Maintaining Grade in the Swamp of the Barking Snake

As a golf course shaper working in many countries around the world, I have encountered some very challenging terrain. Rocky mountainsides in South Korea and British Columbia, desert wasteland in Mexico and frozen muskeg in Norway. Each environment requires adjusting your plan of attack in order to manipulate it into an eye pleasing playable golf course. I thought I had seen just about everything until I came to build the second 18 holes at the Lakewood Golf and Country Club on the eastern outskirts of Bangkok, Thailand.

Maintaining Grade Golf Green Landshaping

This area, known locally as Nong Ngoo Hao (Barking Snake Swamp) is named after the species of Cobra that lives here. When approached it emits a barking sound to warn intruders that they are getting too close. Unlike the King Cobra of the northern provinces it is very docile unless actually stepped on. Our site was once infested with these serpents but construction and hungry workers had eliminated most of them by the time I arrived. Being a delta area, the Choa Praya River has been depositing its sediment here for thousands of years.

The designer of the course, Sonthi Emaruchi, describes the earth here as a 24 meter deep bowl of custard. Once you break through the sun baked crust you encounter nothing but gooey liquid organic clay. In its liquid form it is bonded electromagnetically. When dry it loses over 50% of its mass and all bonding characteristics. Many courses have been built in this area over the years and all have slowly been sinking into the earth as the ground will only support the weight of 1 ½ meters fill. Even the runways at close by Suvarnabhumi International Airport require constant repair. Enter Khun Sonthi. With ten years apprenticing with architectural legend Desmond Muirhead and the engineering experience of designing and building numerous airports in Southeast Asia, Sonthi feels he has the problem solved.

Sonthi has lowered existing water level 1 ½ meters to 2 meters below ground. This was achieved using a series of klongs (canals), weirs and a massive dewatering system using large pumps. In doing this it has allowed us to be able to cut 1 ½ meters as well as fill 1 ½ meters and stay safely within the allowed load limits. This provides us with 3 meter elevation changes. Though that may not seem like much, on a flat site with ½ a meter of fall over 1 ½ kilometers it is quite an accomplishment. That, coupled with Sonthi’s brilliant use of optical illusion is creating a very dramatic effect. By placing the higher features closer to the tees on some holes and closer to the greens on others, we are creating the illusion of uphill and downhill play. When standing in the middle of a fairway you have no feeling of being in the middle of a completely flat plain.

All fill is coming from the excavation of several large lakes. 75% of the material being moved is in liquid form. This presents another challenge…drying. Spread out in ½ meter lifts, it is flipped several times as the hot Thailand sun does its work. Once sufficiently dry, usually takes about a week, it is graded flat, ½ a meter becomes roughly 25 cm, and another layer is added using the same process. After rough grades are achieved it is left to settle through the long Bangkok rainy season. Rains begin in May and usually run through November, although thunder storms and heavy showers can come at any time. All green sites are also preloaded with an extra meter or two of fill to ensure that any settling that is going to happen does so before any putts are being made.

Make no mistake, this is not an exact science. The learning curve has had its setbacks. #5 green, perched on the edge of a newly excavated lake has collapsed twice, each time sinking 2 meters over night. It sank straight down into the earth and the force involved forced the bottom of the lake to bubble up equally. Trenches dug for large diameter pipe to connect lakes have suddenly had their floors rise up as nearby mounds collapse into the earth. I have heard of this type of thing happening on landfill sites but never imagined this would be possible on natural ground.

Shapers such as I are never proud to announce that they have gotten their machine stuck. On this site, there is no shame in having to get you dozer pulled out of the muck. Several times I have been trying to carve in a swale to protect a green from water runoff, only to break through the crust to natural ground and have the machine instantly sink to the belly pan. So far I have been lucky and that is as far as it has gone. I have heard horror stories from the old timers involved on the construction of other courses here in the past. Apparently there are several machines lost forever at the nearby Legends Golf and Country Club.

With shaping just underway on the first 9 and the second 9 scheduled for next dry season this promises to be a very interesting project indeed. I’ll keep you informed, from ”The Land of Smiles.”

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