Dave Sampson - from competition winner to Ryder Cup course designer for Marco Simone Golf and Country Club
Career paths are not always straightforward, and that was the case for Dave Sampson. But he has found his calling in golf design and his greatest achievement to date will be put to the test next year when his redesign work on the Marco Simone Golf and Country Club will play host to the battle between Team Europe and the United States for the Ryder Cup.
Meet Dave Sampson: The man behind the Ryder Cup course design
Dave Sampson was busy packing for a flight from the UK back home to South Africa when a golf magazine landed in front of him.
A competition to design a golf hole had caught his friend’s eye, and he urged Sampson to enter and indulge a passion that had until that point been nothing but a distraction from the more traditional building architecture work that was paying his bills.
As he hastily sketched out some designs before making a dash to the airport, little did he know that he was laying the foundation for a career gear change that would eventually propel him to centre stage at the 2023 Ryder Cup.
“I'm a qualified building architect but got into golf course design, which is where I always really wanted to be, by winning a design competition, which was run by Golf World magazine in collaboration with European Golf Design,” recalls Sampson, sitting beside the Marco Simone course in Rome that he has completely redesigned and which will host the eagerly awaited match play showpiece this time next year.
Sampson not only left his mark at the Linna Golf Resort in Finland, where his competition-winning design eventually became the 487-yard, par-5, 15th hole, but also on European Golf Design (EGD), the course design arm of the broader European Tour Group.
“I eventually came back over to the UK, and I took a job as cricket analyst for Surrey Cricket Club as I knew it would also give me quite a bit of time to pretty much teach myself and learn the trade of golf architecture,” added Sampson, who joined his current employers in 2004 as a design associate. “I had already had that introduction with EGD through spending some time with them and going through some exercises with them. They were really great in helping me develop what is my passion.”
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Sampson has spent the last 20 years helping design and shape some notable courses around the world with his portfolio including Crans Montana in Switzerland, the Evian Golf Resort in France and Royal Greens in Saudi Arabia.
“Every golf course architect has worked on projects at various stages from concept through to construction but unfortunately not that many of them result in getting the excavator in the ground,” Sampson said.
But the Marco Simone course on the outskirts of Rome was one such job.
The original course was designed by Jim Fazio and David Mezzacane before opening for play in1991, but a complete redesign was a fundamental element of their bid to host the Ryder Cup.
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EGD had previously worked on the redesigns of the Ryder Cup layouts at Le Golf National in Paris (2010) and Celtic Manor in south Wales (2008), so the firm was an obvious partner for the project.
With the key support of course owner and fashion designer, Laura Biagotti, and subsequently her daughter, Lavinia, following her mother’s passing in 2017, the new-look course would eventually take shape.
“EGD was part of the group that put together the bid for the Italian Golf Federation, and I was assigned the job as lead architect,” explains Sampson, fresh from guiding European captain Luke Donald and vice captain Edoardo Molinari around the course.
They won the right to host the 2023 Ryder Cup in 2015, seeing off the challenge of bid rivals Austria, Germany and Spain, and Sampson began work on the project in 2017 by putting together the layouts and the design.
Construction would not begin until the following year with the back nine holes redeveloped in phase one of the project that took another 12 months. Those holes opened for play in late 2019 when work also began on the front nine and these were finished in early 2021 - just in time for last year’s Italian Open.
However, the journey to that point was not as smooth as the perfectly presented greens that now adorn the course.
“Not every project is a straightforward process and I think it would be fair to say that this one's been quite challenging,” Sampson reflects with the smile of a man clearly delighted to have emerged from chaos. “We've had to work in unprecedented times with the Covid pandemic, which made things really difficult, especially trying to get out here - not only for us, but the people on site building the golf course.
“Then you throw in electrical pylons, gas mainlines and a bit of archaeology, so it would be fair to say there has been the odd challenge," added Sampson, who was forced to tweak his design due to some archaeological discoveries.
“We knew we couldn't get that close to the castle, but there were two other zones within the project site, which only became evident as we progressed through the job," he said. "So we had to be a little bit flexible with a couple of holes to avoid certain areas. You know, this is Rome and you just never know what you're going to find when you put the bucket in the ground.“
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Sampson revealed that he approached the project from a different perspective to his previous work due to the unique nature of the Ryder Cup.
“Normally you get a blank site and you're trying to find the best 18 golf holes for that piece of land,” he says. “Whereas with the Ryder Cup you're factoring in many other things. You’re not only trying to find the best holes, you're trying to find the best holes for the spectators, the best holes for infrastructure, for hospitality, so there are a lot of other factors. So the scale of this job is incomparable to pretty much anything else.”
A reported 270,000 spectators attended the 2018 Ryder Cup, and similar numbers are expected again for the first staging of the event in Italy where the hosts will be looking to bounce back from a 19-9 mauling at the hands of the United States at Whistling Straits last year.
“One of the things we are blessed with on the site is over 50 metres of elevation change across the site and we've tried to maximize those opportunities, not only from a golf and playing point of view but also for the spectators,” explains Sampson. “I think that's the one thing that the spectators are going to notice, those great long-distance views across the site where you get to see four or five golf holes from certain vantage points. I think that's what's going to make the event special.”
Following last year’s Italian Open, there were some concerns expressed by some players about certain elements of the design, but Sampson remains confident in the finished product.
“We've worked on quite a few tournament golf courses so we have a good understanding of what is required and what works, what doesn't work,” he explains. “But, I dare say, you're not going to please everybody.
“I think the people whose opinions are most valid are the captains and that's where we're going to be guided from here on in.”
Significant changes to the layout are not likely between now and the Ryder Cup but expect the hosts to leverage everything they can as they bid to return to winning ways.
“As home captain you're always looking for advantages for your team and to make the course fit our players better than their players,” explained Donald when quizzed on his thoughts about the course. “We have a sense of what the Americans are good at, what we are good at, and you obviously try to shape the golf course to give ourselves a small advantage. The teams will be very similar on paper but you try to get small advantages that can make a difference in the end.”
It is a layout that Sampson is clearly proud of and believes it will help deliver the action that has become synonymous with the Ryder Cup.
“There are some really key points across the site,” he explains. “I mentioned the elevation change that we have but what we’ve also tried to do is to get a lot of the risk-reward holes on the back nine where the drama of the Ryder Cup really is.
“Coupled with that, you've got some great long-distance views over Rome. So it's taken in those key views, and factored in some real match-play golf holes that'll have a lot of drama. So you've got holes 11, 12, 16, those are going to be some of the real key pivotal holes where there are going to be birdies and eagles mixed in with double bogies. I think from a spectator point of view, that's going to be great to watch.”
It is a view that was recently echoed by Rory McIlroy who is set to spearhead Europe’s challenge once again next year.
“The front nine is like the first couple of chapters of a book,” commented the Northern Irishman during the most recent staging of the Italian Open. “It gets you into the book a little bit and sort of sets the story, but the real juicy bits come on the back nine. That's where you really get into it.”
Rory McIlroy plays from the rough at the DS Automobiles Italian Open 2022 at Marco Simone Golf and Country Club on September 15, 2022 in Rome, Italy
Image credit: Getty Images
Does Sampson have a favourite hole that has really brought his design to life?
“I think there are a couple of really good driving holes," he says. "So you've got the 12th, which is a short par-5 where the players are really asked the question as to how much of the corner do they really want to take on?
“It plays over a valley and it's quite a dramatic tee shot. I think holes two and 15 are very similar and if I was to pick probably one, I'd probably say 15, it just comes right. It's a really tough par-4 played from a raised tee to a lower landing area and then back up to a raised green.
“I think during the Ryder Cup, you have got a really good natural amphitheatre around the back of that green. It's a tough hole, but, you know, not every golf hole can have birdies and eagles. I think this one is one where the players have really got to know to take a par and walk on and I really, really like the way it sits in the land.”
Sampson also believes those lucky enough to witness next year’s match - in person or on TV - will be treated to something really special.
“Golf National was a brilliant Ryder Cup, but this one will be different because we have that elevation change,” he enthuses. “I think that's what the spectators are really going to love about this place. Everything is pretty compact, and they're going to be able to see many golf holes and have multiple vantage points which for a spectator is really important.
“On top of that, we have got holes 1, 7, 16, and 17, which are in a natural amphitheatre and I think a lot of spectators will gravitate back to that."
With work all but complete, how does Sampson gauge the success of a project?
“I think we’ll know if it has been a success or not in the first week of October! “ he jokes. “Like every project, at the end of the day you want to please your client, they're the ones that have given you the responsibility of creating something special. You obviously want Ryder Cup Europe to be pleased with what you’ve done too - but I guess a win.”