the design “brilliant”, adding that these 18 holes at Lake Victoria Serena will advance the game in Uganda: “On behalf of the professionals I thank all who have made this possible,” he said.
According to Ramsey, who was on site for the grand opening festivities, first among those is resort developer Katrick Halai, CEO of the Kenya-based contracting firm Cementers. The architect also singled out project manager Theodor van Rooyan and the artistry of Phase II shaper Joe Smith.
But surely some credit should be reserved for Ramsey himself, whose design Van Rooyan and Smith followed, and whose development savvy helped realize Uganda’s first international-standard course.
Formed in 1972, Golfplan has brought proper golf facilities to more new markets than any course architecture firm in the game, having created more than 217 original designs in 32 different countries (if renovation and master planning are considered, make that 85 countries). This fall, in addition to Lake Victoria Serena, Ramsey christened the first international-standard course in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia (Tabori Hills GC) and the back nine at Samsun GC, Turkey’s first course on the Black Sea coast.
Half a world away, the week of 18-21 October, Ramsey’s partner in Golfplan, David Dale, watched the world’s top players tackle his much feted design, The Club at Nine Bridges. Reigning world no. 1 Brooks Koepka topped that field, at the U.S. PGA tour’s CJ Cup, with a winning total of -21.
“New course development in South Korea and Uganda can’t get much further apart, geographically and logistically, but the commonality here is getting things right — no matter how long it might take,” Ramsey said. “In a mature market like Korea, where we’ve done two dozen original designs, no course takes 10 years to complete. In Uganda, it’s a different exercise: We essentially created the development standard from scratch. And that would not have happened, ever, were it not for the commitment and passion of our developer, Mr. Halai, who ensured that not a single corner was cut. His commitment to quality never flagged. We deployed all the best materials, Toro irrigation, and the perfect turfgrass for this climate and site, Sea Spray Paspalum, which, like most everything (including bentgrass, for the putting surfaces), required importation.
“As a result, we have a thoroughly compelling golf course in a singular setting — with course conditions the equal of any in Africa. And I include South Africa in that assessment.”
The environment at Serena is naturally dominated by mighty Lake Victoria, a presence on all 18 holes but particularly the start and finish. Ramsey’s design made elegant use of an enormous, man-made lagoon that divides holes 1 and 9 from 17 and 18 — and accommodates the property’s sparkling new marina.
“I’m not sure that’s ever been done,” the architect said. “Those are wonderful water holes, the 1st especially — once you reach the landing area, all of Lake Victoria spreads out before you. The 18th is another picturesque par-4, a sexy little finishing hole that plays to an island green. But it’s something quite special to have a gallery of pleasure boats shuttling in and out of this marina, as the round begins and ends.
“It’s a pretty flat piece of ground there at water’s edge, but those are some of the most beautiful lake-side holes we’ve created as a firm — I’m really pleased with the way our wispy, native-grass areas aesthetically complement the papyrus reeds we preserved at lakeside. At the same time, several holes at Serena play up into natural grasslands dotted with acacia trees that remind me of mesquite trees from the American west. It’s a distinct environment up there, and the long views — over the course, to Lake Victoria beyond — are even more stunning.”
The extended development timeline at Lake Victoria Serena Golf Resort & Spa worked out quite strategically. Located south of the capital, Kampala, the Serena property is today highly convenient to several million urbanites thanks to the newly completed Kampala-Entebbe highway. Kampala is also the point of entry for much of the country’s safari tourism industry.
“Uganda needs diversified tourist attractions and this resort definitely fits that bill,” said Ramsey, who added that his18 holes at Serena are an exotic wildlife tour in their own right. “There are dozens of exotic bird species on course, the Ugandan Crane being the most spectacular. That’s the national bird but the most a massive bird is the strikingly ugly Marabou Stork, which looks like a pterodactyl! There are some lovely monitor lizards out there, too. There used to be a python living in the papyrus reeds along no. 9 — but I don’t go out there looking for him.”