Jeju Island, South Korea
If you had the desire and the wherewithal, what type of course would you build?
For Jay Lee, the scion of the family that founded Samsung in South Korea, the choice was relatively simple – build the best course in your homeland, and perhaps the best course in all of Asia.
With the stated intention of creating a course that would someday be ranked among the best in the world, the American-born Lee acquired land in the central portion of Jeju Island, off the southern coast of the Korean peninsula, and set about realizing his dream.
Jeju has become Korea’s answer to Hawaii, a free-trade zone designed to attract international tourists. The island is serviced by direct flights from Seoul and Pusan on the mainland and from neighboring Asian cities such as Tokyo and Osaka, Shanghai, Beijing and Hong Kong. Already known as Korea’s “Honeymoon Island,” Jeju has attracted major resort and casino operators, and a new, 42,000-seat stadium recently played host to three World Cup soccer games.
When The Club at Nine Bridges opened in July 2001 it was ready and so was Lee as Jeju welcomed the world.
“Jay has only one philosophy – strive for perfection,” said David V. Smith, president of Los Angeles-based Golf Projects Inter-national and chairman of the advisory board for Lee’s Jeju creation.
Perfection does not come without a price tag. Lee has spent $120 million thus far on his project, with at least another $20 million budgeted for the government-mandated nine holes that will be open to the public. The first 18 holes and all current club facilities are for members – who pay a $300,000 fee – and guests only. (See related story.)
Lee, 41, has plenty of experience when it comes to big-money deals. As the first-born grandson of Samsung founder Byung-chull Lee, he has risen to chief executive officer of the family-controlled Cheil Jedang Group, which split from Samsung in 1993 and is Korea’s largest manufacturing and food processing company. Under Lee’s direction, the conglomerate has branched off into entertainment, taking a 20 percent founders’ stake in Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks SKG and operating the Home Shopping Network in Korea (which has more sales than its U.S. counterpart).
Lee next turned his attention, and his heart, to golf. A member at Riviera and Bel-Air in Los Angeles, where his children attend school, Lee wanted to create a golf experience unmatched in Korea. He considered a number of world-renowned course architects, but settled on the lesser known – but widely experienced – Ron Fream of California-based Golfplan.
“Ron was the most willing to allow Jay to have direct input into the design,” said Smith. “Jay had a vision for Nine Bridges from before the first shovel of dirt was turned. He knew the kind of golf course he wanted.”
Fream and his partner, David Dale, have collaborated on courses in nearly 60 countries on six continents and are accustomed to working for powerful men – one former client is the Sultan of Brunei.
The course Lee wanted was simple to envision – the best – but difficult to execute. He insisted on having bentgrass tees, fairways and greens, a first in Korea’s harsh climate.
“There’s no question that bentgrass provides the best playing surface for golf,” said Jim Connolly, a turf management consultant hired by Nine Bridges to oversee preparations for a scheduled LPGA event that was postponed after the Sept. 11 attacks.
The site gets upwards of 150 inches of rain a year, more than anywhere in the continental United States, and temperatures hover around 90 degrees all summer. With that much heat and moisture and humidity, it’s a constant battle to keep disease in check.
“But even with the obstacles,” Connolly said, “I’d say this course is in as fine a condition as any true championship course in the world.”
The club is about 3,500 feet above sea level in the foothills of Mount Hanna, the tallest peak in Korea, and with evergreen trees covering the slopes in every direction, Nine Bridges has the look and feel of a course in the Colorado or Canadian Rockies. Fream’s design plays over and around a meandering creek on the lower nine (Creek Course, 3,494 yards), then winds through hills on the upper nine (Highland Course, 3,559 yards). Scottish influences abound, including a pair of “Spectacles” bunkers on the sixth hole, reminiscent of Carnoustie.
Nine Bridges also has world-class spa facilities, separate for men and women, and the Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired architecture of the three club buildings and adjacent villas and suites are all finished in an Indonesian style, with teak wood flooring and furnishings.
Lee refuses to allow any Asian products to be sold in the golf shop, favoring American and Scottish apparel and equipment. While most of the 400 members are Korean, Lee has flown in American chef Sergio Escalante from Smith’s Lindero County Club in Los Angeles to teach the Nine Bridges kitchen staff to prepare Tex-Mex style meals.
The world will get its first look at Nine Bridges when three international events are staged this fall. The “Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf” television series will make a stop Sept. 10; the World Club Championship, featuring two-man teams from the world’s top golf clubs, is Oct. 2-4; and the LPGA’s Sports Today CJ Nine Bridges Classic for Oct. 25-27.
– Ken Carpenter is a free-lance golf writer based in Windermere, Fla.