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.”

My Name is Steve and I’m a Shaper

To the layman, a golf course is a grassy area where people with too much time waste their days chasing a small ball around. To the golfer, they are a beautiful place where he/she can go unwind for a few hours and spend time with some friends while doing something they enjoy. To those of us that build them they are works of art, nightmares, labors of love, headaches… our babies. Many people when they see a beautiful track think that the maintenance superintendent is doing a good job. And they will be right. Others more in the know will praise the designer for his vision. It usually is well deserved. I have even seen some people tell the golf pro what an excellent job he is doing. But nobody, and I mean nobody, except for those involved in building courses, thinks of the shaper.

Golf Green Shaper Steve Nisbet

What is a shaper? I am so glad you asked. A shaper is a person who is fanatically passionate about his job. A shaper is a person who works meticulously, usually for ten or twelve hours a day, interpreting the designer’s ideas and sculpting them into the earth. A shaper is someone that must please many people at once. Though the Architect is the designer of the course, usually the builder fancies himself a visionary and throws his two cents in. The owner always, always has his input, I have even seen the owner’s wife make design decisions, the owner’s son make design decisions, the owner’s dog… you get the idea. At the end of the day the shaper must make them all happy.

A shaper is also a gypsy. Travel is the name of the game. Sometimes working in six different countries in one year is not uncommon. Shape some bunkers here, tweak a putting surface or two there, good shapers are in demand. When a designer finds a shaper that can consistently put his ideas into the dirt his life is a lot easier. Everyone saves money in that case. Nothing more painful to me than watching a shaper struggle to grasp a designers vision as he builds something over and over again only to have Jack, Greg, or Robert tell them it just isn’t right. It can happen to just about anyone. We all have bad days. Versatility is important, in your work, and your style of living. Sometimes your bed may be in a 5 star hotel, other times it may be a hammock between two palm trees. Sometimes the latter is more appealing. Fear of flying is not allowed,, Up and down, three or sometimes four connections a day. Jumbos to Cessnas, Heathrow to Huntsville, just don’t lose my bags please.

Watching a good shaper work is like eating Crispy Cream Doughnuts, an absolute joy. To a gifted shaper with twenty years in the saddle the machine becomes an extension of himself. No need to think about shifting gears, steering or lifting the blade. His only thought is the percentage of slope on the front pin position of the green, are the bunkers visible from the tees, and how can we make the hole work and still save those trees on the left? It seems no two shapers work alike. Some prefer working with the bigger machines. It is very exciting roughing in a par four in one day sitting on a new D8, running wide open, or as we like to say,”WFO.”. Making every move count, moving huge amounts of earth, this is where the shape and flow of the land really come together quickly. Others prefer the smaller finishing machines, reaping the rewards of attention to detail and leaving a polished product for the designer’s inspection. Truly good shapers are equally adept at both, as well as getting a putting surface to within millimeters with a sandpro and even a hand rake.

. Due to their experience quite often shapers assume control over much of the construction process. Directing the mass excavation, marking drainage and bunkers, the list is practically endless. Some of the best began at the very bottom of the food chain. On a shovel or rake. In my opinion, these are the people with the most to offer a project. They know every step involved in creating a 18 hole, living, breathing golf course. Oh yes, golf courses are alive. Especially in the construction phase. Everyday they grow and evolve, misbehave and then make you proud, very much like a small child. Shapers know this child better than anyone, they have watched it emerge into the world, take it’s first steps, struggle through adversity, and hopefully with some talented guidance become what it’s creators had dreamed of.

So the next time you step up onto the tees and the view that greets you makes your heart skip a beat and takes your breath away. Think of the person that poured two thousand hours of their life into the eighteen holes about to challenge you. Actually that is a conservative estimate. Most shapers lie awake at night going over things in their head, trying to visualize how they can make a green better or how to handle the massive amounts of run-off flowing down a fairway. Now, give a little thanks, tee up and may the Golf Gods be with you.

My name is Steve, and I’m a shaper.

Client List

We provide planning, design, construction and can even help with the permitting process in many countries including Canada.

Custom shaping provided for the following resorts:

  • Querencia Private Golf Course and Residences, Los Cabos, Mexico
  • El Tamarindo Beach and Golf Resort, Jalisco, Mexico
  • Bajamar Oceanfront Golf Resort, Baja California Norte, Mexico
  • Tobago Plantations, British West Indies
  • Tanka Village, Sardinia, Italy
  • Mountain Creek Golf Resort and Residences, Thailand

Major Hotel Chains:

  • Hilton Hotels
  • Palace Resorts
  • Continental Hotels
  • ATA Hotels

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