The Middle East has seen some significant golf facilities developed over the years, but none quite compare to Education City Golf Club in Qatar. A masterclass in profile design, all playing surfaces – greens, tees, fairways and roughs – have been constructed to USGA specifications. To say it is one of world golf’s most unique creations is an understatement and for ex-pat Queenslander Andrew Ikstrums it has provided a career opportunity few greenkeepers will ever experience.
Opening in January 2019, Education City Golf Club (ECGC) became just the second golf course in Qatar. The facility consists of 33 holes – two Championship courses (one 18-hole and one six-hole) as well as a floodlit nine-hole par three course – all of which were designed by Spaniard professional Jose Maria Olazábal.
The vision of the project was to design, build and operate a golf facility that would drive the growth of golf in Qatar, while honouring the Qatar Foundation’s values of education, innovation, sustainability and research and development. Not only does ECGC offer a unique experience, but it has a memorable back drop too, with the FIFA World Cup 2022 stadium only a couple hundred metres off the 18th tee.
Qatar does not do things by halves and this could not be truer for ECGC. The complex covers 120 hectares, with all the green areas of the golf course – greens to rough – being built to USGA specifications. Considering the ambitious vision of creating a world class sporting facility and the high standards set in construction, it goes without saying that the golf course maintenance had to be up to scratch.
Tasked with the responsibly of overseeing this facility is superintendent Darren Smith who arrived in 2013 when the place was just a desert landscape. Darren advised on the construction of the courses before heading up the agronomy team. I was appointed as Darren’s deputy in early 2018, arriving as the construction phase was almost complete.
My responsibilities centred around maintenance, taking the course from the grow-in stage to a fully operational club in championship condition. My main priorities included training the team (of 45), taking them from their minimal experience to fully competent greenkeepers, as well as developing property level policies, such as a maintenance manual and all agronomy plans.
Despite only being 26, I feel I’ve been in the turf industry a long time. My interest in grass came as a result of wanting to jump on the old man’s 42’’ John Deere and start cutting… he would put the mower in gear and off I went! Growing up on a large property in Baffle Creek, an hour north of Bundaberg, there was always plenty of grass to cut. Behind the caravan park there was a small nine-hole golf course where I would spend most of my afternoons and weekends either playing or cutting fairways. I quickly realised that high school wasn’t for me, but luckily Bundaberg Golf Club was advertising for an apprentice greenkeeper and I couldn’t get my CV in quick enough!
In 2009 I started my apprenticeship under then superintendent Sean Stuchbery and I will forever be indebted to him and the club for giving me my first break. After completing my apprenticeship, in late 2012 I headed to the Gold Coast to work at Emerald Lakes, before heading across to The Glades Golf Club 12 months later where I rose up the ranks to be assistant. Working there under superintendent Glenn Gibson-Smith helped me raise the bar, with his enthusiasm, structure and planning allowing me to further refine my skills.
It was early 2018 when I received a phone call out of the blue from an unknown Qatari number. It was Darren seeing if I would be interested in becoming the deputy superintendent at ECGC. Despite not knowing where Qatar was, I said ‘Of course, what an opportunity!’ I sent my CV in straight away and by the week’s end I had the job! It was certainly a bit of a rush, but on reflection I know I made the right decision.
To say moving to Qatar was a culture shock would be a serious understatement. Coming from the ‘bush’, I don’t think anyone saw me ending up in the desert! One of the biggest changes (and, to be honest, I’m still getting my head around it) would be the different working week which runs from Saturday to Thursday. Friday is a day of prayer for the locals and a day of play for the ex-pats…
Being here for two summers now I don’t think I’ll ever get used to the scorching temperatures; when it’s over 40oC by 5am you know it’s going to be a long day! Qatar has a very diverse population, with ex-pats making up over 80 per cent, meaning you are exposed to a multitude of nationalities. The team at ECGC is made up of 20 different nationalities. This has definitely been a learning experience, not only having to learn about local customs and norms but also the variety of different cultures around you.
One of biggest challenges of working in Qatar is the impact of a current blockade between Qatar and the other Gulf Nations. Not only does this prevent any regional weekend getaways, but more importantly it has a direct impact on our supply chain of products for the golf course. Prior to the blockade, which came into force in 2017, fertility products, sand and pesticides were freighted by truck from surrounding countries. This is not possible now and as a result getting products into the country is very difficult. We now get the majority of our products from Australia, which take up to eight weeks to arrive. Before placing any orders, everything needs to go through a pre-approval process, as per government legislation. Just because something was approved before does not mean it will be approved next time, meaning there is nothing as simple as a repeat order.
To read the full article orginally published in Volume 22.3 of the ATM click here.