Ernie Els’ business interests in golf course design are an eye-opener in Kuala Lumpur

It’s a fine balancing act for a player competing with the best on tour and designing courses

Ernie Els  during the CIMB Classic at Kuala Lumpur Golf and Country Club.

Ernie Els during the CIMB Classic at Kuala Lumpur Golf and Country Club.


We almost got a tournament finished without a rain delay for what seemed like the first time all year on the PGA Tour. Ironically it was in the thunderstorm capital of the world, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

The officials had wisely decided to start play early each day to avoid the inevitable afternoon storms. The big one came early on Sunday and resulted in the play-off for the CIMB Classic taking place at 7.30 on the Monday morning. It only involved two players, Ryan Moore and Gary Woodland, so the whole field didn’t have to change their travel plans.

Most players were heading either back to the States or on to China this week for the next swing in the global golf merry-go-round. My player, Ernie Els, was staying put for another day in order to make a site visit to one of the courses he is designing in Malaysia.

Fine balancing act
It is a fine balancing act for a player who is still competing with the best on tour and also trying to manage his business interests in-between golfing gigs. Of course he has the facilities and the man-power to make these trips as painless and efficient as possible.

Ernie’s design team were in tow in south east Asia and his post-tournament day was consumed with a visit to his course, Desaru Coast, near Johor Baru in the southern peninsula of Malaysia.

Well it’s not a golf club yet and the ground certainly isn’t that stable. After the one-and-a-half-hour trip by helicopter down south, the chopper landed on one of the tees and sunk low into it as it settled. Boots on – machetes were not required any more although they were at the early stages – sunglasses and topographer charts in hand, a set of clubs and off the Ernie Els design team went in search of another perfectly crafted golf course. Ernie likes to walk and hit shots on the planned routing before final decisions on layout are made.

It’s two years since they first set foot on the property and it was a number of years before that when the connections were made, deals done and permission secured. I was travelling with the team; Thad Bell, the architectural landscaper, Greg Letsche, the architect, and Thomas Rubi, the business developer, all of whom have worked around the globe, like everyone else in the golf business.

Local habits
Naturally the process is the same no matter where you are but the local habits are very different. As I watched a security guard laboriously open the gate to enter the private airfield in Kuala Lumpur, it was suggested that the speed of the gate opening was fairly indicative of the way things happen down at the golf development in Johor – very deliberately. Apart from the technical expertise, a large part of Thad’s job on the ground is to deal with the cultural differences.

Then we were on our way in Ernie’s plane to Shanghai and apart from being a very comfortable way to travel, the aircraft served as an office for the team to discuss the previous day’s site visit. Before the wheels were up, the topographical charts were out and the course at Johor was being created at 41,000 feet above the South China Sea, half-way to Shanghai.

The advantage of the aerial view of the development can also be a bit confusing. Greg was discussing with Thad how the bunkers looked odd on the 16th when viewed from the chopper. The ‘choppers’ who end up playing the course are unlikely to notice, although that is not what concerns the architect. He has his standards and Ernie’s name to preserve. If something doesn’t look right it needs to be dealt with.

Thad expressed his concern at being away from his courses at this crucial stage of development. They were making their way north to sign a deal for a course near Kun Ming. There was a lot of tree planting going on back in Johor and he was slightly concerned at not being there. Four thousand trees are being planted on the course so his agronomy expertise is of paramount importance.

Contour lines
What the team were doing was inking in heavy contour lines on the topographical maps, in other words they were putting their shape or grading on what they inherited. Greg suggested that a stream on another hole needed to be moved further away from the fairway and Ernie saw a tree that he wanted to keep that had been destined for the chop.

All these discussions had been thrashed out on a similar journey from Macau to the Island of Langkawi, northern Malaysia the previous Monday. Ernie has another project called the Datai Golf Club in the northern part of the island, which is due to be opened in the middle of next year.

The third member of the design team is Thomas Rubi, who is responsible for finding new clients in ever more remote parts of the world. From meeting a client to hitting a shot usually takes up to five years. If there is a negative response to his five key questions – Do you own the land you want to build on? Do you have finance? Do you have permission? A Master Plan? Anything else I should know? – then there is no deal.

Ernie has been involved with course design since 2000, when his first course, Whiskey Creek in Marlyland, opened. He has since completed 11 more and has four new ventures starting in Vietnam, China, Indonesia and Croatia. With business commitments like these, it’s important to have your own plane as an office when you are still competing with the best in your day job.

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