Course spotlight: Tbilisi Hills, Georgia

Golf courses that you would love to play are turning up all over the place these days... such as Tbilisi Hills in Georgia's capital city.

The life of a golf course architect is nothing if not varied.

Sometimes they are given a heaven-sent site that they have conjured up in their minds since they were a teenager dreaming about a career creating courses for golf-mad people like themselves.

Most of the time, though, they get given land that is hard to work with and not what anyone would deem conducive to exciting and interesting golf.

Lassi Pekka Tilander would, I suspect, nod in his understated Scandinavian way at this description, because in the last few years his working life has been the epitome of the scenario outlined.

Tilander is the man who was given the sandy terrain on the outskirts of a seaside town in Estonia that he turned into the outstanding Parnu Bay.

The construction of Parnu had limited resource, but the Finn is the first to admit it was a commission from the gods.

He is also the man who took on the Tbilisi Hills project on rocky ground – in every sense – that overlooks the Georgian capital. If Parnu was a gift from the gods, this was more or less sent from the devil.

It’s not just that the land was unforgiving, but that Tilander was parachuted into the project late, two previous architects having had rudimentary goes at laying out the course for the initial owners.

Tbilisi Hills

“In the first instance, I didn’t get the job – I made an offer and they hired someone else. But one-and-a-half years later they called me again saying they had a problem,” says Tilander, whose naturally sunny disposition for once displays some cloud as he reflects on the task he faced.

“They already had holes cut through corridors between the trees that I had to use in my design because it is very difficult to cut trees in Georgia; because trees are so protected, we couldn’t move from those lines.

“The original corridors through the trees were cut by someone whose identity I never found out – maybe the owner – and then there was an American architect brought in after that, and finally me.

“But I was able to take out all the trees from the course that I wanted, and all the greens, all the bunkers and some part of the routing is mine.”

So far, so tricky. But then you add in the fact Tilander estimates he was able to sculpt the course to get his desired result in a tenth of the way he normally would.

“The elevation change made the build difficult but also so did the thin layer of topsoil on top of the rock,” he explains.

“And because it was almost impossible to bring material in as there is no other construction going on elsewhere, we had to use the landscape as it is – but in fact that may be one of the strengths of the course.

“It is not overbuilt. If we normally move 100,000 cubic metres of material in this case it was more like 10,000.”

Tbilisi Hills

A job is a job though, and with golf course construction hardly thriving in Europe these days, Tilander more or less admits he felt obliged to take on the task.

As talented he is and as impressive a portfolio as he is building, Tilander is also a realist.

“My name is not Tom Doak or Ben Crenshaw, so I have to take what there is. Whereas they choose the best site, I go where there is work. On the site of Tbilisi Hills it is not possible to do Parnu Bay – but I had to live with it.

“That’s the problem at my level; because I am not at the top, you don’t get the best sites but the ones you get you make the most of, and that’s what I tried at Tbilisi Hills.”

That’s exactly what he has done.

Tbilisi Hills will never be a Parnu Bay – the combined might of Simpson, Doak, Mackenzie, Philips and Colt couldn’t have made it so – but it is a very good golf course.

It actually surprised me how good it was. While it has in its favour truly spectacular panoramic views of the city and surrounding countryside, a good golf course has to be about a lot more than that – and Tbilisi Hills is.

Tilander’s latest course has lots of memorable holes. It has few that feel a little arduous, which is hardly surprising given the 140m change in elevation. And it has an impressive consistent level of interest.

Tbilisi Hills

Tbilisi Hills is not in the Finn’s usual style – which is, to crudely summarise, a preference for wide fairways and funky greens – but it has the fundamentals of a course that makes sense.

It is instantly obvious it is different from Parnu and another of his courses, Gorki Golf in St Petersburg, whether you start on the 1st or the 10th.

The former is downhill, the latter uphill, but the mature trees that line both fairways and make it notably tight are the hallmark of the course.

That is not to say it is impossible to play. It’s not. The opening hole is a par 5 that gives you a chance, because off the whites it is 470 yards and given it drops significantly from tee to green, is reachable for pretty much everyone.

The green is wide but shallow though, so it takes a well-flighted approach, or one that cleverly runs out over the down slopes, to finish on it.

The 2nd is also inviting. Under 400 yards off the very tips, you can make it very short if you find the optimum line with your drive on this uphill left-to-right hole. The green complex also impresses, located in an amphitheatre setting with bunkers in front and around it.

The downhill 3rd – the easiest of the par 3s at 146 yards off the whites – and then the sporty par-4 4th with a split fairway and funky green complex complete an easy-to-love opening quartet.

Tbilisi Hills

You do need to have started well on them though, because the gauge is turned up a notch from the 5th, stroke index 1 on the card and a test off the whites. Tilander follows it with a cool short 4 that dog-legs to the right and can be attacked on a straight line by bigger hitters.

For the rest of us, we can enjoy pitching into the gorgeous sunken bowl green.

That’s two short 4s in the first six holes and that was surely Tilander’s tactic to make Tbilisi Hills playable and fun.

Off the silver tees Tbilisi Hills is over 6,300 yards and that feels plenty. Play it off those boxes and you’ll have five two-shot holes under 365 yards – many of them well under.

The others are the 8th, albeit playing uphill and less appealing than the others, the 12th – with a funky green and awesome views in the most scenic part of the course – and the penultimate hole that turns left to right onto a plateau green that falls away on the right side.

I would say they are the strength of the course but others may say the par 5s are. Both nines open with them and, after the reachable 1st and another gettable one at 7, the back nine opens with a strong three-shot hole down an avenue of trees that lead to an elevated, sporty green.

Tbilisi Hills

The last two might be the best. The 14th is a fantastic-looking and strategic hole that right to left with the fairway split by trees and bunkers.

And the 16th is probably what people would anoint as the signature hole, given it sweeps downhill and to the right to a green that affords awesome views of the hilltop monastery and surrounding countryside.

Tilander’s preference for greens with movement in them is arguably best seen here on the par 3s.

I loved the cute uphill 9th to a tiny green with two tiers in it and a back-to-front slope, with bunkers on the right and slopes at the front and left that repel anything offline.

Tbilisi Hills

The 11th is another gorgeous short hole, sitting in sloping land with lots of enjoyable movement in the green. Two holes later there is another funky green to enjoy alongside the views of the city from its lofty position.

And finally at 15, there’s the best green on the course, with a scoop out of the front right and generally great entertainment; proof if any were needed the holes do not require bunkers to look good or be demanding.

The stellar 16th starts a fine climax to a course that has set a high standard for future developments in Georgia to follow.

When breezy – as it so often will be given the elevation – this will be a challenge for all who tackle her. Tilander admits he softened the greens a little from his usual style exactly because the long game here will usually be an examination.

Given the constraints, the architect is rightly satisfied with what he has left the Estonian owners of the club.

“I am happy with the result. I was afraid at one point, but I like the course more and more,” he says. “It is fun – that’s what it is.

“I had to think so much differently than I had done before and that was interesting.

“The 16th hole is my favourite. It’s so special, a short par 5 which as Paul (Pohi) says, who is a professional, his average on that hole is higher than on any hole on the course and that tells you a lot.

“I also like the par-3 with its big elevation. I like the green and you really have to be below the pin if you want a good putt and difficult chipping from around the green.”