Published by : Stuart McLean - 06 October 2023

Marco Simone was the first purpose-built golf course for the Ryder Cup, and the architect chosen to lead the project was South African David Sampson, who works for European Golf Design.

The ever-challenging nature of the course, its significant water hazards, fabulously creative greens complexes, and terrific stretch of risk-reward finishing holes, was one of the highlights of this Ryder Cup match in Rome, and it received high praise from all quarters, players and fans alike.

Graeme McDowell said in his Daily Telegraph column that Marco Simone was superb and “one of the best matchplay venues I have ever seen. The last three holes were phenomenal finishing holes for a Ryder Cup. I loved 18.”

This excellent modern tournament course is expected to be included in the next ranking of Europe’s Top 100 Courses.

Dave Sampson with Europe team captain Luke Donald at Marco Simone.

Sampson’s reputation as a designer was virtually unknown in South Africa before the Ryder Cup. He attended school in Pretoria, university in Port Elizabeth, and was a 25-year-old architecture graduate working in London as an analyst for Surrey County Cricket Club when a stroke of fortune changed the direction of his life in November 2002.

Passing through Heathrow Airport he bought a copy of Golf World magazine. Inside was a competition that excited his interest. It offered readers the opportunity to design a hole on a course being built by European Golf Design in Finland. As a junior golf member at Wingate Park east of Pretoria, Sampson had sketched imaginary holes on scraps of paper. While studying for six years at UPE (now Nelson Mandela) he had fallen in love with the Humewood links which adjoins the university campus, and been inspired by the design flow of the holes.

“I was meant to have gone to Tukkies,” recalls Sampson, who comes across as a keen golf nut when we chat. “But my girlfriend was at Rhodes University, and I took advantage of a cricket bursary to rather enrol at UPE. I was a left-arm spinner. I later had my wedding in PE.”

More than 900 readers submitted entries to Golf World, many of them elaborate presentations, but it was Sampson’s strategically sound design for a 470-metre par 5 that triumphed. Two years later he got to see the hole for himself, No 15 at Linna Golf, and became a design associate for EGD. Course architect Tim Lobb revealed that Sampson’s choice of green site for the hole had been instrumental in choosing his entry. Most other entrants had gone for a position that seemed the right choice, but was impractical.

Fans gather on Marco Simone’s risk-reward short par-4 16th during the Ryder Cup.

When Italy bid to host the Ryder Cup, their choice of course was one close to Rome, Marco Simone, built in the 1980s. The Italians committed to a total transformation of the course by European Golf Design if they won. Sampson, whose previous course designs for EGD had included Royal Greens in Saudi Arabia and the renovation of Evian Resort in France, was entrusted with the work. Construction began in 2018, and completed in 2021. In September that year the new course hosted the Italian Open, the tournament returning there in September 2022 and May 2023.

“The project feels like one of those once-in-a-career opportunities,” he said. “A surprise for me on my first visit was the amount of elevation changes, which created so much potential for both holes and spectators. Being the Ryder Cup venue brought extra pressure, as every design decision had to be analysed over and over. We had a blank canvas. The old course had been discarded. We retained only one playing corridor.

“It was an unusual project in that the course had to be routed to fit in with all the Ryder Cup hospitality areas and infrastructure, so we built every hole with those in mind. Additionally, the holes were to be designed with matchplay in mind, packing the back nine with risk-reward holes. However, because the course would be handed back to the members after the Ryder Cup, I also had to ensure that the course was still playable and fun for them.

“We were designing a new course which would enable the fans to have the best experience from natural viewing areas. One of the key holes, among my favourites, where fans could gather in large numbers, was the driveable short par-4 16th. My dream was that this was where the Ryder Cup would be decided on Sunday, and so it turned out.”

SuperSport provided best Ryder Cup viewing

South Africans with Dstv enjoyed excellent wall-to-wall coverage for all three days of the Ryder Cup on SuperSport. From 7.30 starts on the first two days to 7pm on the Sunday we didn’t miss much of the action. The drama was allowed to unfold with few interruptions. As a result we may have been the best country in the world to have viewed the match on television.

Reports from the United States and United Kingdom, which would have the largest TV audience, suggest that numerous commercials blighted the NBC and Sky Sports coverage of the match, and ratings dropped as a result due to frustration with the telecast. All the advertising was in no small part due to both companies having to pay gargantuan rights fees.

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