It is hard to believe it has been 15 years since Singapore’s iconic National Open was first played on the hallowed turf of The Serapong at Sentosa Golf Club.
In that time, Sentosa Golf Club’s standing in the game globally has grown exponentially —buoyed by hosting other world-class events and being the recipient of countless awards.
This year, the majestic layout was due to undergo renovation work — allowing it to maintain its undoubted lead over its competitors.
But just as work started, everything came to a grinding halt in April when the nation was thrust into lockdown because of the Coronavirus Pandemic.
This, however, failed to affect the enthusiasm and energy of Andy Johnston — the General Manager and Director of Agronomy at Sentosa Golf Club — and the mastermind behind the successful growth and development of The Serapong and the venue’s second layout, The New Tanjong.
If anything, the pause in proceedings has steeled Johnston’s determination to make Serapong even greater.
“It’s going to be spectacular!” says Johnston, about plans for The Serapong when work restarts.
“As we know, this year has seen unprecedented circumstances that none of us could have predicted. We’re in the midst of a global pandemic where there are much bigger issues at play, and the health and safety of the world’s population is the number one priority.
“This has been our attitude when it has come to the renovations – if there’s a slight delay, so be it, however we must, and have, take the safety of our workforce, members, guests and the population of Singapore very seriously. Every industry and sector across the world has taken a hit with this situation and golf is no different.”
The upgrade of The Serapong was due to be a “three-month tactically planned operation”, which although delayed for the moment will quickly resume once the green light is given.
The operation, advanced and technical in true Sentosa fashion, is one that will further cement the course’s position in Golf Digest’s ‘Top 100 Greatest Golf Courses’ rankings — which moved up 20 places last year to reach 59th. The Serapong and The New Tanjong are also ranked first and second respectively on Golf Digest’s ‘Best Golf Courses in Singapore’ rankings.
The greens, famous for their speed and expanse, will undergo deep soil modifications with a drill and fill programme; this means the historic playing surfaces will not be disturbed.
This programme will see them drill large one-inch holes in the greens, 12 inches deep — a dynamic process to update the soil profile. Two special drill and fill machines were purchased from America last year and shipped over for the assignment.
Says Johnston: “This process will allow us to update and re-engineer the soil profile without removing the grass. The benefit will be a stronger, healthier surface that should be able to handle higher degrees of stress. And we all know what that means: harder, faster surfaces.”
In addition, all the grass on the fairways, and the bunker and green surrounds will be removed and replaced with new, clean Zoysia. Platinum Paspalum will be used for the new tees.
The areas will also be regraded, which includes the tees being re-lasered flat and widened back out into their original size, pointing down the fairway.
In addition, all bunker faces and shapes will be regraded and the bunkers will be replaced with new sand.
Johnston’s mission will be helped by the fact that he was in charge the last time the layout was remodelled in 2006. The course, designed by Ronald Fream and opened in 1982, underwent a S$12 million revamp, and reopened in time for Australian superstar Adam Scott to win the second of his three Singapore Open titles.
At the time Johnston was part of the Bates Golf Design team — who had been engaged to handle the project — but the American returned to the club on a full-time basis in 2010 as Director of Agronomy before becoming General Manager in 2013.
In 2019, the club enjoyed a celebrated year in terms of awards and when the latest remodeling is completed, there is no doubt more honours await.
The club was chosen as the ‘World’s Best Golf Club’ at The World Golf Awards at a special ceremony in Dubai; voted by the players on the Asian Tour as the ‘Best Golf Course on Tour’; gained a position in Platinum Clubs’ ‘World Top 100’; won the Golf Inc. ‘Environmental Stewardship Award of the Year’; and also achieved further success at The Asian Golf Awards winning the ‘Best Managed’, ‘Best Maintained’, ‘Best Food and Beverage’ and ‘Best Championship Course in Asia’ titles to claim their Grand Slam of awards.
The Asian Tour players also voted the SMBC Singapore Open the ‘Best Event on Tour’ for the second time in its history, following 2017.
The Awards — and the fact the club is home to the Asian Tour and the R&A, in Asia, headquarters — makes Johnston and his team feel “incredibly privileged”.
Says Johnston: “We are very proud of the team and our accomplishments, particularly in the last 12 months. When reviewing all of the awards and accolades that have come in during that time, there are many we can be very proud about.”
Perhaps one of the greatest accolades came earlier this year when American Matt Kuchar won the SMBC Singapore Open in January. The world’s leading players regularly praise the golf club and its facilities but “Kuch” was positively ecstatic about The Serapong saying the greens were some of “the best I have played on”.
“Not only were we proud to crown Matt Singapore Open Champion, but his vote of confidence was reassuring to us as we feel we belong amongst the world’s best and we are very proud to host the prestigious Asian Tour event. That host venue status is an honour in its own right,” added Johnston.
Of course work will proceed with pace on all areas at the club once conditions permit and Johnston is quick to point out that their sustainability and #Keepitgreen campaign are a priority.
They are investing in biodigesters for both food and horticultural waste. The biodigesters will help convert the waste to plant food, which will then be spread back out onto the golf courses as fertiliser. And they also have ambitious plans to install a floating solar farm in the lagoon, implement electric car charging stations and they are currently working to join Group on Earth Observations (GEO) and become certified.
Says Johnston: “So, there’s lots more to come and plenty to be excited about when it comes to our green agenda. The sky is the limit really!”
He feels “that while it has been a real honour to have captured all of the accolades, in some ways it has become bigger than just Sentosa Golf Club or the golf course, as we are now representing the world of golf and our wonderful city.”
And while the world awaits to resume in the “new normal”, the American is prepared and looking forward to the challenges ahead.
“My role as General Manager and Director of Agronomy has not changed,” he says.
“The tremendous responsibility to take care of a property like this, and now even challenged more than ever with a reduced team, to use my time-earned intuitive skill to help stay ahead of what Mother Nature might send our way is a mission that is always never ending, and one I relish each and every day, when I am able to go to work every day to review and check on the grass and property. We just hope this all ends safely.”