Featuring a championship golf course designed by European Golf Design, 5-star 149 room Pullman hotel, branded residences, luxury spa, extensive event facilities and an array of residential opportunities, OKOL Lake Park will set new standards for both golf in Bulgaria and the Balkan region, but also in its delivery of healthy, active, golf-integrated living.
In an exclusive interview, Robin Hiseman talks about the new golf course located on Sofia’s doorstep.
1 – You’ve been chosen to design OKOL’s championship golf course. How do you think your previous experience of developing layouts such as Casa Serena in Czech Republic or the new JCB Golf & Country Club in England can help you with this task?
The primary discipline is the same. Let the nature of the site lead the design. Both the sites you mentioned needed a fair amount of remodelling to make them work as a golf course. OKOL is very different and is far more natural golf terrain. You learn when to make the distinction between having to create a landscape or work with what you have. That experience comes as much from playing and visiting many hundreds of golf courses as it does from actually designing them. There are aspects of OKOL which remind me of Scottish moorland courses, rustic Cotswold common land and high Rocky Mountain grassy plains in the USA. My experience of those courses has been a key aspect in drawing inspiration for OKOL. I could take you to the proposed 4th green at OKOL and show you how it is inspired by a 19th century golf green on Minchinhampton Common in the Cotswolds of England. Our memory banks are full of these obscure references, but when we find a good green site, we can draw upon these little -known inspirations. Our most important task was to create a routing plan that allowed us to minimise any artifice. We’ve done that well and the layout flows around the site in much the same way in which you would naturally explore it. The golf course fits the site like a hand fits a glove.
2 – EGD has been involved in different projects which hosted major golf tournaments such as Ryder Cup venues Celtic Manor and Le Golf National. How do you think EGD’s experience on such projects can help Okol on preparing for the international golf arena?
Ryder Cup venues are a breed apart from every other type of golf course. Whilst the golf course is very important, it is the space between the holes and away from play where crowds will gather and infrastructure will be built that have to be planned from the outset. This takes up an enormous amount of space, which a regular golf course doesn’t have to consider. We’re working on such schemes with regularity, so have developed a keen eye for how tournament courses should be laid out, both on and off the playing areas. OKOL’s requirements are not going to be that of a Ryder Cup venue, but we have considered how Okol may accommodate international tournaments of varying types.
3 – The layout of golf courses and their level of difficulty have been discussed a lot lately, especially when we talk about introducing the game to new markets. What is your view and how do you find the right balance when developing a new concept?
In a developing golf market like Bulgaria and in the specific example of a golf resort like OKOL Lake Park, we’ve sought to design a course that will encourage new players to try the game and to stick with it as they improve. We don’t want the course to be so difficult that novice golfers are discouraged and beaten up, but we also need to ensure that as they improve they find that the strategic challenge of the course maintains their interest. There are layers to the design, which reveal themselves to the players in different ways depending on ability. OKOL is lightly bunkered off the tee, so the player will be able to keep the ball moving forward quite easily, but if you are chasing a par score, you’re going to find the green complexes technically challenging. There are several holes with no bunkers at all, because the natural features do the work for us. We’ve made sure there are plenty of different tees to choose from and now that gender is no longer a determining factor of which tee you play, we trust golfers will seek out the ones best suited to their ability. They’ll enjoy it a lot more if they do.
4 – Located close to Sofia, OKOL Lake Park is bordered by nature and offers stunning view of the Iskar Reservoir. How do you plan to take most advantage of the landscape and surrounding views?
Very few people have ever seen the spectacular views from the Alpine meadow on which OKOL is located. It’s an amazingly beautiful place, especially on the back nine, which plays out and back along a narrow ridgeline, with an incredible panoramic view over Iskar Lake and towards the Rila Mountains and the Borovets ski resort, some 25 kilometres to the south. The golf course takes you to all these natural viewpoints and makes a virtue of pausing there. We’ve located a small café and rest station next to the 13th tee, which is probably the prime viewpoint. The walking trails around the course congregate here and encourage visitors to stop, relax and the thankful for spending time in this unique landscape. I doubt many people outside Bulgaria associate it with this kind of mountain scenery, so it’s definitely going to have a ‘wow’ factor. The site is strewn with many impressive and unique rock outcrops, which we incorporate into the design. On a technical level, we’re going to clean out a lot of self-seeded pine saplings, which if left alone will eventually block out the views. We shall be working with the Golf Environment Organisation to ensure the best possible stewardship of the alpine meadow through which the course is routed. Most of the rough will be retained, natural grassland, full of wild flowers. It’s a precious landscape and we will treat it with the utmost respect.
IMG Golf Course Services is a global leader in the development, marketing and management of world class golf courses. For more than 25 years, the group has set the standard for excellence in golf club management. IMG’s golf course services team currently provides a diverse range of management and marketing services to more than 20 award winning clubs and resorts.
European Golf Design was established in 1992 as a Joint Venture between the European Tour and IMG. The company has earned a reputation for producing successful resort, members and tournament golf courses, on schedule and within budget. For more information about EGD, please visit www.egd.com